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Leigh hits the ground running as charities minister

15 June 2022 at 4:21 pm
Danielle Kutchel
“The charity sector has suffered a nine year war on charities, which ended on 21 May this year.”

Danielle Kutchel | 15 June 2022 at 4:21 pm


Leigh hits the ground running as charities minister
15 June 2022 at 4:21 pm

“The charity sector has suffered a nine year war on charities, which ended on 21 May this year.”

Four weeks after the election, Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury Andrew Leigh, has settled into his government role.

Leigh was the shadow minister for charities for nine years, so he already knows the sector inside and out, but the promotion to government means he can now get to work on his plans to fix fundraising, end the war on charities and improve Australia’s philanthropy rates and culture – plans informed by his decade-worth of knowledge of the sector.

He confesses that he got into politics to make a positive difference, and that being in government allows him to actually do that; so he’s relishing being able to finally shape policy for the charities sector.

He sat down with Pro Bono News to discuss how things are looking so far.

How are you going with the role so far?

It’s a real, real joy to have the charity’s portfolio, having had that for nine years in opposition. I’m super, super excited about the opportunities that are there.

What have the first steps been? You’ve been in the sector for almost a decade, so did you go in with a bit of a game plan?

I first got interested in community in 2000 when I worked as part of a research team with Robert Putnam, who just brought out Bowling Alone. And that convinced me, as an economist, that community really mattered. I then wrote Disconnected in 2010 just as an academic, and that then led to Reconnected in 2020 with Nick Terrell, which was discussing some of the problems of civic social isolation and civic disconnectedness, but also mapping out some of the solutions. 

So I really see the charities portfolio as a community building portfolio and a chance to turn around some of these really troubling changes we’ve seen in Australia over the last two generations. Fewer associations per person, a decline in the volunteering rate, fewer people attending religious services or being part of a trade union. And Australians have on average half as many friends and know half as many neighbours as we did in the mid 1980s. So there’s been a collapse of community life in Australia over the last generation and it’s really important that we look to turn that around.

We’ve just seen Gary Johns resign as head of the ACNC. Is there any word on who the replacement is going to be at this stage?

What’s most important for me is to run an open and transparent process. The appointment of Gary Johns came after the Liberals had tried to disband the Charities Commission entirely and reflected the deep disdain that the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments had for the charity sector. And what people in the charity sector want most of all is not a handpicked political appointee, but somebody who is broadly respected across the sector. So we’ll have that open and transparent process, and there’s so many great people in the charity sector, I’ve got no doubt at all that that will produce somebody really good.

It sounds like it’s going to be a continuation of that collaborative focus that you’ve been talking about for so long.

I think that’s vital. Somebody said to me the other day, it’s really nice to have a charities minister that likes charities. Obviously the Charities Commission needs to maintain the high standards in the sector and it has a regulatory role. But it’s important that they not be the enemy of charities. If ASIC was as anti-business as the ACNC under Gary Johns has been anti-charities, there’d be an outright outrage in the business community. So the charity sector has suffered a nine year war on charities, which ended on 21 May this year. There’s a lot of rebuilding work to do, a lot of work to ensure that charities understand now that they have a government that wants to partner with them in reconnecting Australia.

How do you do that? How do you close off that chapter that’s been so difficult for charities?

I’ll be looking to go to a lot of different parts of Australia to speak to charities about the government’s agenda. I think it’s important to engage face to face with a broad swath of charity sector leaders and hear their ideas as to how we build a reconnected Australia. 

We’ve got some early priorities. One of those is to fix fundraising, to standardise the hodgepodge of fundraising laws that were developed in the pre-internet age and make it easier for organisations to raise money online without having to go through the painful compliance process that exists at the moment.

So is there a timeline around that, on how that’s going to work and when it’s going to be implemented?

I suppose it’s dependent on working with states and territories, so I’m keen just to get it done as quickly as possible. I’ve been reaching out to state and territory counterparts to talk about how we’re able to get this done. But it’s a big priority for the Albanese government.

So you’ve got the support of the prime minister as well to implement all of these changes?

Absolutely. It’s an election pledge. We’ve promised to get it done. And the role of charities is strengthened when it’s easier for them to raise money online. There’s no sense in having additional paperwork burdens on charities. We also are making clear to charities that charitable advocacy is welcome again, that the approach that the former Liberal government took, that charities should be seen and not heard, isn’t the approach of the Labor government – that we welcome the voices of charities in the public debate.

And you’ve also got that election pledge to double philanthropy. How’s that going? 

The two things I’ve talked about do tie into that. So if we make it easier for charities to raise money online, then that makes it easier to double philanthropy. And many donors want to give to charities who will help to shape the public conversation. Ending the gag clauses and attacks on charitable advocacy will be important in terms of boosting giving. But we also need to make sure that from high net worth individuals right through to school kids, we’re building a stronger culture of philanthropy in Australia.

I’d like to ask about the structure of the new government, with volunteering and not for profits being under the Department of Social Services rather than charities. How does that impact your portfolio and how you work with charities?

That’s a standard arrangement that has been in place for a long time. I’ll be looking to work closely with my friend Amanda Rishworth [minister for social services] on engaging volunteers. We’re both passionately committed to getting the volunteering rate going up rather than down. We’ve seen it go from about a third pre-COVID to about a quarter now, and that’s a really worrying development for those of us that think that Australian community life needs to be stronger.

I take it you’ll be paying attention then to Volunteering Australia’s work at the moment and the development of a national volunteering strategy?

Absolutely. And Volunteering Australia does many things well, but one of the things that it’s been particularly successful on is producing interesting research and the collaboration they’ve had with ANU around their volunteering survey has been super valuable in terms of providing insights into volunteering. It’s important that there’s plenty of contexts in which people are asked to give back to their community. And that’s good for the community, but it’s also good for them. We know that volunteering is strongly associated with higher levels of health and happiness. 

On the blueprint for the charities sector, which was discussed a couple of months ago – it feels like that should be the starting point for everything else that comes afterwards. So is that something that you’re working on or that sort of ties into what we’ve been discussing?

Yeah, absolutely. We’ll be engaging with Treasury to get that done. That’ll be a collaborative exercise as well, making sure we hoover up as many good ideas as we can. There’s so much vibrancy and ideas in the community sector, so I’m keen to make sure that we’re tapping into all of those fresh ideas.

I assume that would mean working directly with sector leaders or charity leaders in a forum or a focus group?

I’m open minded as to how best to engage, but I think there’s been a lot of developments in terms of how you can get the most out of consultation processes. So certainly looking at innovative ways of tapping into town hall meetings, allowing people to submit feedback electronically as well as in person. We just want to make clear that we are open to people’s ideas for dealing with the community crisis that Australia faces.

And is there a bit of a timeline on that?

I’m keen just to dive into it as soon as we can.

We’ve heard quite a bit over the past couple of weeks about how the books don’t look as good as you may have first thought. What implications does that have for implementing your plans – are there budgetary restrictions that are going to come into play?

We’ve very carefully ensured that the policies we took to the election were shaped for the fiscal environment. So it’s really about, what can government do to catalyse a civic renaissance? Catalysing a civic renaissance means, in some cases getting out of the way – so fixing fundraising is not about spending more money. It’s about government being less of a burden on the community sector. 

I think there’s also potential for the ACNC to play a greater role as a one-stop-shop for charities, ensuring that charities spend less time filling out forms and more time assisting those who need their help. And there may be campaigns we can do with Philanthropy Australia and thinking about the public awareness of the need to give and of course the benefits of giving to the giver themselves. We have a lot of good evidence showing us that giving money to worthy causes doesn’t just help the recipient of the cash, it also helps the giver of the cash. People are happier at the end of a day in which they’ve given to others.

Is it realistic that we might see a raise to the welfare rate in this term?

Certainly every budget that we bring down, we’ll be looking at the adequacy of each payment. We’re very aware of the challenges the cost of living crisis poses today. That’s one of the reasons that we urged the Fair Work Commission today [on Wednesday] to bring down this decision that has seen real wages go up for the lowest paid. So that will always be a priority for a Labour government. 

We don’t have a formal policy to review the JobSeeker allowance, but we’re acutely aware that it’s important to look after the most vulnerable. You’ve got a prime minister who grew up in public housing, so he’s got a very good sense as to the challenges that people face who are doing it tough.

Charities want to have a seat at the table in pretty much everything to do with the social sector because they’re so heavily involved in it. Is that something that you can make happen?

I’ll be engaging as much as I can with charities and trying to make sure that charitable voices are heard wherever they can be.

Is there something that you’d like to say to the sector more broadly about what the future looks like?

Three things: the war on charities has ended; you now have a charities minister that respects charities and wants to work with you; and bring us your ideas for reconnecting Australia.

And how best do they do that? What’s the best way to get in touch?

Drop me an email. Pick up the phone. I’m not hard to find at the modestly named, so I am very keen to hear people’s ideas. Solving a civic crisis is a huge task and we need all shoulders to the wheel on that one. But if we can achieve it, it’ll transform the country for the better.


Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting.

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