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Tuesday, 30 October 2012
Page: 8470

Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (18:33): I rise to speak on the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Bill 2012 and the Not-for-profits Commission (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2012. The government believes that Australian charities and not-for-profit organisations must be part of a strong, resilient sector and sees these bills as a way to help it thrive. Sounds great. Charities and not-for-profit organisations provide, as we all know, for those in our community who are less fortunate—who may struggle with the demons of addiction, who need help to take a positive step in life, who need food, shelter and warmth. Additionally, these organisations may assist young people to learn a new sport or assist migrants to integrate into regional communities. These types of organisation operate in all communities, large and small, and provide a range of services.

The desire to give and expect nothing in return is part of our Judeo-Christian heritage and is probably one of the finest hallmarks of the human spirit. There are approximately 600,000 organisations in the not-for-profit sector, of which it is estimated that around 400,000 may access the Commonwealth tax concessions—and it seems as though there has been a review for each and every one of them. Reviews on the sector have been many. Over nearly two decades, there have been six separate reviews, including the inquiry into the definition of charities and related organisations in 2001—I know issues of definition were raised earlier in this debate—and the 2009 report on the contribution of the not-for-profit sector.

The bills before the Senate today seek to establish the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. The commission will be run by a commissioner and an advisory board of experts whose role it is to provide guidance to the commission. The role of the commission will include the development and maintenance of a register of not-for-profit organisations. Registration will provide not-for-profits with access to a range of taxation concessions, including an income tax exemption, deductible gift recipient status, refundable franking credits, fringe benefits tax and goods and services tax concessions. It will also allow for monitoring of their operations—always get concerned when you read that—with a wide range of information stored (in this day and age, who knows where and how) and made available. Not just contact information but also details of an organisation's governing rules, financial and information statements will be made available on the internet. There will be a new reporting framework and registered entities will have to provide an annual information statement. However, there is no evidence that this monitoring will produce any positive results other than increasing the burden of red tape and making life more difficult for those in our communities who are working hard to try to help others.

We in the coalition believe the government should let these organisations do what they do best, which is help people in our communities. Labor is creating a roadblock for the operation of charities and the not-for-profit sector and for people's involvement in this type of work. In essence, the coalition opposes the government's proposed, to coin a phrase, 'great big new regulator' for charities and not-for-profits because it will not reduce red tape as it seeks to do. It treats the sector as untrustworthy and the people involved in it as tainted. These people are pillars of our local communities. They are pillars within our local churches and they are selfless in giving up their own time. For the assumption to be that they are doing something wrong is rude in the extreme. It will hinder the activities of charities and not-for-profits and will discourage involvement in charitable work. Most people choose to volunteer in these types organisations because they enjoy the interaction with the people that they are assisting and working for, not because they want to sit at a desk and fill out more forms.

We want people to volunteer. More than six million people volunteer Australia-wide and contribute over 700 million hours of community service each year. That is a good thing. That is indicative of a healthy, functioning society. When there are six million people donating 700 million hours to community work it means that the government is not in that space. That has to be a good thing. We want them to work for the betterment of our communities and to help others. Without those volunteers, it is fair to say that many schools, clubs and not-for-profit organisations would struggle to run, particularly in regional Australia. We want to make it as easy as possible for volunteers. We do not want them turned away from the sector because the organisation they wish to volunteer for is deterred by the heavy-handed power and penalties in the bills before us today. To the people who deliver Meals on Wheels and those who give service to the local op shop: your community needs you to continue to contribute.

There will be conditions attached to the registration of not-for-profits, including that they meet the prescribed definition of a charity. The bills aspire to promote the reduction of red tape for not-for-profit organisations. However, regarding the evidence I received as a member of the Community Affairs Legislation Committee, which conducted an inquiry into these bills, I did not hear a lot of charities or not-for-profits proclaiming the reduction of red tape as result of these bills.

Charities and not-for-profits are already struggling to meet the demands of government when it comes to red tape. This should be the bills' No. 1 priority: to take the scissors to these burdensome requirements. Programs including drug and alcohol counselling, family violence prevention, family education and parenting training cannot afford to be tied up with red tape when the community needs the service personnel and the volunteers on the ground, not chained to a desk filling out paperwork. This issue is exacerbated in really small towns. There is a saying, 'SOS', around the volunteering aspect of our community groups. SOS stands for the 'same old six'. It is the same old six people in these small towns who are doing a variety of jobs in different organisations. They are doing the canteen at the footy on Saturday, they are shaking the tin for the Red Cross on Monday, they might be delivering Meals on Wheels on Tuesday, and they might be hearing some reading on Thursday. The same old six are doing it over and over again and the red tape is taking them out of the front line of service delivery.

In a submission before the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics inquiry on this legislation, Robert Wicks from the Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney suggested that an extra staff member would have to be hired to deal with the issues thrown up by these bills. That is extra fundraising for the auxiliary. The resources will go to red tape, and that is what the not-for-profit sector will have to look for, not good work.

Mission Australia seems to have hit the nail on the head when, in its submission to the Senate inquiry, it stated:

Our overriding concern is that rather than reducing red tape and compliance burden, the ACNC—

the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission—

will add another layer of compliance and that nothing will be taken away.

Government has increasingly reached into the affairs of these agencies, imposing more and more burdensome contractual and reporting requirements. These bills will further see people taken off the front line of help and support. Put simply, bureaucracy is burdensome. Government contractual and reporting requirements cost agencies a significant sum of money to administer. Much data is collected but little is ever used. Many agencies have multiple contracts with government, with different requirements, obligations and reporting structures. Agencies continue to expend valuable resources on meeting these requirements that could be better spent on providing services and funding innovation.

Additionally, state governments have said they will not agree to give the powers over to the commission. Again, the empire building nature of this government and its Green partners continues to operate in their reality that does not recognise that we live in a federation. Riding roughshod over states and territories does not work. It must stop across a whole variety of issues we discuss in this place. Instead of reducing red tape, the government is actually creating an extra layer as not-for-profits will still have to report to state and territory governments. The Greens and the government are not listening to stakeholders. I heard Senator Boyce's comments and, similarly, Senator Payne's.

The Australian Conservation Foundation, in its submission to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, said:

… ACF is concerned that rather than remove duplication, the ACNC Bills—

the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission bills—

will duplicate reporting obligations.

I wonder what impact that will have on the ACF's action out there in the community on conservation issues.

In my patron electorate of Bendigo, where we have over 600 not-for-profit charities operating, from church groups to football clubs and lots of school groups, the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal is concerned about duplication. The foundation does not want to see further duplication of state and federal requirements, especially when not-for-profits still need to obtain fundraising permits in each state.

I attended the sleepover at St Luke's Anglicare, where, in an effort to get the community leaders together in Bendigo, we all either slept under some cardboard or in a tent. I obviously did not sleep under cardboard; I chose to be in a tent, thank goodness. People had a variety of options on where and how they were going to sleep for the night, in an attempt to raise awareness of those sleeping rough in the Bendigo community. St Luke's is a great local not-for-profit organisation. It operates right across central and northern Victorian towns. It has expressed concerns over the bill's impact on attracting directors. We struggle out there in the regions to get the breadth of expertise to our not-for-profit governance structures. St Luke's is also concerned about the liabilities associated with this. They said:

There are already challenges associated with attracting board members to not-for-profit organisations and perhaps the bills would enhance this difficulty.

In its submission to the House of Representatives committee inquiry, YouthCARE had similar concerns:

The bill in its current form will place responsibilities and penalties on not-for-profit and charity board members that would be greater than those found under Corporations Law.

Among the Charities and Not-for-profits Commission's heavy-handed power it can remove a director. In his submission before the House of Representatives inquiry, David Gonski, of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, a man highly respected by the current government—highly respected in principle, that is, if not financially supported—stated that Australia may be the first country:

… to make being on a not-for-profit as a director more onerous than being on a for-profit.

Thank you, Mr Gonski.

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission also needs Commonwealth departments to either hand over their regulatory power or harmonise their regulatory requirements. An information-sharing agreement must be reached; otherwise independent schools will be required to report much of the information they are already reporting to DEEWR to the ACNC and state education authorities. Senator Back mentioned this earlier in his contribution. As the Independent Schools Council of Australia pointed out in its submission to the House of Representatives committee:

Requiring independent schools to report similar but different data to the ACNC is duplicating effort and adding to the red tape.

Over and over again we hear from a variety of players in the sector that this is onerous and is not actually achieving the objectives of the bill as aspired to by the government.

In my opinion, it is unlikely a student's education is going to be improved by forcing independent schools to report similar but different data. In reality, it will only take teachers away from the task at hand: educating students. Having been a teacher, I am acutely aware of the paperwork already involved in that role. It seems that, no matter which part of the charities and not-for-profits sector is making comment, concerns around duplication is becoming an established theme. Is the government listening? I do not think so. The consultation process, or lack thereof, is also becoming a hallmark of this Labor government across a variety of supposed policy initiatives. Stakeholders report the consultation process was excessively secretive and unnecessarily rushed. Join the queue! They can join the concerned citizens of the Murray-Darling Basin, the apple and pear growers in north-central Victoria and, more recently, potato growers, who also feel the government's consultation processes are in need of much improvement.

The government has said that the focus of the commission will be on education and guidance, helping not-for-profits. However, it will have a range of enforcement tools at its disposal to use if required. We go back to mandatory reporting and someone to watch over you. When you hear 'enforcement tools' you have to get a little concerned. These tools have raised the concerns of the sector agencies, who have stated that they are inconsistent and overlap state and territory legislation. Different levels of compliance will also be required according to the size of the organisation over three tiers: small entities earning less than $250,000, medium entities earning between $250,000 and $1 million, and large entities with revenue of over $1 million. There is some consternation in relation to the size of these entities, other definitions and the way the industry operates. It has been estimated that 45 per cent will have to report at the higher two levels. Medium to large entities will have to provide annual financial reports, with large entities to have their reports audited. But it is up to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commissioner—

Debate interrupted.