I rise today to join my Labor colleagues in opposing the government's plan to axe the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. This is the first of two bills to repeal the ACNC. It proposes to repeal the ACNC Act 2012 with replacement arrangements set to be dealt with in a later bill.
The commission was introduced by the former Labor government in October 2012 and was set up to provide the public with a freely-available resource on charities. Its objectives are to maintain, protect and enhance public trust and confidence in the Australian not-for-profit sector; to support and sustain a robust, vibrant, independent and innovative Australian not-for-profit sector; and to promote the reduction of unnecessary regulatory obligations on the Australian not-for-profit sector.
Despite that last point, the Abbott government believes that abolishing the commission will reduce red tape for the charity sector. Every day, we hear the Abbott government claiming to be cutting red tape. Ironically, scrapping the commission means abolishing its red-tape-reduction directorate—the very people in charge of reducing regulatory burdens.
The ACNC plays an important role in society. It was set up for a reason. It should remain in place for that reason. It is protecting Australians from charity scammers by requiring not-for-profits to report annually on their financial activities. It has also created a searchable register so that people can quickly check the bona fides of an organisation before donating money.
The establishment of the commission was a key reform of the previous Labor government and we will not sit idly by while the coalition tears it down. In my electorate of Canberra I regularly meet with not-for-profit organisations. Before this life, I had my own business. The beauty of having my own business is that it allowed me the freedom and flexibility to be on a number of boards, both paid and voluntary.
I was on two not-for-profit boards as a voluntary director. The first was the Gift of Life board, which was designed to improve awareness about organ and tissue donation. I am a very strong advocate of organ and tissue donation. Since being in this parliament I have set up the Parliamentary Friends of Organ and Tissue Donation and at every opportunity have spoken about the need for Australians to improve the pretty ordinary record of donating their organs and tissues.
The other board I was on was the Wellness Board, which was brand new. We were the first group of voluntary directors on it. It was established by the ACT government to raise funds for the Canberra Hospital. There are a number of philanthropists both in Canberra and around Australia who have had wonderful experiences at the Canberra Hospital and who, before they passed on or when they got well, decided they wanted to donate some money to the hospital. As a result of having this pool of money in this Wellness foundation we decided that maybe there is a broader community interest in donating to the Canberra Hospital for its range of services—from paediatrics to gynaecology and a broad range of other services.
This not-for-profit group was established to go out to the broader community and raise funds for the Canberra Hospital. We did very well in our first year but I have to take my hat off to the current board, at the helm of Debbie Rolfe. She and her husband are very well-known figures here in Canberra. She has done an extraordinary job with that board of raising millions of dollars for the Canberra Hospital.
I have my own experience of being on charity not-for-profit organisations as a volunteer director so I enjoy any opportunity to go out to a not-for-profit organisation in Canberra. I have been actively involved with OzHarvest and the Yellow Van, which donate tens of thousands of meals every month to feed the less advantaged in our community. This is part of the Food Rescue program that has been rolled out right across Australia. It goes to supermarkets and restaurants and catering outfits—a broad range of organisations—to rescue food. This is saving a huge amount of infill and passes that food onto a broad range of groups.
I have been out on a number of trips to rescue the food and then drop it off. I have been to women's refuges where the value of a cupcake is extraordinary. It cheers up these women who have been through all sorts of domestic violence and brutal experiences. A little cupcake just makes their day. I have been to a number of high schools where the students get meals provided after they finish their day at school. Quite often, those kids go home to an empty pantry and no meal on the table, so it is vitally important that they go home to do their homework fuelled up with a bit of protein, some fruit and veg, and a healthy drink—something in their bellies. So, as I said, I have been to high schools, women's refuges and a broad range of groups across Canberra, including aged-care centres and centres for the homeless.
The food rescue program here in Canberra is quite extraordinary. The model been changed. Now people go to the Communities@Work centre at Tuggeranong. People go to what is like a little supermarket there. There is a great deal of dignity. People just pay a token amount of money for the food, and the organisations pay a token amount of money for the food, so that there is dignity in engaging in that assistance program. It is a token amount of money, it gives people a sense of dignity and it helps them out.
I have worked closely with mental health NGOs, such as Lifeline, assisting those at risk of suicide and depression, while also contributing to local community events through their annual book fair. I have stacked many a shelf at their annual book fair. Their book fairs are huge here in Canberra. They are held about three or four times a year. Whenever they hold the one at Erindale, I am there stacking books, categorising books and usually buying too many books as well in the process. It is a fair that raises a significant amount of money for Lifeline and it is very strongly supported by Canberrans, and I thank them for that.
I have also met with Indigenous not-for-profit groups, aged-care providers and many church-run organisations who look after the vulnerable. I am talking here about Marymead as well as the Brindabella Women's Group. There are so many organisations doing great work here in Canberra. As I have said many times, people see Canberra as being unidimensional. We are the seat of government, the seat of bureaucracy, the nation's capital, and that is about it, but we are much more than that. We are a community with a variety of different income levels and we do have significant pockets of disadvantage. I see them whenever I am out in the electorate. I have just recounted some of the areas of disadvantage in talking about the organisations that support them. There are a number of organisations for children, women, families and older Canberrans in need. There are a number of organisations out there supporting them.
The social benefits of not-for-profits are recognised by government support in the form of direct outlays and tax concessions. As a consequence, not-for-profits and other donors are influencing where community and government resources are directed. That is why it is essential that the not-for-profit sector is transparent and promotes public confidence. As we know—and as your experience, Deputy Speaker Goodenough, would show, as well as my own experience—this sector is huge. It is crucial that there is an independent national regulator such as the ACNC. The sector employs over one million Australians, turns over around $100 billion, involves almost five million volunteers and is at the heart of all our communities. According to recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2012-13 the charity and not-for-profit sector contributed almost $58 billion—that is, four per cent of all GDP—to the Australian economy. They are big numbers, no matter which way you cut them. And it is growing at a rate of about six per cent per year.
By requiring not-for-profits to report annually on their financial activities, the ACNC is reducing the risk of charity scammers. To date, the commission has registered 59,697 charities on its online register. It has also pursued legal action against four dodgy charities for ripping off donors, and it has revoked the charity status of more than 700 organisations for failing to report on their annual activity. The commission received 202 complaints in its first year, including 48 for fraud or criminal activity.
I would now like to read from a recent article in The G uardian which I believe highlights the exact reasons why the ACNC should not be abolished. It is headed 'Global fundraising company keeps $7m of $12.2m raised for Special Olympics' and says:
A global company that raises funds on behalf of some of Australia’s largest charities will be investigated after it emerged that 96% of the $12.2m it raised for Special Olympics Australia was not retained by the charity.
Since 2011, the Sydney-based Appco Group has implemented a gift voucher program on behalf of Special Olympics Australia, a charity that runs sports for people with intellectual disabilities.
A Guardian Australia investigation into Appco's conduct of the program, and its fundraising work for other charities, has found:
Special Olympics Australia retained just 4% of the money raised from the gift vouchers
The article goes into further detail about other charities where significant amounts did not go to the actual charity. Later in the article it says:
In March, 54 major charities, including Save the Children, Lifeline and the RSPCA, wrote an open letter appealing to the government to spare the regulator, saying it had done “impressive work” towards efficiency and transparency in the industry.
I would now like to draw from some of the submissions these charities have made, pleading with the government to keep the ACNC. Submissions were made by not just charities but also organisations. A number of charitable organisations came out slamming the government's plan to axe the ACNC. In fact, the Senate Economics Legislation Committee conducted an inquiry into the ACNC repeal bill in June 2014. Of the 155 charities and other organisations that made a submission to that inquiry, over 80 per cent supported retaining the commission.
World Vision CEO, Tim Costello, said:
The commission is actually working for us and it gives the public confidence, it underpins the consumer benefit to charities.
The chief executive of the Community Council for Australia, David Crosbie, said:
The ACNC is more efficient than the government regulators it replaced, is doing good work and deserves a chance to achieve its three goals of reducing red tape, increasing public trust and strengthening the charities sector … Axing the ACNC would be a very clear sign that government is not interested in the considered views of the charities sector.
The government claims that by abolishing the ACNC it is reducing red tape. Yet, according to evidence given at estimates in October this year, the ACNC saves Australian charities $120 million a year by reducing compliance costs and red tape.
An independent study by Ernst & Young confirmed that the ACNC significantly reduced the reporting burden for charities, leaving them more time to focus on actually helping Australian communities—the job that they do best. The report noted: 'A core component of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission's reporting framework and efforts around reducing red tape is the "report once, use often" principle. This principle is consistent with recommendations issued by the Productivity Commission, the National Commission of Audit, the Australian National Audit Office, the Treasury and the Department of Finance.'
Aside from the fact that Australia needs a well-regulated charitable sector to prevent against charity scams, and in fact does not create extra regulatory burdens as I have just highlighted, this bill will lead to significant job losses. The government plans to return responsibility for regulating charities to the Australian Taxation Office, at the same time as it is sacking over 4,700 staff from this agency. I would like to know how the ATO is expected to take on responsibility for the ACNC when the ATO itself is losing staff in droves? How many staff will be redeployed to the ATO, if any?
Not only will people lose their jobs as a result of this bill, there has already been a high staff turnover as a result of the uncertainty the ACNC is facing. According to its annual report, the number of ongoing, full-time employees fell from 94 at 30 June 2013 to 63 by 30 June 2014. The Abbott government claims it is about creating jobs. Well, this is in clear contrast to that goal.
In concluding, the ACNC helps charities strengthen their transparency and accountability so the public can have confidence in the sector and the good work they do. This legislation is bad for the not-for-profit sector, it is bad for jobs, it is bad for Australia—and nobody is buying it.