Senate debates

Tuesday, 24 August 2021


Charitable Organisations

7:34 pm

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

I've got to stop myself from laughing at that contribution. It's hard to take it seriously. I rise to speak on a critically important matter for Australia's not-for-profit and charities sector, which is Assistant Minister Sukkar's new proposed regulations to gag charities.

The so-called champions of free speech on the other side are silent when it comes to this new regulation. They rail against any kind of red tape in this chamber, except when it comes to silencing those who dare to speak out, particularly against the government. I've seen Senator Alex Antic decry 'cancel culture' for a fake campaign to change the name of Magnum ice-cream. Senator Canavan cracked open Colonial beers in solidarity with the brewing company. Yet they've said nothing about these new regulations. They've all been silent about this attempt to shut down dissent in the charity sector. They're happy to play a pointless game of culture wars. But, when it really matters—when their own government is proposing to shut down debate from Christian, Islamic, Jewish, non-denominational and other charities—this government is nowhere to be found.

The new regulations the government is proposing will actually inhibit free speech and gag dissenters to the government's agenda. They're even going to give the ACNC commissioner the power to deregister a charity if it:

… reasonably believes that it is more likely than not that the entity will not comply with a governance standard.

No charge or guilty verdict is required. Where is the natural justice in that? It's not just me saying this. Anglicare Australia, the St Vincent de Paul Society, the Benevolent Society, Baptist Care Australia, Uniting Care Australia and Catholic Social Services Australia are all signatories to an open letter against these changes. That's an extraordinary step for those charities to take during this COVID crisis, at a time when they're fighting to do the very best they can for people under such pressure in our community. The letter that they published clearly states:

These new rules undermine the legitimate and lawful advocacy that is at the core of what we do. They will silence the voices of the people we represent, and stifle our mission to create a just society where all Australians can live their lives with dignity.

Anglicare leader Kasy Chambers was right about the regulations when she said:

They are not just an attack on charities. They are an attack on democracy.

These regulations are hardly needed. Instead, they're a cynical ploy to stop charities from speaking out against the government in an election year. That's pure and simple. Unlawful acts are clearly already unlawful, and this type of collective punishment is deeply harmful and unwarranted. The government's own review into charities legislation recommended a complete repeal of the standard this same government now seeks to broaden. Let's just break that down one more time. The government undertook a review into charities and charities legislation. That review, undertaken at the government's own request, said: repeal the standard. Instead, the government is now seeking to broaden it.

Gary Johns is the ACNC commissioner. Dr Johns has confirmed the fact that there is no charity that he oversees—and he oversees them all—that's had its registration withdrawn due to activity. These proposed regulations will divert time, resources and donations away from charity work and into compliance with new red tape. That will not help Australians. It will not help charities help Australians to recover from the dual shocks of a recession and a pandemic. It's not effective regulation designed to fill a loophole or address a societal ill. In fact, it's an intimidation tactic by the government to silence its critics.

I ask all those on the other side who get angry at the thought of a brand of beer, cheese or ice-cream changing its name to think instead of what really matters: the government shutting down free speech of the entire charities sector. That is just unbelievable, and it must not occur.