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Monday, 17 September 2012
Page: 10782

Mr EWEN JONES (Herbert) (18:22): I rise to speak on the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Bill 2012 and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2012. In doing so I agree with the basic tenet of the speech of the member opposite when she said that this country would be nowhere if it was not for the not-for-profit and that we owe a great debt to the fantastic work that our volunteers do. She made a number of references to red tape but nowhere in her speech did she come across any form of red tape that she was actually going to reduce. In fact, the establishment of this commission will lead to another layer of bureaucracy without any reduction of red tape at all. It is typical of Labor that once again we have made the announcement that we are going to install this before we have had any discussions with stakeholders, namely the states.

These bills create a whole new statutory office which will regulate all the existing not-for-profit sector's regulations from a federal level. They also draft the regulatory framework that this new office will be responsible for implementing. This new red-tape system includes a shift to the 'report once, use often' format. It is supposed to include a greater focus on transparency, governance and accountability and greater public access to information on the sector.

The new agency, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, or ACNC, hopes to align all of the federal government requirements and services for the not-for-profit sector into one agency. It will commence its operations in October. I find it extraordinary that we are hoping that it will do this and yet it commences next month. As part of its responsibilities, these bills provide the ACNC with the power to issue warning notices, issue directions, enter into enforceable undertakings, apply to the courts for injunctions, suspend or remove responsible entities and appoint acting responsible entities.

Any changes to the not-for-profit sector must be made with the goal of reducing the regulatory burden. These are people and organisations who are just trying to help the community and provide services where nobody else has been able to. They are already struggling to meet the demands and expectations of government—and by that I mean all levels of government, local, state and federal—as well as their own internal requirements. In this sector more than any, we need government to just get out of the way and let them get on with the job. My concern is that this bill just does not do that. For all the talk about making it easier for charities, the organisations in Townsville are telling me that, far from delivering on that promise, it is increasing the regulation weighing them down. Does this suite of bills reduce the overall burden? No, it does not. What rules and regulations do they replace? None yet. Even the bill's explanatory memorandum has to acknowledge transitional compliance costs and that smaller entities may now have to start reporting to the ACNC where they did not have to report to the government previously, and this is, again, on top of what they are currently doing to comply.

As a supporter of my community sector, I do not and cannot support this legislation. Labor's approach to the not-for-profit sector will only hurt it, hindering the activities of charities and discouraging involvement in the sector. There are serious concerns about the scope of the ACNC. This office will have extensive and pervasive power over a highly sensitive sector. They will be able to demand the production of information from an organisation under their coverage, and even to enter premises in certain circumstances. They will be able to conduct investigations on organisations in breach of any law, even one that has no connection to charity legislation. This will leave them at odds with other actual law enforcement agencies. Who is going to have jurisdiction over genuine legal issues: the ACNC or the organisations that exist to deal with the law? I have been asked this question and no-one can tell me the answer.

The ACNC will also have the ability to remove a 'responsible officer' from any charity, and to overrule any laws that would allow that responsible officer to be appointed. While it will begin from within the tax office, ultimately the ACNC will be its own agency, and the scope of its powers is incredible. It will become one of the most powerful Commonwealth regulators. This plays to the Labor-Greens government mantra: load it up with regulation, centralise it, but above all do nothing.

The states are the elephant in the room with this legislation. Much of the interaction between government and not-for-profits comes from the jurisdiction of state governments. This includes incorporated associations and fundraising regulation, among other areas. They have not agreed to hand over any of these powers. Once again we see Labor make the announcement, plough ahead, not worry about anything and bully the states into doing what they want. Again, as with so many things this government has done, it cuts across the rights and responsibilities of the state government. Again, as with so many things, they have lobbed the legislation into the parliament with absolutely no consultation with the state governments. That this legislation is being put through the parliament before the states have even been brought on board is mind-boggling. It means that this will simply be another level of bureaucratic hoops for charities to jump through.

The primary objective of this new agency is supposed to be to streamline and reduce red tape; less red-tape is what we need. But instead the new agency has been brought in without any of the old system going. There has still been no progress made in negotiating this change of responsibilities with state governments. We are adding a new bureaucracy with new regulations and requirements without removing the elements of the current system. Even independent schools are going to find themselves having to report to the ACNC as well as their current requirements of reporting to the Department of Education and Workplace Relations and the state education departments. We have just added another layer to their mess. It is just making the system more convoluted and adding another layer of complexity. It is understandable that this has left the not-for-profit sector confused and concerned. In an age where volunteerism is dropping and the volunteers are ageing, we are making it harder and harder for not-for-profits to attract and retain people who just want to help.

We have great local charities in Townsville. Several of them have approached me with their concerns about the consequences of these changes. The Catholic Diocese of Townsville have spoken to me about their concerns of the impact of this new layer of red tape not just on their agencies and parishes but even on the 33 Catholic schools that we have in Townsville. I held a forum for charities and community groups in July. We had the shadow minister for families, housing and human services, the member for Menzies, Kevin Andrews, there to hear the issues that are facing these groups in Townsville. Those in attendance kept coming back to us with the same issue, too much red tape, and that is too much of the organisation's money being used in the back office as opposed to front-line services. They were all trying to be compliant, to go by the book and do the right thing, but it is putting more and more of a strain on their organisation as the red-tape burden continues to build.

Many of those present were sick of the reporting requirements of government agencies. Despite obeying all the rules they still have to keep justifying to the government every single change that they have in their figures. They understand why a level of reporting is important, but it needs to be simplified. At the moment, many have to report to multiple government bodies with a different lot of paperwork and expectations for each one, not to mention the excessive auditing obligations. For groups receiving funding through more than one program this is only further magnified. If this government would only listen to the people against whom this legislation is pointed they would not be creating even more reporting requirements with these bills. They would see that this is a huge part of the problem.

I also heard about the difficulties associated with recruiting staff and volunteers. Again, here are charities looking for people to help out in the community and they are being continually constrained by government regulations. That makes it hard for charities to provide a service. It is baffling for those who just want to help but instead feel like more of a hindrance. The ACNC is only going to further discourage involvement in the voluntary sector. The coalition wants to take an entirely different approach to the not-for-profit sector. We believe we should trust the voluntary sector, trust civil society and trust those working in charitable endeavours.

The Labor government's approach, instead, reverses the cornerstone assumption of trust. It has created legislation that assumes people involved with these organisations who volunteer are untrustworthy and tainted. We do still see the value in a national body of some sort. The opportunity is there for it to have a role to educate, support and train organisations, to help them comply with government expectations. But it should be there to represent these organisations, working with them rather than possessing sweeping powers to work against them. It should be about fostering innovation, making the ground level and fertile so that they, the not for profits, can provide full support for our community. We want to see regulatory powers stay with the organisations that are currently responsible for them. The ACNC is supposed to be a body to support charities, but it is instead been turned into a tough cop, despite the fact that we are dealing with organisations that are just trying to contribute to the community where needed.

More and more, we have seen the government sticking its nose into the not-for-profit sector where it is neither wanted nor needed. Contractual and reporting requirements have become more and more of a burden. Audits are required at multiple levels of a charity's finances. Different quality assurance measures are used within the same agency. Huge amounts of data are required, with no clear reason for the department needing it and no ability for agencies to then retrieve it. Almost every not-for-profit representative to whom I have spoken genuinely believes the reports they provide to government are not read by anyone at all. They are doing reports to provide a job for someone in government to check off and stack into a corner somewhere. This is what we need to be looking at: minimising the role of government and making it easier for charities to get on with their work in the community.

The coalition does support transparency, in all sectors, but there has to be a position of respect and trust when dealing with not for profits. They have a history of responsible management and yet they are being rewarded for this with oppressive regulation to solve problems that do not exist. We believe in working with the sector, not directing the sector and treating it as an extension of the state. When we talk about the not-for-profit sector we need to remember with whom we are dealing. They are organisations trying to do the right thing. They are not always professionals; they are often unpaid. They are just trying to find ways to help the parts of the community that need it. And here we are, putting more barriers in their way.

The coalition trusts the not-for-profit sector and this is the position from which government should approach the sector. This legislation is just another layer of compliance for charities to have to deal with, despite the vast majority having previously done everything right. It is time we made it easier not harder for people who are already trying to do the right thing.

In the time I have left I will talk about charities in Townsville. I would like to give a final report on what happened over the last week. Seven different charities that offer support in Townsville to people with disabilities have united recently to launch the Chatterbox Challenge. They are the Endeavour Foundation, the Spinal Injuries Association, Centacare, Cerebral Palsy League, UnitingCare Community, Life Without Barriers and Multicap.

As an ambassador for the challenge I spent last Friday not speaking—to raise money for these organisations. It was a big job. I thought, as a chatterbox challenge, no one can speak more than me. I am made for this. It was a challenge to chatterboxes to shut up for a while. From the moment I hit grade 4 I was one of the people talking in class. I was club captain of my rugby club and I was MC at their functions. It was not because I was good, it was because I was cheap and they could hear me at the back. I then became an auctioneer. I am now the member for Herbert and have used my voice for my occupation since about 1983. I was able to assist these charities by raising over $3,000—but in reality I could speak any time I wanted. People living with disability do not have that luxury. I will work to reduce the red tape in these organisations and therefore will not support these bills.