The Morrison-Joyce Government’s latest attack on charities has been defeated in the Senate. By a vote of 24 to 19, the Senate has disallowed a regulation that would have hurt the charity sector.
The regulation was an attempt to give charity commissioner Gary Johns – a man who has attacked Beyond Blue and Recognise, and who once described Indigenous women as ‘cash cows’ – the power to deregister charities because he anticipates they will commit a summary offence.
In September, the regulation was condemned by a unanimous report from the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation (chaired by Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells), which recommended that the Senate disallow it.
Charities were virtually unanimous in their condemnation of the proposed regulation. Reverend Tim Costello compared the latest crackdown to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Charities that spoke out against it included Amnesty International, Anglicare Australia, the Australian Centre for International Justice, the Australian Council of Social Service, Communities Council of Australia, Community Legal Centres Australia, Country Needs People, Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, Foundation for Young Australians, the Fred Hollows Foundation, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Public Health Association, Public Interest Advocacy Centre, RESULTS International Australia, the Queensland Conservation Council, Save the Children, Tearfund, and the Wide Bay Burnett Environment Council.
A statement from St Vincent de Paul Society, Catholic Social Services Australia, Anglicare, UnitingCare Australia and others noted:
As charities, we take our responsibilities to the public very seriously and we want to be accountable to our communities and supporters. We have supported the role of the ACNC in ensuring that public confidence in the charity sector is maintained. However, we already face appropriate penalties for pursuing unlawful purposes and breaking the law. All these proposed regulations would do, is single out charities for disproportionate penalties following minor breaches of a kind that are unparalleled for any other group, including political parties and businesses.
Barnardos Australia chief executive Deirdre Cheers said of the Morrison Government’s regulation ‘is placing vulnerable children in danger of being ignored, left homeless, abused, or sadly lost’.
The Australian Institute of Company Directors, representing 40,000 directors, said
… the AICD does not consider it appropriate that the ACNC Commissioner has the discretion to remove charities from the register in the circumstances proposed. Given the severe consequences that removal from the ACNC register can have on a charity (including losing income tax concessions), such a power is only appropriate if it is proportionate to the misconduct and subject to procedural fairness such as rights of appeal.
David Crosbie, the CEO of the Community Council for Australia, said:
Any suggestion that the ACNC commissioner can act against a charity because he or she believes they may do something wrong—even when there is no evidence they have done something wrong—seems at best to be against every principle of justice, fairness and procedural transparency, all of which should be fundamental values for any regulator.
Paul Wright, the National Director of ANTaR said:
In the middle of a government-initiated process to determine a First Nations Voice, these proposed regulatory changes would take away the few organisational voices that already try to speak for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In a healthy democracy, governments must be subject to robust scrutiny and the advocacy of the citizens and communities they are elected to serve, these changes undermine democracy.
Toby O’Connor, the CEO of St Vincent de Paul, said:
The Catholic Church people, generally around Easter, have a parade or walk in support of refugees, and in the new proposal, if some of our people were blocking a public area, if they failed to move on under a direction, then any charity that's associated with that march could be disqualified from being a charity.
Joe Zabar, the former deputy CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia, says:
The Church's traditional Palm Sunday Refugee Rally may trigger action against any Catholic charity that promotes or participates in the rally. While it may not be the intention of the government to include such events, the reality is that the framing of the proposed regulatory changes may capture Catholic charities simply exercising their rights to assemble and advocate for causes which matter to them.
The past eight years have seen the Liberals wage a war on charities, prompting no less than three open letters to the Prime Minister from the sector.
The Morrison-Joyce Government needs to start working with charities, not against them.