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Tuesday, 18 June 2013
Page: 6111

Mr FLETCHER (Bradfield) (17:18): I am very pleased to rise to speak on the Charities Bill 2013 and the Charities (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. In rising to speak, I note that this government's enthusiasm for prescriptive Canberra-led social engineering really knows no bounds. The coalition are opposed to the legislation that is before the House this afternoon. We believe that the case for these extensive changes to the regulation of charities and to the law determining the definition of charities has not been made. We believe that this is a case, yet again, of this Rudd-Gillard government deciding that officials in Canberra know best and that what we need are pages of prescriptive, detailed, intrusive microregulation setting out—in paragraph after tedious, enumerated paragraph—minor gradations of policy, which must be followed in scrupulous detail by members of the community who are trying to advance the cause of recipients of the needs that their charity serves. We believe that what this bill demonstrates once again is the profound gulf between the attitude of the Labor Party and of the coalition towards charities and towards people who are seeking, through their own voluntary efforts, to make our society a better place.

In the time that I have available to me, I want to make three fundamental points: first, that this bill is yet another example of this government's deep suspicion of the charitable sector and its deep hostility to the notion of people within our community making an effort themselves to improve our community, to improve our nation; second, that the specific merits of the definition that is proposed in this legislation raise serious questions; and, third, that on this side of the House we take a genuinely small 'c' conservative position. If the case has not been made out for change, then do not change. We believe, when it comes to this bill, the case has not been made out for change.

Let me turn firstly to the proposition that the approach of this government to the question of the regulation of charities is very different to the approach that the Liberal and National parties would take. On our side of the House, we congratulate those who carry out charitable endeavours. We congratulate all of those who serve on the boards of charities, all of those who organise raffles, all of those who organise fundraising balls and dinners and all of those who organise fun runs and sausage sizzles. There are so many other day-to-day examples of people in our communities coming together to raise money for important causes. It might be an educational cause such as funding the opportunity for children in rural and regional Australia to get education in the cities. In mentioning that, I think of one particular charity in my own electorate. It might be the running of a school, a hospital or an aged-care facility. It might be the operation of a church. All of these things are done around our country by voluntary organisations, charitable organisations.

We on our side of the House congratulate all involved and we ask ourselves the question: why is it that the default attitude of the Rudd-Gillard Labor government is that people who are engaging on a voluntary basis in raising money for charitable purposes and people who are engaging on voluntary basis in providing charitable services be treated with suspicion? Why is it that this government has set up an Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission that will dramatically increase the regulatory burden on charities, one that falls particularly upon charities that are run by volunteers, as opposed to paid employees? Why is it that this government has done that when purportedly it was going to achieve a single layer of regulation for the charitable sector? Instead, as has been conceded by officials of the new commission, in fact the premise that the states were going to vacate the field and leave it to a single, uniform national layer of regulation of charities has not been made out and the states have not agreed to do that. It is for that reason, amongst others, that the coalition have been very clear that we intend to abolish the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

The point I make to the House this afternoon is that the Charities Bill 2013 before the House is redolent of the very same suspicion of the volunteers running charities around Australia which we saw in the earlier legislation establishing the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. So the point I make to the House is that the philosophical hostility of the Labor Party to self-help efforts, to community based efforts and to people doing things for themselves rather than looking to Canberra is deeply embedded in the legislation we see before us this afternoon. Inherent in it is the notion that we must have further and more detailed and more prescriptive supervision of the charitable field from Canberra, that we must have page after page of detailed enumerated rules as to what constitutes a charity and what does not, and that if a likely consequence of that is that there will need to be a wave of litigation, testing the breadth of this new definition, apparently this is a cost that simply has to be borne so that the near-infinite wisdom here in Canberra can be sprinkled like stardust over the charitable sector. We on this side of the House reject that approach. There is a clear philosophical division between the parties in our attitudes towards the charitable sector, and let nobody say that the two major political parties are coming closer and closer together because in area after area they are not. We on the coalition side of the House are pleased to stand up and nail our colours to the mast and say we reject extra prescriptive regulation of the charitable sector and we support the ordinary people of Australia who are working in so many charitable endeavours around the country. That is what we support, that is what we encourage and that is what we celebrate, and for that reason we stand opposed to the provisions in the bill before the House this afternoon.

Secondly, I want to turn to the merits, such as they are, of the definitions which are contained in the legislation before us and I do so against the backdrop of making the point that the meaning of 'charitable purpose' has not previously been comprehensively legislated. We have previously relied upon the common law, that golden thread based upon many hundreds of years of British and subsequently Australian jurisprudence. Under the common law, there are the famed four heads of charity, which I well remember being drummed into the heads of students of trust law at the University of Sydney in the late eighties, including me. The four heads of charity set out in the relevant case are the relief of poverty, the advancement of education, the advancement of religion, and other purposes beneficial to the community. Now the point I make is that against the simplicity of this background we have the page after page of complexity set out in this bill, demonstrating, as it does, the anxious, never-ending bureaucratic impulse to add more detail, more regulation and more prescriptive control—so more of the 'Canberra knows best mindset', which is so common in everything that this government does.

We have this lengthy range of charitable purposes set out in the definition before us. We have many different heads of 'advancing health', 'advancing education', 'advancing religion', 'promoting reconciliation, mutual respect and tolerance', 'promoting or protecting human rights', 'advancing the natural environment' et cetera. There is 'any other purpose beneficial to the general public that may reasonably be regarded as analogous to, or within the spirit of' the aforementioned purposes and there is also:

… the purpose of promoting or opposing a change to any matter established by law, policy or practice in the Commonwealth, a State, a Territory or another country …

The length, complexity and breadth of this definition raise serious questions in the view of the coalition as to the certainty with which these provisions will operate and as to the basis on which it has been thought necessary to change the existing and well-established law as to the definition of a charity and as to the definition of a charitable purpose. I remind the House that this is a question which was considered by the previous Howard government. At that time, after an extensive investigation into the issues and after an extensive investigation into the question of whether there was in fact a need to vary the existing, well-established common law definition of a charity and the definition of charitable purposes, a view was taken that it made sense to extend the definitions in a small number of defined categories. Hence, the coalition government at the time enacted the Extension of Charitable Purpose Act, which extended the legal definition of 'charity' for the purposes of Commonwealth law to include child care, self-help groups and closed religious orders.

That brings me to the third point I want to make this afternoon, which is: has the onus of proof been discharged by the Rudd-Gillard government that there is now a pressing case to throw all of that long-settled and long-established law out the window—to throw out of the window 400-plus years of common law as expanded by the bill and an act passed in 2004 following careful scrutiny? Has a case been made to throw all that out the window and replace it with the extensive provisions contained in the Charities Bill 2013? That is the question which this government needs to answer and, more importantly, that is the question to which this parliament needs to turn its mind, because we are being asked this afternoon to change in a fundamental way the definitions of 'charity' and 'charitable purposes' which have served this nation and other nations under the common law so well for such a long time.

As the House considers the case as to whether the merits of that change have been established, as the House considers the case as to whether it makes sense for us to support this change to the law which is proposed by the Rudd-Gillard government, it would be irresponsible not to bear in mind a range of factors. The first factor that we need to bear in mind, as I have already alluded to, is the clear and demonstrated hostility of this government to the voluntary ethos on which so much of today's charitable endeavour depends. This is a government which is hostile to the notion of people in the community doing things for themselves. It is hostile to the notion of community organisations conducting their activities in an unsupervised way. What this government wants to do is extend the long arm of Canberra ever more closely into the activities of charities around the country. Against the backdrop of that proven hostility toward the charitable sector, we need to consider the proposed changes before us.

The other thing we need to consider is this government's proven track record of rushing legislation through without having properly consulted with the affected sectors, without having made the case and leaving things until three minutes to midnight. That is clearly what has happened here. This bill is one of a large backlog of bills which the government is rushing through. The coalition looks at this bill with clear and justified suspicion based upon the track record of this government. The government needs to make the case of why there needs to be change and that case has not been made out. (Time expired)