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‘Civic-minded’ Smith sets shadow charities agenda

11 July 2022 at 4:15 pm
Danielle Kutchel
The senator said he understood that the charity sector has felt under attack in recent years and wouldn’t say whether he considered the war on charities to be over, asking charities to judge for themselves.

Danielle Kutchel | 11 July 2022 at 4:15 pm


‘Civic-minded’ Smith sets shadow charities agenda
11 July 2022 at 4:15 pm

The senator said he understood that the charity sector has felt under attack in recent years and wouldn’t say whether he considered the war on charities to be over, asking charities to judge for themselves.

Perhaps most recognisable through his involvement in the same-sex marriage debate of five years ago, Senator Dean Smith, the Liberal Party’s new shadow assistant minister for competition, charities and treasury, is looking forward to engaging with the sector on its future.

Civic-mindedness has always been part of Smith’s life; after watching his parents’ community involvement as a child, a young Smith “got it into [his] head” that he wanted to be a parliamentarian, and since then he said he has kept that civic-mindedness in mind.

Taking on the shadow charities ministry must then feel like a natural fit for Smith, who told Pro Bono News he was “quite excited” to accept the portfolio.

“I am someone who likes to engage in the various grassroots issues, so I pride myself on being a parliamentarian that’s interested in what’s happening in my community, and is very, very engaged on community issues. So the opportunity to have primary responsibility for the charity sector was something that excited me,” he explained.

He acknowledged that the relationship between the Coalition and the charities sector is “not as strong as it could have been”, and said he wanted to bring a “fresh set of eyes” to the issues that are important to the sector.

“I will bring a very consultative and very engaged approach to all of the issues across the sector,” he pledged.

Smith’s appointment to the charities portfolio follows Michael Sukkar’s oversight of the sector in 2021 – the sixth Coalition appointment in the area.

“I’m not quite sure why the Coalition would not have made this such an important focus in the past, given we know how many people are employed in the sector, we know the value that it brings to the economy. But of course, much of our civility as a country, as a nation, is because we are minded to wanting to make the world a better place and wanting to make our communities a better place,” Smith said.

He added that he believed that the resumption of the portfolio could be traced back to the sense of community that had flared in the wake of COVID.

“I think the importance of ‘localness’ has also been brought front and centre for many Australians and there’s absolutely no doubt that the charities and not-for-profit sector has played a very valuable role in keeping communities connected, in reaching out to vulnerable and isolated people,” he said.

“And I’m someone who believes that if we are to experience a pandemic, then we must use the pandemic experience to catalyse a better way of looking at some of our old challenges. I’m someone who says that we need to find the silver lining in the pandemic experience, and we need to apply that to our current challenges.”

Sector to judge whether the war is over

Smith also acknowledged that the charities sector had felt attacked in recent years by the Coalition government.

He said while he’d like to say the war on charities is over, he felt that the sector would “make that judgement for themselves over time”.

“I hope that they will judge me on my preparedness to be highly engaged and my preparedness to approach issues with an open mind, but also appreciate that I will come to these issues and to this role with a set of values that are very, very obvious for people to see,” Smith said.

His values are informed by his upbringing; his parents were involved in local swimming and football clubs, which taught Smith the value of community. His father, a policeman, instilled in Smith a sense of justice and a recognition of the importance of civic responsibility.

“People can see the way that I work and the values that I… approach [my work in], by the sorts of things that I have done in the Parliament already, the sorts of activities I’ve been involved in in the Parliament behind the scenes, the parliamentary friendship groups that I have not just been a member of, but I’ve actively supported,” he said.

He doesn’t expect there to be “unanimous agreement” between himself and the charities sector, “because our perception of things will be different and the solutions that we bring forward will be different”. 

“But as long as there’s always a high level of mutual respect, a high level of maturity in the way that we engage in debates, then I’m very, very optimistic for the future,” he added.

As a wave of state laws further criminalising protest sweeps the nation, Smith said his stance on the issue has two elements: his belief in freedom of speech, and his belief in the rule of law.

See also: Threats to protest signal continuation of war on charities

“I will defend anyone’s right to lawful protest, but I do not support illegal protest activities, because anything that undermines public confidence in the charity and not-for-profit sector, I think risks undermining the very cohesive fabric that we’ve got in our community,” he told Pro Bono News.

“That confidence and respect that Australians have towards the charitable sector is something that has to be constantly earned. It was very clear that it was earned during the pandemic. It can easily be lost by recklessness on the part of a small number of people who think that they might be doing good.”

Smith said he is also a strong supporter of parliamentary democracy, and said Australians shouldn’t underestimate the importance of parliamentary democracy in underpinning society. He said this had been illustrated by the debate around same-sex marriage.

“I’m someone who believes our country is the better for having free and robust debate and at times challenging the orthodoxy. I chose to challenge the orthodoxy around marriage in our country, but I did it in a way that was respectful. I did it in a way that sought to understand the perspective of other people,” Smith said.

Priorities for transformation

As Labor sets the groundwork for an ambitious set of policies relating to the charities sector, Smith said he has his own areas of interest that he would like to work on.

This includes the use of digital technology to make giving easier and to empower volunteers. He’s also interested in reducing the regulatory burden on charities and wants to understand the vision for charities over the next 10 years. 

“I am interested in understanding what the road map for charities in Australia is over the next decade, because the policy and regulatory changes that we’ve put in place should be ambitious in the sense that they seek to transform in a very positive way the charity and not-for-profit sector over the next decade,” he said.

See also: Labor promises charities a national blueprint

But as cost of living pressures increase, Smith said it was possible that some families might stop giving to charities as other financial commitments took priority. Nevertheless, he said, a plan for the future of the charities and not-for-profit sector should not fall by the wayside.

“I think the measure of success should be, how many more Australians choose to give of their own free will and how much do they choose to give to support the charity community?” Smith said.

Danielle Kutchel  |  @ProBonoNews

Danielle is a journalist specialising in disability and CALD issues, and social justice reporting. Reach her on or on Twitter @D_Kutchel.

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