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Monday, 17 June 2013
Page: 5876

Mr ANDREWS (Menzies) (19:50): I rise to speak on the Charities Bill 2013 and the Charities (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. I will focus my remarks primarily on the Charities Bill. That bill seeks to introduce a definition of 'charity' and 'charitable purpose'. The new definition would apply from 1 January 2014, and would apply across all Commonwealth legislation. This is a bad bill; this is an unnecessary bill.

Since Federation, the definition of 'charity' has remained clear and consistent. It has remained a cornerstone of the underpinning of what constitutes charitable endeavour and what constitutes charitable activity. The definition has survived for over 400 years. It is based on a legal concept from the early 1600s. It is widely understood, and it is unilaterally accepted. But now the definition that has served us so well is in this government's firing line.

The government wants to abandon what works, what is proven and what is broadly accepted by our society, and replace it with its own definition. Australian charities law has closely followed the definition of 'charity' based on the preamble of the Statute of Elizabeth. English common law is the principal basis for charity laws in Australia in both state and federal courts, and each of the state jurisdictions have retained almost identical interpretations of the common law definition of charity.

The government is now seeking to pretend that there is some desperate need to legislate in this area, acting as though it is charting new waters. The reality is that it was the former Howard government that looked at the issue of the common-law definition of charity. Former Prime Minister Howard announced an inquiry into the definition of charity on 18 September 2000. The inquiry reported in 2001, making some 27 recommendations.

Former Treasurer Costello released draft legislation in 2003 which took the traditional four heads of charity and divided them into seven heads of charity in line with the inquiries findings—namely, the advancement of health, education, social or community welfare, religion, culture, natural environment and any other purpose that has been official to the community.

The Board of Taxation reported on the workability of the draft legislation in 2004 and the then government through the then Treasurer announced:

… the common law meaning of a charity will continue to apply, but the definition will be extended to include certain child care and self-help groups, and closed or contemplative religious orders. The Government has decided not to proceed with the draft Charities Bill.

The former coalition government enacted the Extension of Charitable Purposes Act 2004 which confined itself to enlarging the legal definition of charity for federal purposes to include child care, self-help groups and closed orders. The Commonwealth's definitional extension has not been adopted by any state jurisdiction.

This bill would be the first time that legislation has sought to comprehensively define in statute, for the purposes of Commonwealth law, charity. Our concern is clear: why create a statute where the common law has and does serve us well? Why depart from 400 years of clarity and consistency?

The coalition's approach to charities is different from that of the government. Labor prefers intervention and approaches the sector with distrust demanding huge amounts of information, draconian reporting requirements and making it tough for volunteers and the charities they support to go about their important work. This is a philosophical divide best highlighted by looking at the opening words of the maiden speech of the former Prime Minister Mr Rudd:

Politics is about power. It is about the power of the state. It is about the power of the state as applied to individuals, the society in which they live and the economy in which they work.

The other approach is about empowering people, not exercising power over them. It is the approach that the Leader of the Opposition utilised when he referred to Abraham Lincoln's famous description of democracy as, 'of the people, by the people, for the people'.

The coalition has confidence in civil society. We believe that the political community should serve civil society, not the other way around. The coalition will oppose this bill and, if elected to government later this year, we will seek to repeal it.