Senate debates

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

Statements by Senators

Charitable Organisations

12:50 pm

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

[by video link] Charities and not-for-profits play an important role in our democracy. As organisations that exist solely for the purpose of contributing to the public good, they work at the coalface of many important causes, such as welfare, human rights, overseas development assistance and the environment. The expertise they gain through this work makes an important contribution to the public debate, and, from this contribution, we get better policy outcomes. Some of the most important social reforms in Australia that are now widely embraced and accepted, such as the NDIS, Medicare and marriage equality, were advocated by charities. Many organisations from the sector and hundreds of my Tasmanian constituents have contacted me to express concern that this important role is now under threat from new regulation.

In a case of extreme legislative overreach, the Morrison government has introduced a new regulation which charities say could have a chilling effect on free speech. This regulation will come into effect if it is not disallowed by the Senate. It has been introduced under the guise of cracking down on charities that break the law. Now, Labor agrees that charities and not-for-profits that break the law should be deregistered. In fact, that's what the current regulations allow. But the government's new regulation goes a lot further than that. The changes target charities which engage in public events such as protests or visuals at which minor or summary offences could occur. This could be something as simple as blocking a footpath or failing to shut a gate to private property. The mere act of promoting an event at which a summary offence is committed by just one person could result in deregistration. The charities commissioner can even deregister a charity simply because he anticipates a summary offence might be committed. He can anticipate what somebody is going to do! Charities are going to be bogged down in red tape, trying to comply with the new regulation, and diverting valuable resources to seeking legal advice that should be going towards important causes that they were established to promote.

Under the existing regulations, which already capture charities that are breaking the law, only two—that's right, two—of Australia's 59,000 registered charities have lost their registration for unacceptable activist activity. There is no charity crime wave gripping the nation, as the government would have you believe, and there's no need for this authoritarian regulation. The charities commissioner already admitted in Senate estimates that there is no evidence—no evidence—to support the claim that criminals masquerading as activists is a widespread phenomenon.

This proposed regulation could have a chilling effect on democracy and on free speech. The proposal has already been criticised by a wide range of charities, including welfare organisations and faith groups. The peak community sector body, ACOSS, described it as an extreme overreach and an attack on our democracy.

So it appears that our Prime Minister, who praises the quiet Australians, would prefer charities to be not just quiet but silent. The Liberals want Australian charities to just do the hard, hands-on work in the community, not engage in activism or public debate. This government wants charities planting trees and running soup kitchens but not campaigning for action on climate change or trying to fight structural inequality. In the Liberal world view, charities have no place in public debate. Like naughty children, they should be seen but not heard.

I worry about the enforcement of this regulation under any charities commission, but it's even more worrisome with the current commissioner, given his outdated views on so many issues. Mr Johns has said that poor women were being used as cash cows, that Australia is sucking in too many of the wrong type of immigrant and that there is a great deal of impure altruism in the charity sector. It's bad enough giving anyone such extraordinary and far-reaching powers without putting them in the hands of someone as irresponsible in his public statements as Mr Johns.

This regulation is the kind of attack we've come to expect from a government that is at war with charities. They declared that war in 2014, less than a year after coming to power, with attempts to scrap the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. When they failed to pass that legislation to shut down the ACNC, they appointed a commissioner who had a history of openly criticising charities, an appointment that was described by some as bizarre. The new government regulation is one of many attempts to silence the sector and to stop it from legitimately participating in public debate. This government has put gag clauses in social services agreements with charities. They've attempted to shut down the ability of charities to advocate, and they tried to extend to charities the ban on foreign donations to political parties. For years they have dragged their feet on harmonising charity fundraising laws, continuing to allow charities to be tied up in the red tape of complying with the myriad of conflicting and outdated laws.

Charities have been established to promote social, economic and environmental good. When they participate in public debate, they do so on behalf of the poorest, most disadvantaged, most vulnerable people in our society, those who usually don't have the power, the wealth and the connections to fight for themselves. Charities give a voice to the voiceless. So, when charities suffer, people suffer too. That's why the government's war on charities must end. Australia needs a government that's on the side of the Australian charities, not one that is working against them.