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Tuesday, 18 September 2012
Page: 11079

Dr STONE (Murray) (20:15): I too wish 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. Like the other speakers in the coalition I am quite concerned about the potential impacts of this bill, if it goes through as currently written.

In Australia we depend on the not-for-profit sector, the voluntary sector, particularly in rural and regional Australia, where the sector does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to such things as disaster support and looking after our education, sports related and faith related issues. In my electorate of Murray, I have to say, we have an enormous dependency on the not-for-profit sector for the delivery of aged care. We have towns of 400 people, quite typically, with over 100 voluntary organisations. Many of those would be classified as not-for-profit organisations and they will be caught up in this particular legislation.

This is also very lazy legislation. It is a lazy bill in that much of the intended action will appear in the regulations. We do not have the details. We are told to wait and see. But that is always a danger, particularly with this government. It is essential that we know exactly all of the details of the regulations. Much of what is to be in the regulations should of course be in the legislation itself.

The first bill I referred to establishes the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, a brand-new commission for Australia. I would have thought that our country was already groaning under the new commissions that have been established to overdo, over-regulate and overscrutinise so much of our way of life. We are told we need this new commission because it will reduce red tape. It implies, of course, that the sector is untrustworthy and that the people involved are pathetic amateurs who will need a lot of heavy and careful watching. We are concerned that this business tends to be disguised by saying that this commission will reduce red tape.

We also are told—and this is quite extraordinary—that one of the reasons for this new commission is that it will provide the public with information on the not-for-profit sector commensurate to the level of support provided to the sector by the public. I have never heard any of my not-for-profit organisations—whether it is Meals on Wheels, VicRelief FoodBank, Warramunda Village, which runs huge aged care facilities, the Zaidee's Rainbow Foundation, which was set up by the parents of a young girl who died for the purpose of promoting organ donation, the St Vincent de Paul Society or the Anti-Cancer Council—say that they really would like a national commission to publicise what they do, rather than doing it themselves without restrictions. It is quite extraordinary that that is one of the key reasons we are told we need this new commission.

The problem is that a lot of what the commission intends to do in terms of information gathering and reporting is already required by the states and territories. Our independent schools in particular are in despair as they look at the potential impact of these bills. They are already required to report to the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations much of the information they will have to report to the ACNC. They also have to report to the state education authorities the sort of information they are told they will have to supply to the ACNC. A lot of our independent schools are small. I have a number of small Christian schools in my electorate of Murray. They do not have big secretariats in a capital city, but they are being told, 'Don't worry—this is about cutting red tape. But, by the way, the states and some other departments have not yet agreed to relinquish their interest in the data they are collecting, so just hold your breath and wait and see what happens.' I do not think that is good enough.

I think Australia's civil society is one of its strengths. Our civil society depends on volunteering. It depends on board members who give of their precious family time or take time from their own businesses to commit to a public good. Those board members are already burdened with extraordinary levels of compliance requirements in regard to information and their own education. They have been required to cover their backs in regard to their own legal liabilities and the liabilities of their various board activities.

This new commission will have sanctions and penalties associated with it in case someone steps off the straight and narrow path. Those penalties will include imprisonment or very substantial fines. I can imagine someone who is pressed for time, who has a family to look after and perhaps has their own sporting and church interests saying, 'Well, of course I would love to be a board member of my local not-for-profit,' but they then look at the extra work they will have, with the demands from the new commission for more information than they currently have to provide to other agencies. I think it is an absurdity.

You have to wonder what it is all about, because the system is not broken. As it is, a lot of people are already very concerned about extra red tape, so what is this all about? We know that this government has a great deal of difficulty on so many fronts. It has incredible indebtedness that is getting worse every day, most of its policy initiatives have failed and new policy initiatives like the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the new dental scheme are not funded. Why are we now being asked to introduce this new commission, which will cost a lot to run? What is it all about? I think the member for Mackellar and other speakers opposing this bill might have nailed it. They have all come to the conclusion that probably what this is about is having another way to tax these not-for-profit organisations. What a tragedy that is. What movement by stealth this represents. While a lot of these agencies are not-for-profit, it is true that some collect a lot of revenue in order to keep their giving going.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Dr Leigh ): Order! The honourable member is reminded that the bill before the House does not relate to matters of taxation. There is a separate bill before the House relating to the taxation of not-for-profits.

Dr STONE: I certainly understand that, Mr Deputy Speaker. The point I was making was about trying to understand the key reason for this new commission, and the suspicion of the not-for-profit sector is that perhaps this is preparation for a new era of taxation for these not-for-profits. That is a very live and real concern for a number of these agencies.

I have to say too that a lot of these not-for-profits and charities do enjoy the fact that they are their own people. They were established to meet a need in society which was not met by the governments of the day, whether state, local or federal. We should not smother them with more national regulation and legislation. We should be proud of the fact that they are independent, that they have a very high moral code, that the people who are engaged in them are people who Australia has for a very long time looked up to as embodying the great values and spirits of Australia in that they do not constantly look for a handout. They are the sorts of people who put out, who in the case of the Australian Red Cross, for example, man emergency stations in times of flood and fire. They are the people who collect blood. They are the people of the Foodbank Victoria who drive around and deliver food parcels, particularly these days, to the growing numbers of families who cannot make ends meet. The people who established Warramunda Village in my electorate, and the people who established the other not-for-profit aged-care facilities we have in almost every small country town, usually at least 50 or 60 years ago, did so because there was a gap, because no-one else would do it.

We should not strangle them with additional reporting requirements, additional red tape. We should not say to them, 'Look, you really do need this; it's good for you.' They do not see it. They have been complaining to me that they do not think they can employ an additional secretary or someone to do the paperwork they can see coming down the line at them.

I am most concerned about this legislation. Like my fellow members of the coalition, I will be opposing it if it is presented at the end of the day in its current form. I can see that it means more jobs for some senior bureaucrats—the commission no doubt will pay very well. I can see that it will give someone a real sense of more reach into the minds and hearts of the voluntary sector, the not-for-profit sector, the charitable sector. I do not think that is a good thing for Australia.

When we look at such memorable episodes as the Olympic Games that were held in Sydney, the lasting legacy of those games and the memory that lingered longest was the amazing work of the volunteers, many of them stepping forward out of the not-for-profit sector and the charities. Those volunteers stood up straight and proud and said: 'We're here because we want to be. No-one's paying us. We're here because we think it is Australian to welcome others and to do a job that could be done for pay but is done better by a volunteer.' Let's not throw out what is good about Australian society. Let's not make it harder for charities and not-for-profits to exist and survive. Let's not put off those stunning Australians who do put their hands up and volunteer their time because the difficulty of meeting the red tape requirements and the other scrutiny is just too much for them. They will walk away and say, 'Look, we have other things to do with our lives.'

I ask this Labor government to think very hard about the legislation before us. I say comprehensively that we do not need an Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. I am very concerned that there is an indecent haste in getting this commission up and running. I suggest that those hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars required for setting up this commission be instead put into greater support for the not-for-profit and charitable sector. Let's distribute those moneys across a number of charities in Australia that do such great work. With my coalition colleagues, I condemn the whole notion of this commission, and I say it does nothing for the great Australian not-for-profit and charitable sector. They themselves are in despair about this. I strongly suggest the Labor Party rethinks this.