Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (Repeal) (No. 1) Bill 2014

Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (18:34): The bill before the House concerns the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, which was founded in 2012 by the Labor government. This bill—the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (Repeal Day) (No. 1) Bill 2014—seeks to abolish it, and that is nothing short of an act of legislative vandalism. Why? Because the commission actually has broad support within the community that it seeks to regulate, and that is not a common thing amongst the regulated. It has broad support amongst the charities and not-for-profits sector, a very important sector of our community and of our economy. It generates an income of approximately $100 billion a year and employs close to a million Australians. In some communities, the charities and not-for-profit sector is one of the largest employers in town. The sector runs organisations as diverse as community housing, emergency housing shelters, recycling and printing, disability enterprises, coffee shops, soup kitchens, employment agencies, environment protection groups, researchers and think tanks—the list goes on. But one thing that has united them all is their opposition to what the government is doing with this bill before the House today.

The not-for-profit sector was regulated at the federal level principally by the Australian Taxation Office. Those in the sector had relationships, if they were funded by the Commonwealth government, with all the funding agencies in relation to those funding programs. Despite all the reporting requirements in each Australian jurisdiction, there were public reporting obligations for the non-for-profit sector. So, we needed to have a look at this. And whilst Labor holds in very high regard the great work of the Australian Taxation Office and the men and women who work there, often under great pressure, there was a belief that there was a conflict of interest at times regarding the role of the ATO in determining the charitable status of organisations they would otherwise be collecting revenue from.

There was also a problem with the absence of uniform reporting arrangements, which meant a lack of transparency and accountability. Much of their time is not spent on charitable works, but in fact on reporting to local, state and Commonwealth governments.

When Labor decided to clean up this mess in response to the calls from the not-for-profit sector that they were spending too much of their valuable time not dealing with their main mission, the charity and not-for-profit work, but complying with government regulations, it was not a capricious act of Canberra-based centralism, as many previous speakers have attempted to characterise it. It was actually the continuation of a long line of thought that spanned over successive governments. Inquiries commissioned by several governments had recommended the establishment of just such a regulator. Regrettably, successive governments did not implement the recommendations of those reports.

For example, in 2001 the Howard government commissioned an inquiry into the charities and related organisations. It recommended:

… the Government consider establishing a comprehensive national administrative framework for the charitable and related sector.

Again in 2008, the Senate Economics Committee inquired into the disclosure regimes for the not-for-profits and recommended that there be a single independent national regulator for not-for-profit organisations.

Moving forward to 2010, the Henry review found that a national charities commission should be established to monitor, regulate and provide advice to all not-for-profit organisations. In that same year, the Productivity Commission recommended the establishment of a one-stop shop for Commonwealth regulation and tax endorsement of the not-for-profit sector.

The Senate Economics Legislation Committee inquired into the Tax Laws Amendment (Public Benefit Test) Bill in 2010. Again, it recommended that the way to improve transparency in the sector was to establish a single independent national commission for not-for-profits.

So the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission was not an accidental creation. It was not conceived of one night in an office around this place and rushed through the parliament. In fact it was the subject of successive government inquiries spanning almost a decade and half, and careful consideration and careful consultation with the sector. Indeed, I sat on the House economics committee which inquired into the original bill that was put before the House, and we responded to a number of the issues that were raised by those within the sector. It was against this background that so many within the sector said, 'This is a good idea: it deserves our support.' Far from scrapping it now, it should be allowed to be bedded in, expanded and allowed to do its work.

The ACNC protects Australians in many ways and it helps to regulate the sector. For example, it protects against charity scammers, who use Australians' goodwill towards charities and the desire by most Australians to do the right thing by the not-for-profit and the charity sector. It protects against those who would seek to abuse that sentiment within the Australian public for scamming purposes by requiring not-for-profits to report annually on their financial activities and creating a searchable register so that people can quickly check the credentials of charities before making a donation.

In its short period of operation, the commission has registered almost 60,000 charities on its online register and commenced legal action against charities who were found to be ripping off unsuspecting donors. It has also revoked the charitable status of over 700 organisations for failing to report their annual activities.

Earlier this year the Senate estimates heard that the ACNC saves Australian charities around $120 million a year by reducing the red tape and compliance costs that would otherwise be visited upon them. Indeed, Ernst & Young conducted an independent study which confirmed that the ACNC significantly reduced the reporting burden for charities, leaving them more time to focus on their charitable activities.

The principle, which was at the heart of the establishment of the ACNC, was that they adopt the 'report once and use often' principle. This was a response from many within the sector who say they spend so much of their time providing the same information not only to various levels of government but to various departments within the same level of government. Apply for this; comply with this regulation; fill in this form—completely duplicating the information that is collected between one department and another. So the ACNC adopted the 'report once and use often' principle, and it is working.

In 2014 Pro Bono Australia conducted the State of the Not for Profit Sector Survey, which found that 82 per cent of respondents believe the ACNC is important or extremely important for creating a vibrant not-for-profit sector. Only six per cent of respondents agreed with Minister Kevin Andrews that the ATO should resume responsibility—which is exactly what is being proposed by the bill before the House. That is, 94 per cent think it is working well—it is either important or extremely important to the sector; six per cent are nay-sayers. Yet the minister chooses to act on the advice of the six per cent and not the 94 per cent. Is it any wonder that the government finds itself in so much trouble when you consider that this is the way they respond to regulating the sector. Responsible governments will listen to the community, they will listen to the industry that they are seeking to regulate and work with, and they will respond. But it would appear this government is doing exactly the opposite.

The Senate Standing Committee on Economics has heard a great deal of evidence about the repeal of this bill, evidence from important organisations, national and international. Amnesty International, for example, has told the Senate that the organisation does not support repeal of the legislation establishing the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, a sentiment repeated by the evidence given by the Australian Association of Christian Schools when they said:

AACS would like to express its deep concern about the projected dismantling of the ACNC under the Coalition Government.

   …   …   …

AACS is totally opposed to the return of regulatory and compliance functions to ASIC and the ATO.

Jesuit Social Services Australia has told the Senate that:

We oppose this legislation and consider short-sighted the push to abolish a national regulatory framework that is in its infancy.

They go on to say:

The Bill … undermines many years of positive work to increase levels of transparency and accountability in the charity and not-for-profit sector …

The St Vincent de Paul organisation say something similar. They say it:

… appears to be an ideological opposition to the very existence of the ACNC.

World Vision Australia strongly supports the existence of a single national regulator of charities and believes that the ACNC is the appropriate regulator. So you have got to wonder what is going on in the minds of those opposite.

You are about my vintage, Mr Deputy Speaker Whiteley, so you would probably recall that a Bulgarian-born installation artist by the name of Christo made a visit to Australia in 1969. He made a bit of a hit of himself by wrapping Little Bay near Sydney. He entirely wrapped it up in paper and plastic. That was one of his first installations. He has travelled the world since then.

Here is a picture which you are probably familiar with of the Pont Neuf in Paris. He entirely wrapped the Pont Neuf in Paris and the Reichstag in Berlin. In fact, he has made a great name for himself by wrapping various public buildings in tape and other materials.

I have got a say that if Christo ever wants to revisit Australia then he could find a great collaborative partner in the Christo from Kooyong because we have heard great speeches from the Christo from Kooyong, the parliamentary secretary Josh Frydenberg, when he introduced into this place the red tape repeal day legislation. He had some pretty fine things to say about the importance of removing red tape. He said that when they came to government they committed to cut $1 billion a year in red tape. They said that regulation will no longer be the default action of government. It will only be a means of last resort after every other avenue is exhausted. So you have got to ask yourself: what is going through the mind of the Christo from Kooyong in repealing the very piece of legislation which is designed to remove red tape from the charities and not-for-profit sector?

Mrs Markus: Rubbish!

Mr STEPHEN JONES: It is not the voices from the opposition that are saying this. It is the voices from the sector themselves. They are telling us that they were drowning in red tape, drowning in compliance burden. There was more tape, more wrapping, than a Christo installation. What is the government's answer to this problem? Instead of supporting and enhancing the functions of the ACNC—the report once, use often principle—they abolish that and go back to the bad old days where the great people in the charities and not-for-profit sector, instead of spending all their time doing the great work in the community, are now going to be forced to spend a great deal of their time on a compliance burden which is entirely unnecessary. It is why we say this is an act of vandalism, and those on the other side ought to think again. The bill should be rejected.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Whiteley ): I thank the member and assure him I am his senior, by five years. I wish it was not the case.