Senate debates

Monday, 21 June 2021

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission

3:27 pm

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

I move:

That the Senate takes note of the answer given by the Minister representing the Treasurer (Senator Birmingham) to a question without notice asked by Senator Siewert today relating to charity law.

I rise to take note of the answer—or should I say nonanswer—from the Leader of the Senate representing the Treasurer in this place to my question around charity law. I'm deeply distressed that he couldn't answer it, because this statement 3 will have a significant impact on charities in this country. Make no mistake, the government knows, because it's been told—and in a minute I will read out quotes from some of the organisations that will be affected—that it's going to have an effect on charities in this country, which is exactly why they're doing it. It's exactly why they are trying to browbeat, bully and threaten charities into not taking up advocacy, into not doing their work.

The Community Council of Australia, in its submission to the exposure draft of statement 3, says:

The proposed changes to the ACNC governance standards will diminish our democracy—

which is exactly what the government wants to happen—

They will silence some charities by creating fear about potential repercussions. They will impose new limitations on staff and others involved in charities and their capacity to express a view. They will impose significant new regulatory burdens on many charities—

Keep them busy doing regulation, the very things the government said they were trying to cut. Keep them busy with new regulations, new bureaucracy—

They will not achieve their policy purpose. They will diminish the capacity of our communities to voice their concerns.

They also point out that threatening increased enforcement action against charities that support public campaigns and protest action is not going to make governments stronger—quite the contrary. I sincerely and truly support that statement because good policy is made with the advocacy of people at the front line of the advocacy of civil society. That was acknowledged in this place when the legislation to establish the ACNC was passed in 2013. Specifically written into that law was the capacity for charities to advocate; to take up the case to government when it has got it wrong or is not putting in place good policy; to campaign for the most vulnerable in our community in particular; and to complain and advocate for good environmental protection. Let's face it, this is what the government is doing. It doesn't want people raising these issues. That's why it is trying to change standard 3.

In the EM on draft standard 3, the government claims that it is implementing the recommendations of the expert panel on the ACNC, which looked into how the law could be improved. They said, 'Repeal statement 3.' They're not telling the truth in the EM, because it was recommended that standard 3 be removed—yes, to improve some elements of the law, because I'm not saying that some of it could not be improved, as was pointed out by the expert panel. But this government is taking the opportunity to browbeat charities, to make them frightened to speak up, and to put in summary charges when they're not proven. It is trying to curtail actions and to take action against charities for things that are not proven. It is trying to make the ACNC commissioner make judgement on what is lawful or not, when it has the criminal law and statement 5—if charities have broken the law.

This is a blatant attack on charities. The proposed changes will have, as many organisations have said, a chilling effect on the work of charities in this country, which is exactly what the government wants. The government has been aiming to wind back and undermine charities again and again. It has form in this area. It used to have gag clauses in funding agreements with charities that said they couldn't speak out. They could support the most vulnerable and provide services—mop the brow, as they say—but not advocate for policy change. That is exactly what the government is doing. It is trying to deliver on its long-term aim to gut charities, to silence charities, to gag charities and to stop advocacy. That's what the government is on about. The charities know it, and it is already having a chilling effect. Those who are interested should have a read of what the Law Council says, which is that it's very questionable as to whether this is constitutional or not. I bet that this gets through, although I'll work my hardest to stop that. If it does get through, there'll be a constitutional challenge. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.