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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 8392

Senator CAROL BROWN (TasmaniaDeputy Government Whip in the Senate) (13:41): I too rise today to make a contribution to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Bill 2012 and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2012. The not-for-profit sector plays a vital role in the Australian community by providing support and assistance of some of the most vulnerable people whilst also supporting a number of issues-based causes that might not otherwise receive advocacy. The government values the important work provided by the not-for-profit sector in building social capital and helping to make stronger communities. That is why we want to ensure that we provide appropriate support to allow the sector to grow and flourish into the future.

Our commitment to reform of the not-for-profit sector began at the 2010 federal election when we announced that we would introduce the most extensive national reforms the sector has ever seen. The introduction of this bill is the culmination of delivering these reforms. They will support the sector and build upon the announcement that we made in the 2011-12 budget that the government would deliver these series of reforms to strengthen and support the sector, to ensure its sustainability into the future. We are doing this because over the past 17 years there have been a number of reviews looking into the not-for-profit sector. These include a comprehensive 2001 report of the Inquiry into the Definition of Charities and Related Organisations, the 2009 review into Australia's Future Tax System and the 2010 Productivity Commission report into the contribution of the not-for-profit sector. There has also been a number of parliamentary inquiries which have encompassed this issue. Together, these reviews and inquiries have identified the need to establish a single national regulator to simplify and reduce regulation for the not-for-profit sector.

The not-for-profit sector is made up of a wide range of organisations which range from small sports clubs right up to multinational charitable organisations. Due to the important role all these different charitable entities play in Australian society, the not-for-profit sector receives a wide range of support, including funding, donations from members of the public and tax concessions, grants and other support from local, state and federal governments. So the government wants to ensure that there is a strong regulatory system that helps deliver good governance, accountability and transparency in the not-for-profit sector.

Which brings us to the government's introduction of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Bill 2012, which delivers on the outcomes raised by the reviews I mentioned earlier by establishing a national regulator and a national regulatory framework for the not-for-profit sector. The Assistant Treasurer, David Bradbury, is on record outlining the aims of the ACNC bills. There are three objectives. The first is to maintain, protect and enhance public trust and confidence in the not-for-profit sector. The second objective is to support and sustain a robust, vibrant, independent and innovative not-for-profit sector. The third objective underlines the important role that the ACNC will have to promote the reduction of unnecessary regulatory obligations on the not-for-profit sector.

A number of features of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Bill 2012 will establish the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission which, as I have said, is the ACNC; it will give authority for the ACNC to register not-for-profit entities; and it will maintain a register of these organisations. It will provide the powers for the commissioner in relation to the regulation of these registered entities. It also sets out the obligations and duties of these registered entities.

I will just take a moment to examine in a little more detail some of these aspects of the bill. From the beginning of the bill, only tax endorsed charities will be regulated by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission; however, the bill establishes a regulatory framework to ensure that it can be extended to all not-for-profit entities in the future.

To register with the ACNC, and maintain registration, charities will apply directly to the commission and operate consistently with the definition of a charity, whilst also complying with prescribed registration conditions and requirements. The ACNC will also have the role to work with the not-for-profit sector to help provide education and guidance on their participation in the national regulatory framework.

The bill will establish an online, publically-available information register containing the details of the charities registered with the ACNC which, of course, is a very important reform. This register will be able to be accessed easily by the public to ensure that donors and volunteers will be able to rely on the information provided to help them make decisions as to whether to volunteer or donate to a registered charity. I know that is something that will ensure that life is much easier for those who are operating in this sector; there will be a one-stop shop so people will be able to access information about their organisation publicly and make an informed decision.

The bill will create the Office of the Commissioner of the ACNC. The commissioner will have the role to maintain general administration of the ACNC legislation and will have the power to register not-for-profit entities, and the legislation will provide the commissioner with the processes and grounds for revocation of the registration of a charitable organisational. Through this legislation the ACNC will also be required to report annually to parliament on its progress on red tape reduction. That is one of the issues that was raised by many of the submissions to the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into this piece of legislation—the need for a reduction of red tape. The fact is that through this legislation, the commissioner, through the office of the commissioner will have to report its progress on reducing red tape for the not-for-profit sector.

The Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee held an inquiry into this bill, and arising from the report the government has made a number of amendments to the bill. At our hearing, and through submissions, the committee heard that many in the sector wanted the government to ensure that this bill did not restrict the independence of charitable organisations. As outlined in the Community Affairs Legislation Committee report:

The committee believes the fostering of an independent not-for-profit sector is essential, and supports this as an object of the Bill. Gag clauses are an objectionable feature of contracts with not-for-profit entities. They are particularly inappropriate in those contexts where a monopsony exists: where the government offering the contract is the only purchaser of services. The committee believes such clauses should not be introduced.

I am pleased to say that through ongoing consultations the government has been conducting with the not-for-profit-sector, and after receiving the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee report, the government has made amendments to this bill to ensure the independence of the not-for-profit-sector.

The government has also announced that the legislation will be reviewed after five years to ensure that the ACNC is operating as expected and to see how the objects of the bill have been achieved—in particular the elements designed to reduce the unnecessary regulation on the not-for-profit sector. As I have said previously, this is a very important aspect for the not-for-profit sector.

The federal government will also be negotiating with the states and territories on national regulation for the not-for-profit sector because we recognise that the greatest reduction in red tape for the sector can only be achieved with national coordination. On 17 October 2012 the government announced further changes to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission that will see further reductions in red tape for the not-for-profit sector after the changes to grant guidelines. The government will be amending the Commonwealth Grant Guidelines to support the implementation of a 'report once, use often' reporting framework for the not-for-profit sector—again, another important measure. Once established, the ACNC will help reduce the regulatory burden, which can be quite onerous, imposed on the not-for-profit sector. The introduction of the 'report once, use often' reporting framework will essentially mean that Australian charities will not have to provide the same information repeatedly to the government. This is an important step to help reduce the regulatory burden on the sector and allows them to get on with the job of helping those who are most vulnerable in our community. If we can put in place measures that deliver good accountability, transparency and oversight of the not-for-profit sector whilst also reducing the regulatory compliance of charitable organisations, allowing them to improve the effectiveness of the services they deliver, then this can only be a good thing for the sector.

In closing, I am pleased that the government is enacting a commitment made at the last federal election and then built upon in the 2011-12 budget to simplify the regulatory burden of the not-for-profit sector by introducing a one-stop shop. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission has been a long time coming. The need for this commission has been long identified through a number of reports over the past 17 years, so this bill, I believe, is a step in the right direction.

I also think it is important that we acknowledge Senator Ursula Stephens's role and the huge amount of work she has done in this area. I would also like to acknowledge the Assistant Treasurer, David Bradbury, who, through consultation with the sector and after receiving the Senate Community Affairs Committee report into this legislation, has made a number of amendments. These amendments address a number of concerns raised by the sector and the Community Affairs Committee, and ultimately help strengthen the bill. This bill will go a long way to supporting the not-for-profit sector now and ensuring that it is sustainable into the future and I commend the bills to the chamber.