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Tuesday, 18 September 2012
Page: 10971

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (12:31): I rise to make a few comments about the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Bill 2012 and the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (Consequential and Transitional) Bill 2012 on behalf of the Greens, on the basis that further comments and amendments will be pursued if and when these bills reach the Senate. The strength of our democracy is our civil society. There are 600,000 not-for-profit organisations in Australia which support a range of social, cultural and environmental activities in our community. Of those 600,000, there are 60,000 charities that will immediately come under the commissioner's jurisdiction if these bills are passed into law. So it is important that we get this reform right.

The Australian Greens recognise the opportunities these bills present for reform and the unification of a range of regulations which are currently fragmented across different legislation. However, like the sector, we still have serious concerns about this legislation and its ability to meet the needs of the sector and the broader Australian community. The bill has three objects: accountability and public trust, a vibrant and robust independent sector and red-tape reduction. Taken together, these three objects can set the framework for a regulator who is responsive to the sector, promoting good governance and transparency, but it is essential that the regulator has the capacity to walk a fine line between ensuring accountability and undermining the independence and diversity of our civil society.

Independence and governance standards are among our largest concerns as the bill sets forth that the governance standards will be contained in regulation. Regulations are not subject to the same level of parliamentary scrutiny as is the legislation and governance standards that are embedded in regulation will be flexible and open to frequent revision. Regulation is a tool for determining aspects of legislation that can frequently change, such as annual fees or levies, and given that breaches of governance will trigger the commissioner's powers, we simply cannot leave these standards in regulation without increasing the safeguards to ensure they cannot be easily revised to the detriment of the sector in the future.

Consultation with the sector is an important amendment to and the government amendment which has been circulated goes some way to alleviating our concerns. I am supporting these government amendments under the understanding that my colleague Rachel Siewert in the Senate will move further amendments to resolve some of our outstanding concerns with the amendments as written, to address our expectation that the commission will lead to the consultation on governance standards with the not-for-profit sector and that the minister will have reference to those consultations in making the final decisions on the standards.

The independence of the sector is essential. The principles of independence need to be embedded in this legislation so as to prevent future gag clauses that would restrict a not-for-profit organisation from engaging in advocacy or criticising government policy during the pursuit of its mission or purpose. The other considerable concern of the sector which still needs to be resolved is ensuring that this regulator reduces unnecessary administration for our under resourced charity sector, rather than contributing to it. All of these concerns are spelt out in my colleague Senator Siewert's dissenting report to the Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into these bills. The Greens will support these bills in the House on the proviso that we will seek to amend them and address the issues I have raised when the bill reaches the Senate.