Religious organisations slam plan to shut down charities for minor offences
6 May 2021 at 4:50 pm
Charity leaders say the sector is facing a red tape nightmare that will curtail charitable advocacy
Major faith-based charities have united to condemn proposed changes that would significantly broaden the basis upon which charities could be deregistered.
In particular, the group has warned these new rules would make it harder for them to advocate their mission.
The Morrison government is planning to expand the transgressions for which a charity can be deregistered beyond indictable offences to include summary offences, such as trespassing, theft, vandalism or assault.
Charities would face deregistration not only if they engage in these offences, but also if they fail to take reasonable steps to ensure their resources are not used to promote or support unlawful conduct.
Under the proposed governance standards, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) commissioner could revoke an organisation’s charitable status if they reasonably believed it was “more likely than not that the entity will not comply with a governance standard”.
This means it is not necessary for a charity to be charged or found guilty of an offence for the commissioner to take enforcement action.
This proposal has already drawn major condemnation from charity leaders and on Thursday major faith-based charities came forward to denounce the changes.
Leaders from UnitingCare Australia, the St Vincent Paul Society National Council of Australia, Baptist Care Australia, and Anglicare Australia all said the proposal would make it harder for them to advocate their mission.
Nicole Hornsby, executive director of Baptist Care Australia, described the move to include in the proposal subjective measures such as a “belief” that they “may” commit a minor offence as “totally unreasonable”.
Toby O’Connor, the CEO of the St Vincent Paul Society National Council of Australia, said the changes would create an unnecessary red tape burden for charities.
“The administrative burden of monitoring all our activities is enormous and not warranted,” O’Connor said.
“Unlawful acts are already covered by existing criminal law. These changes increase red-tape for no good reason.”
Charities say these proposed changes could mean a charity is deregistered if a member of a charity’s staff attends a local protest and obstructs traffic, or even if an employee tweets in support of a rally where people remain after being asked to move on by police.
Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers told Pro Bono News this would be incredibly difficult for charities to monitor and comply with.
“Anglicare, for example, employs 29,000 staff and volunteers. Now suddenly we have to think about potential summary offences for every single one of those people,” Chambers said.
“There’s no reason why a charity should be responsible for what could be a volunteer that works twice a year for us. But in actual fact, we will now become responsible for their 24-hour a day, 52-week a year behaviour.”
Chambers said faith-based charities had been working together through COVID and supporting the government through work with the National Bushfire Recovery Agency and emergency relief.
She said this work has shown just how agile the sector can be when given the freedom to operate.
“But this particular set of regulations will stop that agility, because we’ll need to have our boards thinking about what could happen [under the changes],” she said.
“So really, what we’re coming together to say is that this is silly and it’s going to have consequences which will not be good for anybody.”
This Morrison government has argued these changes are needed to stop “activist organisations masquerading as charities”.
Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, the minister responsible for the ACNC, told Pro Bono News in February that some organisations were “using their privileged position as charities to engage in, promote and condone criminal activities that are not legitimate charitable acts”.
But Chambers said the proposed changes were not necessary, since current regulations were already adequate to prevent illegal behaviour in the sector.
She said charities wanted greater clarity on exactly what the government wants to stamp out.
“Our understanding is that [the proposal] hasn’t come from the ACNC and that they’ve been pretty surprised by this,” she said.
“So we would love to understand what the government’s fear is, so we can work with them and help them do what they need to do while we can keep doing what we need to do.”