Politicians front up for charity sector
13 May 2022 at 6:28 pm
While all major parties were invited to be part of the panel, there was one glaring absence.
Politicians have made their pitch to the sector in a pre-election panel at the 2022 Connecting Up Conference in Melbourne.
Held on Thursday 12 May, the panel saw Labor’s shadow minister for charities, Andrew Leigh, and Greens Senator Janet Rice, offer up their views on the positive changes needed to allow the charities sector to thrive after the election.
Michael Sukkar, the Assistant Treasurer and Federal minister for homelessness, social and community housing, did not attend – an empty chair was again left to mark the spot held for him.
Leigh took to the stage first and reminded the audience of his longevity in the role, having notched up nine years as shadow minister for charities.
“I really do [want this job],” he said.
“I’m passionate about your sector. I think Australian charities and not for profits are extraordinary.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to be in opposition for nine years, but one advantage of being in opposition for nine years is that you really get to understand the sector. You get to know… the work that can be done.”
Leigh also criticised the Coalition’s “continued attacks on charitable advocacy” and the Liberal Party’s no-show on the panel.
“I know Janet [Rice] and I would have enjoyed the chance to at least exchange ideas with that representative, but they haven’t sent someone along,” Leigh told the audience.
If Labor wins the election, Leigh pledged to not see charities as combatants – whether they support the government or not – and to work with charities on their needs.
He recounted his earlier policy promises, including ending the “war on charities”, restoring the freedom of charities to advocate on issues important to them, doubling philanthropy by 2030 and fixing fundraising laws.
“I really feel as though I would like to be addressing you next time without the word ‘shadow’ in front of my title,” he concluded.
Greens Senator Janet Rice presented next, and took a moment to reflect on the work of her predecessor in the portfolio, Rachel Siewert.
Rice introduced herself as “very much a community person”, having co-founded the Victorian Greens and worked as a local councillor and with community organisations for many years.
Like Leigh, Rice criticised the federal government for the “disdain” it had shown for the sector, including through the “rushed through” Political Campaigners Bill, which critics have said would make it harder for charities to advocate.
But she praised charities and not for profits on their work on the Hands Off Our Charities campaign that saw changes to ACNC regulations disallowed.
“There’s so much more that government can and could and should be doing to support the not for profit sector,” Rice said.
Fixing fundraising laws is a top priority, she said, adding that the Greens support all the recommendations made by the Senate Select Committee into Charity Fundraising in the 21st Century.
“I’m really looking forward, as a Green, to being in balance of power, having kicked out the Morrison government and then seeking to push a Labor government further and faster to bring about the positive change we need,” she said.
“Because beyond removing those roadblocks, we think government can be doing so much more to be supporting the not for profit sector.”
The Greens have proposed increased funding for legal assistance services, $550 million a year for homelessness services, and $1 billion a year in additional funding for community services. The Greens platform also includes a proposal of a $30 million increase in funding for disability advocacy organisations over four years.
Rice also noted the importance of addressing climate change.
“Many of you know the challenges of the climate crisis worsening and the impacts that it has on your communities,” she said.
“We know that the most vulnerable in our society are already being the ones hit hardest. It’s older people and people who are already unwell, who often can’t afford the care that they need to get well, who die from heatwaves. It’s the people who can’t afford to insure their homes, who suffer the most when their houses are burned in bushfires and destroyed by floods.
“And it’s the community sector then, left to pick up the pieces. We should not be making the climate crisis worse because it is making your work that much harder and it’s only going to get worse.”
The Greens would also lift all income support payments above the poverty line, she added – something that both Labor and the Liberals have declined to do.
After the presentations, moderator David Crosbie, CEO of Community Council for Australia, kicked off question time by asking Leigh whether the committees and groups that look at the charity sector would be incorporated into a central authority like the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, should Labor win the election.
“I’m keen to have this building community, building capacity working group located within Treasury to reflect the important role that social capital has across the government,” Leigh responded.
Crosbie then asked Rice what role charities could play in the investment in creating climate resilience in communities.
Rice responded that the government and charities should work together on investment in climate resilience, and that having strong, trusting working relationships between the two would help them work together on the issue.
“I think that the charities that are working in the disaster resilience space absolutely need and deserve support from government to be doing that because they’re doing a huge amount of work that otherwise government would be picking up the tab for,” she said.
A question from the floor asked Leigh whether a Labor government would take responsibility for issues like disadvantage and equity.
“Absolutely!” Leigh responded, adding that Labor’s pledge to double philanthropy was not “so government could do less”.
A final question centred on the digital divide and how parties would solve digital exclusion.
Both politicians acknowledged the importance of digital technology in helping people connect with loved ones and the world around them, with Rice focusing on how community and neighbourhood houses provided digital access and literacy.
Leigh added that it was important to be mindful of the downsides of technology, and that the focus should be on getting the best from them.
Crosbie closed the panel by reminding the audience to stay in touch with their local politicians.
“We have a responsibility to not just wait until government comes to us to actually engage. Engage means talking with all sides of politics and all the people we can to try and make sure that they’re aware of what we think will work for our communities. And if we don’t do that, I don’t think we’re doing our roles,” he said.