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Wednesday, 31 October 2012
Page: 8586


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (10:47): I have a series of questions that I would like some information around that pertain to the amendments that have been moved. The amendments that have been moved are largely in response to the additional comments report that the Greens submitted during the Community Affairs Committee process.

I am pleased to see these amendments. In fact, as I indicated in my second reading speech, the Greens would not be supporting this legislation unless these amendments, or significant improvements, were made. These amendments aim to improve the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Bill 2012 to the point where we can support it, but we need some answers to some questions first.

I would also like to just correct a few of the misconceptions that anyone listening to the second reading debate would have taken away from that, particularly if listening to some of the coalition senators' contributions. One of these misconceptions was that this legislation is not supported by the not-for-profit sector. While the not-for-profit sector had a number of concerns, a lot of the concerns that were canvassed through the debate were in fact about the exposure draft and the first version of the bill. Subsequently there have been quite a few amendments in response to the community input.

I would like to point out here that one of the reasons we have a committee process is so that the Senate and the House of Representatives, when they look at bills, can look at the flaws in a bill and make amendments. Otherwise why do we bother with the committee process? We have a committee process to do due diligence to look at legislation. That is exactly what happened to this legislation. Lo and behold, the government actually listened to a committee and made the amendments. So I for one think that that is a really good process and I am really glad to see our democracy operating in that way.

I had a contribution from UnitingCare—and I do hope my voice holds out for the rest of this debate. UnitingCare contributed substantively, as did a number of other community and charity not-for-profits, to the three committee inquiries that were held into this suite of legislation. Their name was taken in vain a bit, they felt, during the debate on Monday night. They said that UnitingCare had raised some points of concern. In fact, they did through the initial process. But I would like to read an email that I have permission to read in response to some of the taking of UnitingCare's name in vain. This is from Lin Hatfield Dodds, the CEO of UnitingCare Australia. She said:

These quotes—

these are the quotes that were used during the debate—

are in relation to the draft Bill which appeared before the Standing Economics committee. Since that time there have been two other committees, a series of amendments made to the Bills and associated legislation, and two key commitments from the Government to anti-gag clauses and red tape reduction that have secured our support for this Bill as it stands before the Senate

This legislation is about more than simply the establishment of a new national regulator for the sector—it is recognition that our sector has come of age. A sector which is not an arm of government nor a subset of the business sector but one which has its own identity defined by its altruistic mission and characterised by its diversity and independence.

The introduction of this Bill together with the introduction of an Anti-gag clause legislation and amendments to the Commonwealth Grant Guidelines … are important in securing a robust and independent sector. It is important that Government legislate it's anti gag clause arrangements and implement its proposed changes to the Commonwealth Grant Guidelines to address some of the outstanding red tape issues and enshrine the capacity of community service organisations to do advocacy.

Help us get on with our mission, Australian Parliament and support this Bill.

As I said, I have permission to read that quote. That is exactly what I have been trying to do in terms of actively engaging with this piece of legislation to try and achieve change and to reflect the comments of civil society and the not-for-profit and charities sector to try and improve this bill. With this aim, I would like to start my series of questions if that is the will of the chamber. In particular, I would like to start where Lin Hatfield Dodds was talking about the gag clauses. In particular, I point out again that, as I articulated in my second reading speech, the independence of the sector is very important to the sector and it is something that the Greens hold very dear as well. So we were particularly keen to see the government respond to that with its amendment that was passed in the House of Representatives, but that has since gone further with the anti-gag-clauses legislation, which we are pleased to see. This is particularly important because the government has a monopoly over funding arrangements. In other words, it is often the sole contractor and the sole funder, which gives it an imbalance of power in negotiating contract arrangements. We have seen that abused in the past with gag clauses in contracts, and we do not want to go back to the bad old days. So this particular piece of legislation is very important.

So what I would like to ask the minister is: can the minister please provide us with a timetable for the introduction of that promised legislation, and can the minister please demonstrate how the government has engaged or intends to engage the not-for-profit sector in drafting this legislation to ensure that it is sufficiently robust to provide the reassurance that the sector is looking for that gag clauses will no longer be included in the Commonwealth funding arrangements.