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Monday, 29 October 2012
Page: 8308

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (21:39): I rise to make a contribution to this debate on the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Bill 2012 and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2012. I make my contribution based on a significant amount of work on these particular bills, in close consultation with many people from the not-for-profit and charity sectors, and I make this contribution based on where we are at today with the government's range of amendments that have been circulated.

At the outset, I will say that when we first saw the exposure draft, it caused a great deal of concern for the Australian Greens and for the not-for-profit sector. To give the government their due, they actually listened to what the not-for-profit sector said and made some amendments. The bill that came out was still not near the mark. But the bill we are now discussing with amendments is getting there. After very close consultation with the sector, I believe that, with the amendments, it has strong support. I will not be selectively quoting from submissions that were made to three of the various parliamentary inquiries, because things have moved on since that point.

The Australian Greens—and we have never made any secret of this—are strongly supportive of charities and the not-for-profit sector. We believe they play an essential role in our democracy. These organisations deliver services to hundreds of thousands of Australians every day. These services include: health, community services and development, disability, employment and training, aged care and community care, family support, children and youth services, mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment, Indigenous affairs, support for culturally and linguistically diverse people, victims of violence and abuse, housing and advocacy—and that is not even a full list; I have not mentioned any of the not-for-profit organisations outside of community services.

They are an essential part of our community. Our community could not function without them. The most vulnerable people in our community would not have the support they have, if it were not for the not-for-profit sector. I put this in a context because that is the context that I came from when I looked at this bill. I did not want to see anything put in place that would undermine the essential role of the not-for-profit sector. We want to in fact support that role. I was deeply concerned that the various earlier iterations of what we are looking at now would have had an adverse impact on the charities and not-for-profit sector.

The concept of a body that is dedicated to the administrative needs of the not-for-profit sector is a good one. The concept of a body that operates as a one-stop shop for the over 60,000 or so charities—that currently negotiate a maze of government departments as they attempt to meet their obligations under the current tax legislation and funding arrangements—is a good one. But it needs to be adequately funded and it needs to be focused on the administration and delivery of support services for charities and not-for-profits rather than on the regulation of this highly diverse sector that is so vital to our community yet has limited resources with which to meet its administrative and governance obligations. In other words, this has to be 'for' not 'of'; this distinction is a critical one.

As it stands, even with the amendments that were introduced in the lower house as a response to some of the recommendations made through the previous inquiries, this legislation is still too heavily slanted towards a reform 'to' the sector rather than 'for' the sector. Without further amendments, this legislation would establish or set up a commission that perpetuates the problems we have experienced right through this reform process.

The reform is critical because not-for-profits are a critical part of our society. They provide significant assistance to vulnerable citizens as well as to the natural environment and to animal welfare and the arts, when the not-for-profits are chronically underfunded and rely on donations from the public and/or government grants. Both these sources of funding are accompanied by significant regulatory and tax compliance burdens—as they should be; they should be transparent and accountable. But we should also not overburden these organisations.

Regulation at the moment is fragmented across jurisdictions and within jurisdictions. Some organisations, big organisations, have counted up to 600 grants for an organisation. The ATO regulates tax concessions, and some have company structures and therefore have to report to ASIC. Indigenous corporations report to the Office of the Register of Indigenous Corporations. And then there are the various state and territory regulations—many of which are different. This is a huge reporting burden. The overburden report, from a couple of years ago, highlighted the vast number of grants within federal government agencies that Aboriginal health organisations have to report to.

The sector has been calling for reform, genuine reform—and this is a very, very important point—for a significant period of time. So to say that the sector does not support this reform is actually not correct; the sector does, but it wants proper reform, not reform in the name of reform. The sector wants the removal of administrative barriers and it wants to make sure that the red tape is dealt with. That is a very strong message.

Like the sector, we recognise that this legislation is only one part of a larger project that needs to address issues such as governments contracting, wage equity, taxation arrangements and bringing the definition of 'charity' into the 21st century. These reforms will not be achieved simply by setting up a not-for-profit commission. But, if we can get the commission right, we will be on a path to enabling some of these other reforms and strengthening the not-for-profit and charity sector.

The Australian Greens recognise the opportunity we have to set up a one-stop shop which will help to unify a range of regulations that are currently fragmented across different legislation and to focus on addressing the barriers to good governance. But, like the sector, we still had serious concerns about this legislation and its ability to meet the needs of the sector. As it stood, without amendments, we had a strong concern that it would undermine the sector. We need to make sure that we have an independent, strong, well-functioning sector, and we certainly did not want any legislation that undermined the independence of the sector.

I have talked extensively to the sector and have participated in the various inquiries to reach the conclusions that we did in assessing this legislation. The legislation has three objectives: accountability and public trust; a vibrant and robust independent sector; and red tape reduction. Taken together, these three objectives can set the framework for a regulator who is responsive to the sector, promoting good governance and transparency. We do not believe that the legislation as it stood was balanced enough to ensure that the regulator had the capacity to walk that fine line between ensuring transparency and accountability—and, if they did not get it right, undermining the independence and the diversity of our civil society. However, there are a series of amendments circulating that have been developed by the government in response to both the concerns expressed through dissenting reports and through submissions from the community.

This is a really good example, we believe, of where we can work with the government, working the balance of power, listening to the stakeholders and negotiating constructively to help strengthen and improve legislation. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for those opposite who—particularly when I was listening to the contributions in the House of Representatives—were focusing their comments on past versions of the legislation. In fact, tonight, we got a contribution that completely ignored amendments that had already been made to the legislation that we are debating.

The amendments that have been developed, we believe, will go a long way to ensuring that we get the ACNC right. We absolutely need to get this legislation right. We the Greens and I am sure the government and the broader community want a diverse, vibrant, independent third sector. This is a critical feature of a functioning democracy. Not-for-profit organisations and nongovernment organisations are often the trailblazers who promote positive social and environmental outcomes, well before the government is ready to shift its policy. The NGO sector are the leaders of change.

Without our not-for-profit sector, I doubt that we would have achieved many of the most important political and social reforms—such as the vote for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and, more recently, the action to address climate change. Not-for-profit organisations are playing a really important right now, for example, in the current debate, to shift community attitudes. Rather than denigrating those who are on income support and on low incomes and unemployed Australians, including single mums, they are now helping to shift that debate to see people in these unfortunate situations as those most vulnerable Australians.

Government is more and more dependent on the NGO sector. The NGO sector provide services and support in many cases much better than government can. But, critically, they also advocate for change. There are some things that some governments do not like. Sometimes there is a desire for government to stop those organisations playing this role.

Debate interrupted.