ACNC head says ‘very few’ charities are acting illegally despite crackdown
10 June 2021 at 8:29 am
Amid the Morrison’s government’s push to crackdown on the issue of “activist” charities, the charities commissioner says current data does not suggest this is a problem
The charities commissioner does not believe there is a widespread problem of charities acting illegally in an activist context, admitting that “very few” organisations have lost their charitable status for breaking the law.
These comments, delivered during a Senate Estimates appearance last week, come in response to questions around the Morrison government’s push to crack down on “activist organisations masquerading as charities”.
Dr Gary Johns was asked about the proposed changes to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission’s (ACNC) governance standard 3, which would expand the reasons 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.
This proposal follows a decision in 2019 to strip the charity status of animal rights group Aussie Farms, which staged several animal welfare protests across the country and published an online map and directory of slaughterhouses and farms across Australia.
But while the Morrison government has argued these changes are needed to stop organisations using their charitable status to commit unlawful acts, Johns said the current data does not suggest this is a problem.
He said “very few” charities have had their status revoked for undertaking illegal activity in an activist context, with this only applying to two of the 45 charities deregistered during his time as commissioner.
When asked by ALP Senator Anthony Chisholm if there was a widespread problem that needs to be addressed by amending governance standard 3, Johns replied: “Not on our figures, but I can’t speak for the government on its desire to introduce regulations.”
The charity sector has come out strongly against the proposed changes, which would allow the ACNC commissioner to 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.
Advocates say this could lead to charities being deregistered for something as simple as tweeting in support of a protest that accidentally ventures onto private land, or providing support to whistleblowers.
They also said that it would force charities to think about potential summary offences for every single employee and volunteer, creating a major red tape burden.
During estimates, Johns confirmed the ACNC has not lodged a submission to the consultation process for the draft changes, and he said he was unaware of the government-appointed ACNC Advisory Board having made one.
Johns said he would relay Senator Chisholm’s request to the board to make its submission public.
However, Johns has since confirmed to Pro Bono News that the advisory board has not made a submission.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Johns said the advisory board had made a submission to the consultation process but that he was unsure whether the board supported the amendment.