Charities use full-page ad to condemn proposed regulations
24 June 2021 at 4:51 pm
“These regulations must be abandoned. The work of Australia’s charities should not be stifled when the country needs us the most”
The social sector’s campaign against plans to change charitable governance standards is heating up, with major charities taking out a full-page newspaper advertisement urging the federal government to abandon the reforms.
An alliance of charities – including Amnesty International Australia, Anglicare Australia, Brotherhood of St Laurence, and The Fred Hollows Foundation – wrote an open letter to the prime minister that was included in Thursday’s edition of The Australian.
The letter speaks out against 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.
The letter said these new regulations would put the work of Australian charities at risk and have “dire consequences”.
“Our reputations could be harmed, our boards could be stood down and replaced, and at worst, we could be deregistered as charities,” it said.
“In times of crisis and disaster, we will be forced to slow down our response and seek advice on possible risks created by these unnecessary proposals.
“These regulations must be abandoned. The work of Australia’s charities should not be stifled when the country needs us the most.”
The sector has been highly critical of the proposal since it was first announced in February, believing it 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.
Advocates have 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.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham recently defended the changes in a response to a question on notice asked by Greens Senator Rachel Siewert on Monday.
Birmingham said current regulations prevented the ACNC commissioner from investigating potentially serious law breaches by a charity because they were deemed a summary offence in some jurisdictions.
He said this compromised the ACNC’s capacity to be an effective regulator.
“The proposed changes [seek] to redefine the standard to capture the offences of trespass, vandalism, theft, assault and intimidation (regardless of whether they are indictable or summary offences in state criminal codes),” Birmingham said.
“This will empower the ACNC commissioner to investigate such breaches of the law by charities and take enforcement action if warranted.
“The ACNC commissioner will take a proportionate approach to enforcement, with the objective of giving the public trust and confidence and protecting the assets of registered charities.”
These comments follow a Senate Estimates appearance by the ACNC commissioner earlier this month, during which he said he did not believe there was a widespread problem of charities acting illegally in an activist context.
You can see the full open letter here.