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Thursday, 27 June 2013
Page: 4360


Senator FIFIELD (VictoriaManager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (19:00): I rise to speak on the Charities Bill 2013 and the Charities (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013. Acting Deputy President Bishop, I know that I do not need to convince you of the great work that charities do in our community and of the incredible contribution they make to the nation. It is fair to say that Australia would be unrecognisable if the charitable contribution of individuals and of organisations was withdrawn. These organisations really are—it is a cliche but it is true—the glue that holds the community together. They fill in the gaps between what government does, what families do and what businesses do. No government could ever seek to replicate the tremendous good that charities do in our community.

I think it is very important that we as a parliament and government more generally are at the service of charities, doing all that can be done to make life easier for charitable organisations rather than making life more difficult. It is for that reason—to avoid making life more difficult for charitable organisations—that the opposition do have misgivings about this legislation. At the heart of the bill is the attempt to seek to introduce a statutory definition of charity and charitable purpose for the purposes of all Commonwealth legislation. This bill in fact represents the first time legislation has sought to comprehensively define charity for the purposes of Commonwealth law. The current definition has been with us for a little while. It is not currently defined in our statutes. Rather, it is the product of over 400 years of common law based on the Statute of Elizabeth. Given the long history of the current definition, the opposition is of the view that if government believes there is good reason to change the definition then the onus is on the government to make the case for a change from the status quo. The opposition are yet to be convinced by the case that the government has put forward.

Our concern is that changing the definition risks disadvantaging some charities, potentially creating a wave of legal disputes and test cases at a cost to the sector. On this side, we share the view that the state should be doing all that it can to allow not-for-profits, charities and volunteer organisations to do what they do best and to get on with their business. But we start with the principle that the government should do no harm to the efforts and endeavours of charities.

You may recall that the previous coalition government examined in great detail the merit of introducing a statutory definition of charity. In September 2000 the Howard government established the charity definition inquiry to examine whether the common law definition of charity was still appropriate. The inquiry reported in 2001 and made a number of recommendations. After carefully considering the report, the former Treasurer, Mr Costello, released draft legislation in 2003, which took the traditional four heads of charity, I am advised, and divided them into seven heads of charity.

The Board of Taxation handed a report on the workability of the proposed definition to the former Treasurer in December 2003. In May 2004 Mr Costello announced that:

… the common law meaning of a charity will continue to apply, but the definition will be extended to include certain child care and self-help groups, and closed or contemplative religious orders. The Government has decided not to proceed with the draft Charities Bill .

The Howard government enacted the extension of the Charitable Purposes Act 2004, which confined itself to enlarging the legal definition of charity for federal purposes to include child care, self-help groups and closed orders. The approach of the Howard government enhanced the common law definition. It allowed charities to do what they do best without interference from the state, and it reflected the coalition's philosophical approach to charities—we believe that charities should be left to do what they do best. I think all of us recognise that Australian charities and not-for-profit organisations strengthen our nation through their contribution. The government needs to respect that and not do anything that might hinder that.

The government, I fear, has a slightly different emphasis in their approach to civil society. I think it would be fair to say that the Labor Party have more of an interventionist tendency. There is some evidence that they do view the sector, on occasion, with a little bit of suspicion. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission is an example of this. In the view of many organisations, it imposes some pretty significant reporting requirements, demands large amounts of information and makes doing their work that little bit harder.

Mr Gonski, of another fame, has stated that Australia is the first country in the world to make being a director of a not-for-profit organisation more onerous than being on the board of a for-profit organisation. That would be perverse and I would not contend that that was the current government's intention or the intention of the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission. Nevertheless, well intentioned governments do sometimes make life harder for these organisations.

As I said earlier, it is the role of the parliament and of government more broadly to be at the service of the charitable sector rather than the other way around. It is important that we always keep that in view when looking at legislation that may affect the charitable sector. These bills—and also the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission—give a little bit of an insight into the different approaches of each side of the chamber in relation to the charitable sector. The coalition will be opposing these bills. It is our hope that the legislation is not passed into law.

As the shadow minister for disabilities and the voluntary sector in particular, I want to take a moment in conclusion to reflect on the role that charitable organisations play in my area of portfolio responsibilities. So many of the great organisations in the disability portfolio came about as the result of parents of children with disability who saw a need—they were not getting the support that they required—often back in the 1950s and 1960s. Those parents got together and founded many of the great charitable organisations in the disability sector. Many of those organisations had, at the time of their founding, names that we would raise an eyebrow at today, but the parents at the time were not terribly focused on political correctness or the names of their organisations; they just wanted to get things done. Often they took a fairly unadorned and functional approach to the names of the organisations that they established. It is so often the case that, today, when I meet with organisations in the disability sector, they can trace their foundation back to parents who got together because they wanted to do something positive for their children and set about fundraising.

In a perfect world that would not have been necessary, but it is one of the great strengths of our community that, still, where people see a need in Australia they do not wait for government to catch up to where they think it should be; they get about the job of doing what needs to be done. It is heartening that the launch sites of the national disability insurance scheme are going live in a matter of only a few days—on 1 July. How those parents who founded those disability organisations in the fifties and sixties would have loved something like the NDIS when their own children were young! But better late than never. The NDIS will make a huge difference. But even on the eve of a great social venture such as the NDIS, which will lift the burden from so many families and so many people with disability, it is important that we pause and take a moment to acknowledge that there will always be a place in the disability sector, and more broadly, for not-for-profit organisations—for charitable organisations—where people come together and see a need.

Even in the face of a great venture such as the NDIS there will always be a need. And it is important that there will always be a space for charitable organisations and voluntary contributions. So, even though we have good news on the horizon it is important to acknowledge the role that will continue to be played by charitable organisations, not-for-profit organisations and the voluntary sector.