Senate debates

Monday, 2 December 2019


Charity Fundraising in the 21st Century: Select Committee; Order for the Production of Documents

12:20 pm

Photo of Zed SeseljaZed Seselja (ACT, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters) Share this | | Hansard source

I table my response to part (a) of the order. I refer to the letter I've just tabled in the Senate in response to the order for the production of documents outlining why the government is not in a position to table a response to the report at this time.

The Senate Select Committee on Charity Fundraising in the 21st Century report recommended that the government respond to the ACNC review and work with state and territory governments alongside the charity sector to harmonise fundraising laws. The government is finalising its response to the ACNC review and the Senate select committee report. The government has consulted widely with the sector throughout the process and is still consulting with stakeholders on the review's recommendations. We are committed to ensuring we get the response right and put in place the best legal framework for the sector. The government intends to deliver a response to the ACNC review and the Senate select committee report in the first half of next year.

12:21 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate take note of the response of the minister.

There is nothing in that minister's weak, quite pathetic explanation that excuses the government's delay in fixing charity fundraising law or their delay in responding to the Senate inquiry. An explanation from a minister that basically amounts to, 'We'll get to it when we can,' is barely an explanation at all. Senator Seselja and all his colleagues on that side of the chamber should be very embarrassed. It has now been more than 18 months since the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission legislation review was handed to the government. Eighteen months! What do they do on that side of the chamber? Eighteen months and they're still not able to give us a response.

When the ACNC review was released, the minister at the time, Minister Sukkar, was quick off the blocks to announce that the government would be working to harmonise charity law. That was a few weeks before the Liberal leadership spill. Shortly after the spill, Senator Seselja became the assistant minister for charities—the sixth charities minister in six years—and unfortunately he's been missing in action the whole time on fixing charity fundraising law. In an interview in September with Pro Bono News, Senator Seselja said that the government's response to the ACNC review would be released, 'If not later on this year, then certainly early next year.' Well, how early is 'early'? Does the minister's vague response, vague spin, mean the sector could end up waiting almost two years for the ACNC review to see the response? And if the government remains committed to harmonising charity fundraising law, when can we expect them to actually start discussing it with their state and territory counterparts, or introducing legislation?

Are those opposite really waiting for a fourth term before addressing this issue? It has been more than nine months since I tabled the report of the Senate Select Committee on Charity Fundraising in the 21st Century as chair of the committee. The committee unanimously recommended that the Australian government work with states and territories to achieve a national, harmonised fundraising law within two years. This recommendation was not only supported by Labor, Greens and United Australia Party senators, it was supported by the Liberals' Senators Abetz and Stoker.

While government responses to committee reports are frequently late, a six-month-overdue response to a report with only two—two!—recommendations is inexcusable. In fact, it's lazy and it's incompetent. Not only have the government failed to respond to the Senate inquiry report, they have failed to take any meaningful action on this important issue. And it's astounding that this government have even ignored the call for action from their own senators. I note the minister couldn't even be bothered to stay in to listen to the debate about it. That's how much he cares about it.

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Bilyk, it's not appropriate to reflect on whether ministers—or indeed any senators—are in or out of the chamber.

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

I withdraw. It might have been nice if the minister had stayed to listen to the debate.

Charities fundraising online have to register with seven different states and territories to comply—seven different sets of charity regulations. These state and territory laws are mostly a product of a time when fundraising primarily involved going from door to door, rattling a tin. In one state there is even a law on the statute book that bans fundraising by collecting money using a tin attached to a pole because collectors once used them to tap on the windows of carriages. That's how out of date some of the charity laws are in this country. It's a great example of how many of our charity fundraising laws are for a bygone era. Fixing this problem does require one thing: national leadership. In the 21st century, when so much charity fundraising is done online, it makes sense to have a single, focused, national set of regulations governing fundraising. But it appears pretty difficult to make those opposite understand this reality and act on it when we have an analog government, as I said the other day, operating in a digital age.

In the meantime, charities labour under a mountain of paperwork, and the contributions of their donors are eroded by this bureaucratic nightmare. Charities themselves are reporting that, without harmonised fundraising laws, they are spending at least $15 million a year on unnecessary paperwork. That figure comes from a Deloitte Access Economics report. The figure is even higher if you include other not-for-profits, and some of the witnesses whose gave evidence to the Senate inquiry believe this figure to be a gross underestimate. This is a colossal waste of money which charities should be able to direct to their charitable causes.

Instead of fixing this problem, the Morrison government are letting down Australian charities and charitable donors. Despite their stated commitment to take action on bringing Australia's fundraising laws into the 21st century, I have seen nothing from the government to demonstrate that they have any intention of progressing this important reform. In August this year, they missed a really important opportunity, the latest meeting of the Consumer Affairs Forum, held in Queenstown, New Zealand. This forum, a meeting of Commonwealth, state, territory and New Zealand consumer affairs ministers, would have been the perfect opportunity to discuss steps towards harmonising charity fundraising laws, but the issue was not even on the agenda, which shows what the government thinks of charities. The minister's sorry excuse of an explanation does not address the question of why the government has failed to give Australian charities the support they need.

Labor has already done much of the heavy lifting by establishing the ACNC, but since those opposite came to power progress has ground to a halt. As if the government's lack of action on fundraising reform isn't bad enough, this government has spent the last six years waging war on Australian charities. As I said earlier, they've had six ministers responsible for charities in six years. Shortly after coming to office they tried to abolish the ACNC, despite its establishment being recommended by more than a dozen reviews and having the overwhelming support of the charities and not-for-profit sector. Had they succeeded, it would have set back action on harmonising charity fundraising laws by years, or probably decades. Ironically, the legislation to abolish the ACNC was contained in one of the government's omnibus repeal bills which was supposedly designed to reduce red tape. Well, the charities wouldn't have been able to reduce their red tape.

When the government failed to get that legislation through parliament, they appointed a charity critic as the head of the organisation. Then we had attempts by the government to introduce legislation to gag charities and to prevent them from advocating on social and environmental causes. As much as Mr Morrison likes quiet Australians, it appears he prefers silent Australians, but charities won't be silenced. This action prompted two open letters from the charities and not-for-profit sector to the Prime Minister. In one of those letters, the signatories wrote:

The proposed Bills conflate advocacy for good policy with political campaigning for elections. They impose severe criminal penalties on expression and access to information that is central to public debate and accountability in a democratic society. The changes will stop charities, community organizations and not-for-profits from speaking out about issues that are of great importance to the Australian community.

The Morrison government's continued assault on the most trusted sector in Australia is completely outrageous. With the government demonstrating over and over again their contempt for charities, it's no wonder they're dragging their feet on fundraising law reform and keeping charities in the dark. Following his excuse for an explanation to this parliament, I invite Senator Seselja to come back into this place and provide genuine answers to the following questions: when will the Morrison government respond to the report of the Senate Select Committee on Charity Fundraising in the 21st Century—on what date? What is the time frame to finally fix fundraising, and why has it taken them so long? To what degree will their plan include harmonisation of existing state and territory laws, and to what degree will it involve the expansion of the Australian Consumer Law? When is the minister going to negotiate these changes with the states and territories?

It's time for Senator Seselja and the Morrison government to come clean, outline their plan for reform and commit to fundraising law reform as a matter of urgency. Charities and not-for-profits are crying out for action, and every month that this government drags its feet is costing the sector over $1 million in unnecessary red tape. We will not accept any more excuses or delays, and neither will Australians, charities and not-for-profits. As I said, the Morrison government's been dragging its feet for way too long on charity fundraising law reform. It's been more than 18 months since the five-year review of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission was delivered to government and more than nine months since the Senate Select Committee on Charity Fundraising in the 21st Century tabled its report. (Time expired).

12:31 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to take note of the minister's response to the order for the production of documents and the quite frankly minimal and poor response we got from the government. This is an area that has been in need of reform for a very long time, and we all know that the government has been dragging its feet for a very long time. As Senator Bilyk pointed out, they have steadfastly tried, first, to not support the ACNC and then to constantly undermine the ACNC. They are trying to get rid of it and, I would argue, trying to hinder the very important work that it does.

The minister's response was that the government is still considering and consulting with stakeholders on the report's recommendations. They've had 18 months. I would also argue that many of their recommendations would not have been new to the government. These have been on the agenda for a very long time. They then say that the government is finalising its response to the ACNC legislative review and, as part of this process, has consulted closely with the sector on a variety of issues including fundraising. Fundraising has been on the sector's agenda for an extremely long time. How much longer does the government need to consult, when the sector has pretty strong views about it? That is why I find their response to the two recommendations disappointing. The first recommendation from the committee says:

The committee recommends that the Australian government urgently provide a public response to the recommendations made in the review panel's report, Strengthening for Purpose: Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Legislation Review.

That's what the government says they're still consulting about, when they've had the report for 18 months. They're consulting on many points which there is strong consensus on through the sector and which they could progress. Fair enough—maybe there are some tricky bits in it; start working on the other bits. The other recommendation, which I'm particularly concerned about, states:

The committee recommends the Australian Government commit to working with state and territory governments and the not-for-profit sector to develop a consistent national model for regulating not-for-profit and charitable fundraising activities within a time limit of two years.

They're clearly not going to make that time limit. Charities and the not-for-profit sector have been working on this for an exceedingly long time. When I used to work in the not-for-profit sector—in the charity sector—we were trying to get reform in this area for a very, very long time. And there's been a lot of work done within the sector, which is why they want to make sure that the Australian Consumer Law framework is actually used for this purpose. For some reason, the government has been relentlessly opposing that approach. One must ask why they have been opposing it so relentlessly. It virtually implies that getting the states and territories on board with reforms to fundraising and harmonisation across the country are intractable problems. Yet the sector is doing a lot of work on it, because they know it is costing them $15 million. I would argue that that is a conservative estimate of how much it is costing. Perhaps the government wants the sector to be using the $15 million, which they could be using on their work. They are wasting that money on administration, because the government won't get its act together and address the issue.

One of the key reasons we need this addressed now is that we're no longer in the 'string on a can' approach. We're no longer in the horse and buggy approach. We're in the digital age and what is very clear in the evidence we've got during the inquiry is that in the digital age people are—surprise, surprise—raising funds online and are therefore having to comply with up to seven or eight different sets of state and territory laws in Australia. So—and I hate to say this—it is highly likely that a number of charities and not-for-profits are probably breaking state and territory laws, or, as we heard during the inquiry, having to turn down donations because they don't meet the requirements. And if they don't know which state or territory a donation came from, they're in deep doo-doo.

This issue is very important for our not-for-profit and charitable sector, which is why they have put so much time into this for so many years. What does the government say? 'Oh, we're still consulting.' The sector has been consulted and consulted and consulted. They told you very clearly what they need. The ACNC review has told you very clearly what is needed, but you need to consult some more? How about listening to the sector. How about making sure that you are committed to action. We talked about the need for government leadership, but we also need a government commitment to fixing this issue and recognising that it is now seriously holding back our charity and not-for-profit sector.

The ACNC legislative review, which the government has so far taken 18 months to respond to, found that the most appropriate way to reform fundraising laws is in fact through the Australian consumer law framework. The sector is also saying this. Are you continuing to consult, just because you haven't got the answer you want? Is that why? Is it because you don't want to do it? Is that why you've been resisting for so long and not addressing these really important issues?

The sector does invaluable work. Very often, we try to put a value on the amount of work that they do, but, quite frankly, it is invaluable. Without this sector, we wouldn't function as a civil society. Civil society is absolutely critical to the community, to the work of this place and to supporting everything across the community, whether it is sports groups, food relief groups, emergency relief groups or advocacy organisations. We in this place all know that civil society are the leaders, and they are quite clearly the leaders when it comes to changing our fundraising laws, because they've been saying it over and over again. They said it even before we had the much stronger move to the digital space, and that's where a lot of fundraising goes on. Is the government really this slow in being able to respond to what is quickly becoming an urgent situation? Do they really not see that this is hampering the community sector? Is it perhaps that they don't mind the fact that it is happening, because they are certainly trying a lot of other blockages under the wheels of the community sector. They've undermined the ACNC and tried to attack their role of advocacy. There are gag clauses still operating. They've failed to address the ERO issue. There are lots of things that this government is doing to frustrate the role of the community sector. Harmonising our fundraising laws is an essential part of supporting the community and the not-for-profit sector in this country, which they've failed to do. The government need to look at these recommendations. They need to urgently respond to these recommendations. They've had long enough, and they're certainly not going to meet the time frames that were articulated in this committee report. I urge the government to respond in a meaningful manner and actually commit to harmonising our fundraising laws, and that requires their leadership. So they should also commit to taking a leadership role on this issue.

12:40 pm

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Just today we've had a debate about inequality, and one of the things that's particularly important in dealing with inequality is the charitable sector. We've seen growing inequality. We've seen more people needing the services of charity. And what's the government's response? They've failed to deliver. I'll put it this way: in the first 12 months after this report came out there was an election, so that was 12 months when they were too lazy, and in the last six months it has come down to incompetence. This is $15 million that could be spent on supporting our communities. And that's the minimum, saying nothing of the time, effort, resources and frustration of the charity sector, which puts valuable effort into its fight to bring inequality to heel. This government has failed to deliver. It's leaving the community in the dark. Who would have known that the issue of charity fundraising would be so controversial in the inner workings of the government for it to be unable to respond in the most simple of ways to a review.

Over 18 months ago, the government received the Australian charities and not-for-profits commission legislative review, a review with over 30 recommendations that would have seen a harmonising of charity fundraising, giving the sector certainty and assurance for the future. It's not like the government hasn't had warning that the issue needs to be dealt with. There have been many discussions. There have been many representations. There have been many consultations. It's clear what needs to be done. But the first thing that has to be done is that the government needs to act.

My colleague Senator Bilyk chaired the Senate Select Committee on Charity Fundraising in the 21st Century, a committee that provided the bipartisan and unanimous recommendations that the federal government implement and achieve a national harmonised fundraising law within two years. These recommendations were supported by the Liberal members of the committee: Senators Abetz and Stoker. That committee's work was finished more than nine months ago and the government hasn't responded to that committee either.

This sector needs an overhaul and regulation going forward. It's interesting that, when the government look at red tape, they often look at red tape when it's somebody's rights—that is, when it's something you have to take off them because it's getting in the way. But on this occasion this is red tape that can actually release the opportunity for charities to go out into our communities and spend those resources on lifting our community. That's red tape the government doesn't want to act on. When you've got red tape that takes away people's rights, they act quickly; when you've got red tape that can actually lift the community, they act slowly. And that goes to the heart of what has made this government tick these last seven years.

Clearly, they went to the last election without any idea of having a policy about what they were going to do. We've just heard that we're now going to have to wait approximately another nine months. Isn't this just absolutely incredible? The government is dealing with red tape—the red tape champions. When it comes to rights, we know what they champion: taking them away! We've seen this in the government's announcements in a number of other areas, such as modern awards and unfair dismissal protections. But they're also slow in dealing with other issues of red tape and in actually putting laws and regulations in to protect people—certainly, people in workplaces and the Migrant Workers' Taskforce; it still hasn't been acted upon. Senator Bilyk raised a series of questions.

The current scheme is out of date and a throwback to the time before the internet. It is out of date; it needs an overhaul! It's obvious. Why is the government so intent on making the work of charities more difficult? The government didn't actually come in here and give an explanation of their incompetence, they just said what they weren't going to do and how long it might take. This is absolutely appalling. It's appalling and it's incompetent. It's lazy and it's inefficient.

Senator Bilyk mentioned previously that there is a cost to the government's failure to act. Research by Deloitte Access Economics found that charities are spending upwards of $15 million a year, as I mentioned, in attempting to comply with seven sets of regulations. And some suggest this figure is on the lower end of what those unharmonised regulations are costing. As I said, $15 million in charitable funds are not going to good causes because of the government's failure.

But the government's failure to deliver a response to the review isn't the only instance of neglect by this government with regard to charities. They've had six ministers for the charities in six years. Now that's heart and soul, isn't it? Doesn't that really go to the heart and soul of what makes this government tick? It's the pass that keeps being passed. You'd think you'd find somebody in six ministers who would actually say: 'I'm going to make sure that this works. I'm going to make sure I deliver for our communities.' You'd think you'd find somebody with the passion and the drive to do that, wouldn't you? And yet we're still waiting for responses.

The government has been dragging its feet way too long in fundraising reform. Organisations have been forced to deal with outdated fundraising laws that have varied from state to state, and this is not just a number on a page; it means that real people are getting less help. Right now there are charities supporting communities devastated by drought and bushfires, and who are helping out families who are struggling to get by. They have less to work with because Scott Morrison and his charities ministers are dragging their feet. I can think of a pile of people who would say, 'I want to be a minister.' I hope that there are actually some people on the other side who want to be a minister—people who want to pull their finger out and make some changes. I would be congratulating them if they actually got off their backsides and started doing something that makes a difference for these charities and that makes a difference for all of our community. But, no, they're not clamouring to get on board and do something; they just can't wait to get off board. They can't wait to jump ship to something else, because this is just not a priority for this government.

The Senate committee fundraising report recommended that parliament reform this over two years ago, as I said. Fundraising reform advocates want a nationally consistent, fit-for-purpose charitable fundraising regime created by repealing the state and ACT legislation. It requires the government to start acting on inequality. It requires the government to start acting on what the charities have called for. It requires the government to look at the ACNC review, to harmonise charity laws and to harmonise fundraising—to give the capacity to the community to go out and make that difference that so many of them are making.

It must be horrific, if you're sitting there in a charity and waiting 18 months now—it will be two years on the timing the minister has just given us—saying: 'This government just doesn't care. I'm out there slogging away, as a charity worker, to make a difference.' You're seeing mums and dads in difficult situations. You're seeing people in horrific circumstances. I certainly wouldn't suggest that anybody in this House doesn't have a commitment in one form or another—I would question whether it is sufficient—for the victims of the bushfires. But commitment is more than just a hollow group of words. Commitment is more than just a press statement. Commitment is more than just turning around and biding your time—

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

And more than just delays.

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

And it's more than just delays and delays and delays and delays. It is action, and there's a need to have action taken in the charity sector. There is a need to give charities the opportunity to turn around and do more of the good work that they are delivering so well across our communities across the country. In my home state of New South Wales, I know the difficulties and challenges with many of the bushfires now. I've recently been up to Nabiac and seen some of the horrific circumstances that people have found themselves in, and the daily challenge they face of having to go to safe zones. The government needs to act and it needs to act now.

12:51 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I also rise to take note of Minister Seselja's response to this order for the production of documents. May I say what a disappointment that response was—to wait this long for the response that, 'We're still consulting on it.' Charities around the country and the people who rely on them will be understandably disappointed, because they really can't wait any longer for a solution to this issue. They may wonder, and we all may wonder: does this government do any heavy lifting on anything that comes before it? It sure doesn't look like it. Today, we can add fundraising law to a long list of other issues that they have, apparently, absolutely no plan for and that they are stalling on and won't get moving on. This is just one of many of those issues. They have no plan for our faltering economy, no plan to address climate change, no plan to tackle flat wage growth, no plan to address rising bills and out of control energy prices, and the list goes on.

In fact, in that context, the work that charities and nonprofits do is all the more important. It is extremely important work, and they deserve more from this government, because when people do fall on tough times it is often charities and nonprofits that are there to lend a hand. I'm thinking of charities like Foodbank. Foodbank is an amazing charity that helps feed Australians who are suffering from food insecurity. That is an issue that is all too common in our country today. Today there are one in five Australians who were experiencing food insecurity in the last year. It is really distressing to report that about a quarter of those are children. Foodbank is just one of the charities that really needs action from this government to reform fundraising laws. This is a charity that distributes food and groceries to over 2,400 charity partners to help feed food-insecure Australians. Without them, many of these people would just have to go hungry.

It's a problem that's not going away, because even though Foodbank already provides relief to 815,000 Australians every month, they've seen a massive rise in the number of people seeking food relief in the past 12 months. This is a charity that's on the frontline which is dealing with this absolutely pressing national issue, and they are doing so much to support Australians who are experiencing hunger. What they rely on, of course, to be able to do this incredibly important work—to operate and provide this support—is the generosity of the Australians who donate. I am sure that all of those people who make donations to this organisation would want their money to be used as efficiently as possible. They would want their money to go to actually feeding people who are hungry. They would want their money to go to as many people as directly as possible. So we have to wonder how many extra mouths charities like Foodbank could feed if they didn't have to spend time and money on the administration associated with fundraising laws that really belong well in the previous century and not this one.

As we know, according to the sector itself, Australian charities are losing at least $15 million a year on these unnecessary compliance costs that are caused by the overlapping of the different funding laws we have in every state and in the ACT as well. These laws might have made sense before the invention of the internet when fundraisers were still essentially going door to door. But now, in this century, when most fundraising happens online, these laws are absolutely outdated, and the compliance work associated with them is costing our charities who do this work that is so important at least $1.25 million each month. Again, that money could be going towards furthering the social, environmental and other causes that the donors intended their money to go to and not to these unnecessary administration and compliance costs.

To us on this side of the chamber, given how long the government has taken to respond to this and given the response we got from Minister Seselja—that he is still just consulting—it really seems like this government doesn't care about the compliance costs, the red tape, that charities and the not-for-profit sector are facing. Since the report was tabled by the committee earlier this year, charities have wasted over $10 million on these annual costs. Again I think the public, particularly those who donate to those good causes, would be absolutely shocked and extremely disappointed in the government's attitude. I am pretty sure that no-one donates to a charity thinking how great it would be if that money gets lost in red tape, gets lost in those costs just don't need to be there.

But these costs are just part of the problem, and perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised that it's taken the government so long to respond to this particular issue and this particular committee report. We know that this government move pretty slowly and they don't like scrutiny. We have seen repeated examples of this recently. They don't like it when charities speak out and advocate on their areas of concern. It really doesn't matter who you are in Australia today—a journalist, a trade union or a charity—if you are speaking out against something that the government is doing, if you're advocating against the government, it wants to shut you up.

The government doesn't seem to care when charities like Foodbank are feeding food-insecure Australians—of course it wants them to do that—but if they advocate and speak out about why so many Australians are actually facing food insecurity the government becomes pretty unhappy. It's now been 18 months since the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission legislation review and there has been no response and no action from this government. Maybe the problem they are facing is that they are just so busy focusing on the other important issues that are facing our country today. Perhaps that's why they haven't yet responded to this legislation review. Perhaps that's why they're not taking the time to respond to this committee report. Well, unfortunately, we know it is not the case that their response on this is so slow because they are taking so much action in other parts of the economy and in other parts of society—because while they've been ignoring these calls for important reforms around charity fundraising laws they've been ignoring lots of other pressing issues as well. They've been ignoring the state of our faltering economy. They've been ignoring record low wage growth. They've been ignoring the rising cost of living. They've been ignoring rampant wage theft. We know that in recent weeks they've been ignoring the criminal activity of the major banks. They've been ignoring the falling living standards of Australians. They've been ignoring the record high levels of underemployment. Basically, if it might take some focus to fix it, then this government is probably ignoring it. Instead of taking action on all of those things and important matters like the one that is in front of us now, they've been focusing on a few other things in an effort to distract us from the things that really matter. We've seen that in recent weeks too, with attacking workers' right to organise being a big focus of this government.

Like with so many pressing issues in our country right now, it is really time that the government stopped sitting on its hands on this issue and did some work to support the charity and not-for-profit sector. The ACNC report and the committee report, which was endorsed widely, made it clear what the recommendations are regarding unifying national fundraising law and the urgent need to fix it. You are the government. This is your job. It's time you got on and fixed it. (Time expired)

1:01 pm

Photo of Deborah O'NeillDeborah O'Neill (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I concur by echoing: yes, we sadly have the Liberal and National parties as our government. It is their job to fix it, and they well and truly should have fixed it. In fact, they've been talking about doing good things for the charities sector for a very long time. Even before they came into government, I can remember attending a number of inquiries as a member of the other place, when I was the member for Robertson, about what was going on in the charities sector. That was in 2011 or 2012, but here we are in 2019, six ministers in six years into the third term of this government, and they still aren't doing the job that they need to do for ordinary Australians. People who want to help fellow Australians, who want to support charities, are sadly suffering under the misguided perception that this government will look after charities, that they will do their job and that they will do the correct thing and make sure that charities can get as many of those dollars that Australians are generous enough to donate to the causes that those charities are supporting. Sadly, what we've got is a government with not just this minister but the five ministers who preceded him who are missing in action.

The reason we're having this debate today is that Senator Bilyk, from Tasmania, who ably led the inquiry into what was going on around the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit's Commission and made a series of recommendations, shared it. She was supported ably in that job by Senator Rachel Siewert as the deputy chair. I note that another Tasmanian, Senator Abetz, was on that, as well as Senator Burston, who is no longer with us; Senator David Smith; and Senator Amanda Stoker. They were all on it. There were two recommendations. They were pretty clear. They said the government needs to get on with it:

… the Australian government urgently provide a public response to the recommendations made in the review panel's report, Strengthening for Purpose: Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Legislation Review.

I don't know what 'urgent' means to this government. Clearly not the same thing that it means to ordinary Australians who have been donating in the period of time since this report came out, with millions of Australians donating to support people struggling in the drought and millions of Australians putting funds in to support people who are being impacted by the fires in this country. Nine months was not enough time for this government to get on and do the job that needed to be done. Shame on this government and shame on the government's minister, their representative in this field, Senator Seselja, for failing to produce documents and a sufficient explanation of why this important and urgent matter has been so overlooked.

The cost of not doing this was documented by our colleague in the other place Mr Andrew Leigh. He has made it very clear that the evidence found by Senator Bilyk shows that fundraising charities face a paperwork burden every year of around $15 million. I don't know about you. Maybe some people have so much money that $15 million doesn't sound big to them but it sounds like a pretty big number to me. To those people across this country who are the beneficiaries of the investment that we make in their welfare, not just through our tax dollars but by personal commitment to supporting charities, this government owes so much more than it has given—so much more. All they had to do was show up and do their day job, respond to the good work of committees like this and bring in legislation that would mean that $15 million more donated by Australians would be in the pockets of those who need it or in the services provision for those who need it. But do you think we have seen that legislation? No, no, they're in here trying to bust unions. They are in here making sure to vote against Senator Hanson again today so she can't get a dairy inquiry up. The National Party voted against it. I suppose she is doing their job, so you might understand it. This is what is going on with this government: anything—anything—that might get them a headline, anything that will satisfy their ideological lust to hurt the most vulnerable is what they are advancing, not sensible legislation like that which has been recommended by the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee.

Let me tell you a little bit about some of the work that I have seen our charitable institutions doing. I really want to give a plug to the Salvation Army, one of the most trusted institutions in this country. For families who have somebody in their family they love who is facing addiction, I don't know any other organisation that has given so many people so much hope by the provision of drug rehabilitation services. That is money that should be going into those charities. Just in this period of time, $15 million has not been provided for service provision to those families facing Christmas who know that someone they love needs that service. Well, $15 million isn't there because this government didn't show up to do its work.

In addition to that, I am a product of Catholic education, very proudly. I remember fundraising in my own classrooms. I can remember back to year 3 and bringing in little 2c coins as donations to help charities, particularly St Vincent de Paul. And I want to give a shout out to the great leadership being offered to Catholic social services by former senator Ursula Stephens, who is now leading Catholic Care nationally. Right across this country in the closing weeks of term, there will be young kids, who will be bringing in pocket money, who will be going home and raiding their pantries and bringing in goods to put together baskets for St Vincent de Paul through the Mini Vinnies program to give food and presents to families who might not be looking down the barrel of a great Christmas. That's happening in our Catholic schools and, indeed, in lots and lots of schools. Most schools across the country will be doing their bit to support the charity that they believe in by giving of themselves, giving from their families to those in their community around them who need just a little bit of help right now. That $15 million of investment that could be going to people is just being soaked up in the sort of red tape that all my colleagues have spoken about.

I remember hearing in those original hearings 'report once, use often'. What we've got is charities reporting in every state and jurisdiction around the country multiple times, trying to keep up with all the different laws across the states. All this government has to do is read the report and make a national set of laws. There are a couple of ways they could do that. We don't really care which method they use, but take the problem away from the people who can't fix it. Only the government can fix this problem. They've got a recipe to do it but they don't care enough to act. This is not a priority for them. It is a priority for you and me, it is a priority for ordinary Australians but it is not a priority for this arrogant, out-of-touch and stubborn government that is more committed to an ideological battle in this place than to serving the Australian people who—I still find it difficult to understand—gave them the authority of governance again. The reality is there are great challenges facing Australians this Christmas.

Recently when I was out in Wagga Wagga, I went to an institution that is significantly supported by St Vincent de Paul in that community. I saw something I never thought I'd see in this country, and it's heartbreaking. I walked in and there was a basket filled with bread. That basket was emptied by people who came in off the street to get bread because they hadn't had any food at all over the weekend, for themselves or their children. In the time that I went behind the front desk and met with volunteers, who were giving their services to that charity to help look after people in their community, that bread basket had been completely emptied and refilled. That is happening in our country because of insecure wages, insecure work, a failure in managing the economy and a failure to support charities in doing the job that they have to do to catch the people who are falling off the edge of our society because this government is too arrogant to do its day job. It is a disgrace, and it shames me to think that that's what I saw this year in our country, in Wagga Wagga, where the Deputy Prime Minister is supposed to be helping that community. That is happening in every community across this country—people who've worked for 35 years losing their jobs, put on Newstart that they can't live on, unable to see the benefit of Christmas. This government is hard-hearted; it lacks care, it lacks due diligence and it lacks the capacity to do its job. It's a great disgrace to this nation. (Time expired)

1:11 pm

Photo of Nita GreenNita Green (Queensland, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

What a very sad state of affairs we find ourselves in here today in the Senate, having to bring to the Senate's attention the very real lack of action by this government to do its job when it comes to regulating and supporting our fabulous charities all across the country. I am very concerned about the lack of response to this select committee report on charities, and I do believe that it is characteristic of a systematic problem of this government to get in there and do the hard work, to respond to the recommendations of reviews that are made by select committees, by organisations and by government authorities and to put in the hard work to do the reform that is needed to help Australians.

The charities that we are talking about today do hard work in our community. They help people all around Australia. Where I am from in Far North Queensland, everybody would know that we have particularly incredible charities, and people are working tirelessly to do the hard work to help Australians. Some of them that come to mind straight off the bat are the fantastic organisations that have been pulling together to bring attention to suicide prevention in Far North Queensland. Those organisations that do that hard work do it because our community has lost people too early and too soon, and they need our help. The government's lack of action in this area is heartless. It is another example of the government not putting in the hard work to provide the regulatory reform needed to help charities like those in Far North Queensland.

This select committee report is not the first time that this charity law has been considered. We know that there have been six reviews and six ministers but no action in this area. That is really an astounding number, and you wonder how many ministers it's going to take before someone actually rolls up their sleeves and does the hard work that people in our community are out there doing. The government's failure to respond to these recommendations—I will say one of the recommendations actually just referred back to another report and other recommendations because the government hadn't responded to those! Obviously the report I'm talking about is the ACNC report, and that started in 2017. Those recommendations have been available to the government for 18 months. There are 30 recommendations in that report, and the select committee report actually drew a few of those recommendations out to draw the attention of the government to those recommendations that are their responsibility.

Ultimately, I just want to read from one of those recommendations: 'A single national scheme for charities and not-for-profits to be developed.' That's a simple recommendation. Yes, some hard work is needed to get there. But this recommendation has been on the books for 18 months and now has been part of a select committee report, with the hard work that senators in this place have done to go through and look at the reviews that have been done and, again, to make those same recommendations. And yet when we've asked the minister to come in here to respond to an order for production of documents, he can't do it. He can't provide the government's response to these recommendations.

We really have to start to wonder what this government has been doing for those 18 months. What have those ministers who were responsible for this area been doing instead of responding to this information? When I heard the words 'recommendations', 'report' and 'no response', I have to say that it reminded me of so many other circumstances which we're in at the moment—particularly with the ACCC report into insurance. I'll take a moment to talk about this report, because it shows that this government are systematically not responding to recommendations that are made by the select committees or government authorities which have gone in and done the reviews, putting in the hard time. They've spent taxpayer dollars, I imagine, to get the information that the government need to implement good policy, but the government are not interested in it. They won't even respond to it. The ACCC report has been available and it has 28 recommendations for government to respond to. The government haven't responded to a single one of them. I asked the government in estimates, 'When are you going to respond?' The answer was, 'In due course'.

Insurance prices are going up and up in North Queensland. We have the situation where the archdiocese in Townsville is considering not insuring its properties, and it won't be able to provide the services it provides because of insurance costs. This is another regulatory burden on good charities and people doing good, hard work. But this government think it's too hard; that it's just too hard even to respond. I would like to see the government come in here and respond to all of these recommendations from these reports—the ACCC report on insurance, particularly, and also the report about charities. But the government are not interested in transparency and accountability. We know that. We know they're not interested in talking about what they're doing with their time.

Two very good examples of that come to mind. I don't know when we will ever see the drought envoy's report tabled in parliament. Actually, we know we won't because it was provided by text message! So we know that we won't get those reports tabled in parliament. That's because the government don't care about transparency and accountability. We just found out the other day from answers provided to questions in estimates that the reef envoy's report won't be tabled in parliament. So this parliament will never find out what work has been done there. We also know, in terms of the order for production of documents, that the government have had a really hard time responding to those in this chamber. Senator Keneally, in particular, has had to put in a lot of orders for the production of documents and has had to get the support of this chamber—the support of the Senate. When the Senate asks for documents to be provided, that is something that this government should listen to and adhere to. It's not something that they can just whisk away, like a fly! It's not something that they can just consider to be an optional maybe. Orders for the production of documents from the Senate are a serious business, and this government don't want to respond to them.

This government have failed to provide responses to reports of recommendations systematically. Hard work has gone into those reports, but they're not willing to do the hard work to implement those policies. I certainly want to make sure that I put on the record my very strong support for the charities in Far North Queensland that have done the hard work, that have provided submissions to these inquiries, have gone out and lobbied government to do their job and have been on the ground, providing services to our constituents. Senator O'Neill referred to some of the fantastic organisations in her neck of the woods. In Far North Queensland, the Salvation Army is one that provides such an incredible number of services and support to people in our community. I want to particularly mention their financial counselling services; their services around domestic violence support; and their services for refugees who are coming to our country, giving them the support that they need in our community. These organisations could do so much more work if it weren't for the red tape, the doubling of regulation and the lack of a national scheme. The lack of action from this government is stopping charities from doing the hard work in our community when we know that they can do so much more.

What a very sad state of affairs that we have to come into the Senate and demand that documents be provided to help our charities. What does that say about this government? It says that they are heartless, it says that they don't care about transparency and accountability, and it says they're not willing to do the hard work. What are they willing to put the hard work in on? We know that last week they spent a lot of time putting hard work in on bashing unions—bashing organisations that go out there and help young workers fight wage theft. You really have to look at who this government takes on to understand who it doesn't support—

Photo of Slade BrockmanSlade Brockman (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Green, please resume your seat. The time for this debate has expired. The question is that the Senate take note of the minister's answer.

Question agreed to.