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Tuesday, 18 June 2013
Page: 6052

Ms O'DWYER (Higgins) (13:02): I rise today to speak on the Charities Bill 2013 and Charities (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. To begin, I would like to pay tribute to all of those people who work, both paid and unpaid, in the charitable and not-for-profit sector. They are a critically important part of the Australian way of life, doing good works, and I commend them for that. All those thousands and thousands of volunteers simply work for the satisfaction that they receive from seeing the positive difference they make to other people's lives. It is only through the work of these very special and dedicated volunteers and the people who work in the charitable and not-for-profit sector that some of society's most important organisations are able to survive and do the work that they do—organisations like St Vincent de Paul, the Red Cross, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Salvation Army, to name just a few. These organisations heal the sick; they feed the hungry; they shelter the homeless. That is why it is so important that we as a parliament must never put in their way barriers or impediments to make it harder for them to do the work they do. Far from that, we should seek to make it easier for them to continue these good works.

One of the ways that we can do this is to ensure that we have the right regulatory framework. We must ensure that the demands on the volunteers and employees who manage these charities and not-for-profits are not unduly onerous and that any changes—any increased burdens—are properly evaluated to see if they are actually necessary. Importantly, we must look at the cost-benefit analysis.

We on this side of the chamber are very concerned that the government has not done this fundamental work. We are very concerned that the increased regulatory burden from the government, in setting up this new bureaucracy, will discourage people and organisations from pursuing the good works they do. The introduction of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission is flawed. It is flawed because the government said in the first instance that the reason it needed to bring about this new regulator is because it did not have confidence in the people who were working in this sector. It did not have confidence that they were doing the right thing. Based on no evidence whatsoever, it thought that a new regulator was required.

Secondly, the government said that the reason this new regulator was so important and why it needed to come out was to simplify the regulation that surrounds charities and not-for-profits. But far from simplifying red tape and regulation we have seen it do the opposite. The concerns that I raised at the time are the concerns that I still have today: that far from decreasing the regulatory burden on the not-for-profit and charitable sector we are going to see a significant amount of duplication. There will be no simplification because predicated on simplification is the view that states and territories come on board. They have not done so, so the government is proceeding on the basis that it will have support which it does not. There is no agreement with the state and territory governments to hand over powers.

I also have significant concerns about the scope of powers of this new regulator, that the regulator will be able to interfere and intervene in not-for-profits and charities without good cause. And I am still incredibly concerned that we are going to put off a number of very good people who would otherwise participate in our local communities by volunteering their time in these charities and not-for-profits by becoming directors and by serving them in other ways—on committees and the like. They will not do that because of the new onerous regulations and burdens that will be imposed upon them. I want to take the time today to touch on a couple of aspects of what I have just raised.

This new centralised statutory authority will add massive regulation and compliance costs that are simply not justified or warranted. In order to receive access to charitable taxation concessions from the Australian Taxation Office, it is going to be mandatory to register with this new regulatory body. The ACNC will have a new reporting framework which will require all registered entities to provide an annual information statement. Both medium-sized and large entities will also be required to provide annual financial reports. This is, obviously, over and above what currently applies. The ACNC will also have significantly increased powers: powers to register and the registered charities, and that power may be extended to all not-for-profit organisations.

What concerns me is that this will make it very easy for the regulator to reach into organisations that have been free from government interference and control up until this point. They have been free to innovate and free to go about doing the work that they do. Instead, they will now have to spend time satisfying the new regulator that they are, in fact, not in breach of any new piece of red tape or regulation.

What concerns me is that in order to enforce these new regulations, the ACNC will have unprecedented powers to demand information, to search premises, to inspect items on premises and to seize documents or electronic equipment found on premises. These are indeed new and uncharted waters. The ACNC will also have 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. Finally, they will also have the power to remove responsible officers of charitable organisations. Who would want to work in, let alone run, a charitable organisation when the charity police can knock on your door at any moment and interfere with what it is that you are doing. We are not saying that those who do the wrong thing should not be punished for doing the wrong thing, but there are already existing laws in place for those who do the wrong thing. The circumstances in which that occurs are few and far between.

The government here in setting up this new regulator is finding a solution in search of a problem, which is so typical of this government's approach to everything. Its view is that government should be involved in every facet of people's lives, that government is the solution to every problem. We have a very different view on this side of the chamber. We believe that individuals should be able to shape and control their own destiny and that we should only involve government where it is absolutely necessary to do so. With the ACNC we are going to get a massive new bureaucracy with unfettered powers that will be able to intrude into charities and not-for-profits.

We have a different view of the charity and not-for-profit sector. We have faith in Australian charitable and not-for-profit providers, and we know that where there is misconduct those who are found guilty will be punished to the full extent of the law. We will not reverse the onus of proof, which is, in effect, what this government has done, and which will assume guilt until proven otherwise. That is why we have made a very clear commitment that we will abolish the ACNC and we will give people the confidence to remain involved in their charities and not-for-profits with the full knowledge that they can go about their business without increased burdens upon them.

What this particular bill will do is specifically define 'charity' and 'charitable purpose'. It is a new definition that will apply from 1 January 2014 right across Commonwealth legislation. It seems a strange thing that we are defining, in statute, 'charity' and 'charitable purpose' when there has been no misunderstanding as to these terms for more than 400 years of common law. The common law has been very clear on who is included in this definition, and that has been sufficient for legal processes to date. We cannot understand why the government is introducing new laws, new regulation, new regulators and new definitions when no case has been made. Importantly, it seems that no jurisdiction will adopt the new definition, which will lead to increased confusion and inconsistency, far from what the government says it is trying to promote. Why on earth would you create confusion where there is clarity? Why on earth would you create a mess for no discernible reason? These are the questions that the government needs to answer. The government needs to answer them in the chamber.

At the end of the day, this bill really does sharply define and highlight the distinction between this Labor government and the coalition. This Labor government is a government and a party that chooses intervention at every opportunity. This stands in contrast with the coalition and our approach. We trust people and we support a strong civil society. We want to make sure that people have faith in our charitable organisations. The only people to undermine the faith that people currently have in charitable organisations are, in fact, those from the Labor Party and this government who have called that into question for no reason whatsoever.

In conclusion today, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of those who work in our charitable and not-for-profit organisations. I want to thank them for the work that they do. They work so hard for so little reward. They work to try to make a better Australia for all of us, and I want to give them our assurance that we will not bother them with more meaningless regulation and red tape. We will restore hope, reward and opportunity for all.