Senate debates

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Regulations and Determinations

Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Amendment (2021 Measures No. 2) Regulations 2021; Disallowance

3:39 pm

Photo of Catryna BilykCatryna Bilyk (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] The charities and not-for-profits in Australia have brought support and respect throughout our community. The 2016 Giving Australia survey found that 8.7 million Australians—over 40 per cent of the population aged 15 and over—volunteered for charities and not-for-profits, providing an estimated $17.3 billion in value. Australians also give generously to charitable causes—around $12.5 billion a year, including about $3.5 billion in tax deductible donations. It's of little surprise that charities are so popular, when they've been established entirely for the purpose of promoting public good, whether it's helping vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians, tackling poverty overseas, promoting social justice and human rights, recording and preserving history or heritage, or protecting and caring for the natural environment. These aims are universally supported, even if there may be public debate about how they are achieved.

We also need to recognise the vital role that charities and not-for-profits have had in helping Australians get through the COVID pandemic. When lockdowns and restrictions were in place, charities were the ones that worked hard, under difficult circumstances, to meet skyrocketing demand. There were charities helping to connect people who were feeling isolated and lonely, supporting people who had lost jobs and income, and delivering meals and household essentials. The impacts of the COVID pandemic could have been much worse if it not been for the hard work of so many of Australia's charities and their staff and volunteers.

I thank Senator Patrick for bringing on this disallowance motion. The regulation he is seeking to disallow was designed to silence charities. It's another battlefront in the coalition's ongoing war on charities, and it is a war. Let me outline some of the history. While in opposition, the coalition campaigned for years against the establishment of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, and they wasted no time in trying to abolish it when they came to government. Failing at that, they appointed Dr Gary Johns to hit the ACNC. Dr Johns has a history of criticising charities, accusing them of what he called 'impure altruism', whatever that means. He once said that the then Abbott government should deny 'charity status to the enemies of progress' and referred to the Indigenous reconciliation charity Recognise as the 'officially sanctioned propaganda arm of the Australian government'. At the time Dr Johns was appointed, David Crosbie, from the Community Council of Australia, said it sent 'a signal to charities that the government is out to get them'.

But the government's attempts to abolish and then undermine the ACNC were only the start of the war. Since Labor introduced the Volunteer Grants program, the coalition have slashed its funding in half. They've introduced no new initiatives to help recruit and retain volunteers, even though unpaid volunteering is considered to be worth almost $17 billion to charities and $39 billion to the whole economy, and despite the increased demand for volunteers during the COVID pandemic.

I have spoken several times in the Senate chamber about the charity fundraising Senate inquiry that I chaired. Years before the inquiry was established, the sector was calling for charity fundraising reform—and they're still calling for it. Compliance with complex and outdated fundraising laws is costing the sector $15 million a year in red tape. The report's recommendations, delivered in February 2019, were supported by coalition senators and backed up by the government's own review three years ago. But the government has kicked the can down the road on fundraising law reform through six charity ministers—six. Just imagine if they put the same energy into addressing the sector's priorities as they have put into this regulation.

Sadly, the regulation we're debating now is not the government's first attempt to silence charities. In 2014, the government initiated moves to amend the Competition and Consumer Act in order to ban consumer boycotts for environmental campaigns. In 2017, the original draft of the government's foreign interference legislation would have forced many charities to register as foreign agents and stop them from advocating on important social issues. The government eventually backed down and exempted charities from the registration requirement, but only after pressure from the sector. The government has also inserted gag clauses into many social services agreements, and this new regulation threatens charities with deregistration if they commit minor or summary offences. While no-one wants charities breaking the law, this is an absolutely massive overreach. A summary offence could be something as simple as blocking a footpath at a public rally or failing to shut a gate to private property. And just one person—only one person—has to commit such a minor offence to give the commissioner the power to investigate and even deregister an entire charity, large or small. Even more bizarrely, merely promoting an event at which a summary offence is committed can trigger a process that could result in deregistration.

If all that isn't authoritarian enough, the regulation gives the commissioner the power to take action against a charity because he anticipates a summary offence being committed. That's ridiculous. Does the government think the commissioner has some kind of magic crystal ball he can use to predict lawless behaviour? It's as if we're living in the world of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, with the charities commissioner playing the role of the thought police. I wouldn't trust any commissioner with that kind of power, let alone someone with the outdated attitudes of Dr Johns.

The peak community sector body, the Australian Council of Social Service, has described this new regulation as 'extreme overreach and an attack on our democracy'. Like ACOSS, charities and not-for-profits throughout Australia have raised real concerns that this regulation would effectively silence them—that the red-tape cost will be paid by all charities, regardless of whether they do public advocacy work or not. A recent pro bono Australian survey estimates that the regulation will cost the sector $150 million in the year it takes effect and $40 million every year after. Charitable causes will suffer, because the red-tape burden this government is imposing is beyond belief. It's heavy-handed and it's unnecessary. There are already provisions in place that allow charities to be deregistered for breaking the law.

Contrary to the government's narrative of a charity crime wave gripping the nation—do you know how many charities have been deregistered in the past four years? I'm sure you don't, so I'll tell you: only two. Two of Australia's 59,000 charities have been deregistered for the kind of activism the government says is tarnishing the sector. Even the coalition members of the bipartisan Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation Committee agreed that the rules are antidemocratic and give the charities commissioner too much power.

After endorsing a report that contains major criticisms of this regulation, it would be the height of hypocrisy if those three senators did not support this disallowance motion. I understand from media reports that One Nation senators are considering backing the government and not supporting the disallowance. Can that be right? How could Senators Hanson and Roberts be so forthright only yesterday in fighting for what they see as rights and freedoms yet not support the freedoms of churches and charities to speak up on policy issues? How could One Nation senators happily consign those same churches and charities to around $270 million in additional red tape over the next four years? But that's the path One Nation are looking at supporting: less freedom and more red tape. I wonder whether that's what their supporters put them there for.

Unlike the current laws, this regulation is not about stopping charities from engaging in unlawful activity. It's about silencing dissenting voices. Why does the Morrison government want to silence charities? The answer is obvious. This government is failing to act on climate change. The gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen. They continue to make savage cuts to overseas development assistance. So of course it's of little surprise that, when charities speak out, what they have to say is uncomfortable for this government to hear. But this government, instead of taking onboard the advice of charities, decides that the best defence is attack. That is why they have been waging war on the sector for eight years.

Unlike the coalition, Labor values the important part charities play in public policy debate. As organisations that work at the coalface of social, economic and environmental causes, charities have a wealth of experience and a valuable perspective. This voice is vital to democracy and to good policy outcomes. And let's not forget that the charity sector kickstarted the campaigns for many vital reforms that are now widely embraced by Australians, such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Medicare and marriage equality. Imagine where Australia would be now without these reforms and without the vital voice of charities to spearhead those campaigns?

But the Prime Minister, who praises the 'quiet Australians', would prefer Australian charities and not-for-profits to stay completely silent. Like naughty children, he'd like charities to be seen but not heard. He doesn't want charities to have a key role in public discourse because to do so would actually make his government accountable for delivering on social outcomes. Mr Morrison would like to see charities planting trees and raising money for bushfire victims but not advocating for effective action on climate change. He'd like to see them running op shops and soup kitchens but not advocating to address the root cause of poverty and structural inequality. He'd like to see charities providing education, health care and clean water to impoverished communities overseas but not advocating for a fair investment in overseas development assistance. He'd like to see them providing legal assistance to victims of domestic and family violence but not advocating for greater respect for women or for the government to invest more money in emergency accommodation for victims of domestic violence and their children.

The advocacy that Mr Morrison and his government so hate is how charities do some of their best work. But if you wage war on charities you're also declaring war on the people and causes they support. A war on charities is a war on the environment, a war on human rights, a war on poverty and a war on vulnerable, disadvantaged and marginalised Australians. For the sake of all Australians, this war must end. There's no charity crime wave and there's no need for this draconian law, so I urge all senators to vote for this motion and let charities get on with their important work.


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