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Tuesday, 18 September 2012
Page: 10972

Mr ENTSCH (LeichhardtChief Opposition Whip) (12:34): I certainly welcome the opportunity to speak today on this package of bills relating to the establishment of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, the ACNC. Frankly, there are a number of elements within these bills that concern not just me but the organisations and people within my electorate, and I think it is vital that these be outlined here today.

To start I will first outline the incredible value of the roles charities and not-for-profit organisations play in our communities. In my electorate of Leichhardt, the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised have been helped for decades through the work of organisations such as Lifeline Community Care, the Salvation Army, the Dr Edward Koch Foundation, the Red Cross, Centacare and Anglicare. In the community, bodies such as the Men's Sheds, Surf Life Saving North Queensland, sports and recreation clubs far too numerous to mention, public schools and health facilities act as the glue that bring families, friends and strangers together. Animals and wildlife receive exceptional care through the RSPCA and other wonderful organisations like Yaps Animal Refuge Shelter, Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Centre and Far North Queensland Wildlife Rescue. No-one would argue that, thanks to their dedication, drive and vision of a better society, organisations like these play an invaluable role. With that in mind, it is the coalition's view that we should do everything possible to help and not to hinder the activities of these charities and not-for-profits.

For that reason I will certainly today be opposing the government's plan to establish the ACNC, which will not achieve one benchmark with regard to reducing red tape, encouraging volunteers or nurturing the activities of these organisations. And why not? Because, firstly, in the main the states and territories already regulate incorporated associations, charity trusts and fundraising activities and impose reporting and governance requirements on bodies that receive state and territory government funding. Have they agreed to hand over any of these powers with regard to this? I would suggest the answer is no. All this new commission will serve to do is add yet another layer of bureaucracy, yet another layer of paperwork to complete, another layer of requirements to meet and another barrier to those organisations effectively carrying out their day-to-day operations.

As another example of unwieldy and unnecessary duplication, the enforcement powers that will be given to the ACNC commissioner are modelled on those already in place at other government agencies. If we are not confident in the existing powers of bodies such as the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, then there has to be a major cause for concern.

Second, despite this being extremely complex legislation which would clearly require some in-depth scrutiny from the sector, continued government delays meant that they were only given nine working days to make submissions. I must confess to shaking my head whenever I hear the words 'consultation' and 'Labor' in the same sentence. This, I think, is just another example. In my electorate we do not have a good record with Labor consultation. If you look at the industry consultation that was meant to occur as part of the government's marine reserve network proposal, fishermen and marine users in my electorate reported that Tony Burke, the minister, turned up on a whistlestop tour and proceeded to play off industry groups against each other to try to win their support. This was at the same time as he was putting in place boundaries and usage zones that were totally opposite to what the fishermen needed to retain a sustainable industry and, of course, were totally against the science of the situation. We saw that even more recently in the debate on the supertrawler, where the science went out the window because of the lobbying of interest groups. When they thought they were going to lose the vote, they then made a couple of amendments to include recreational fishermen in the hope that they could again divide those interest groups to push through their agenda.

But before that, in my area and in the portfolio of the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, there was, unsurprisingly, the pretence of consultation around the proposed World Heritage nomination of Cape York. Once the concept of blanket World Heritage listing started being thrown around the Cape, traditional owners, graziers, tourism operators, residents and business people were so infuriated that they withdrew from the process altogether in protest. This resulted in the minister's department missing a key application date with UNESCO in May of this year. I suggest it was very embarrassing for them.

With regard to these bills, the government also says that they are going to waiting until after the legislation is introduced before they consult further on what exactly the financial reporting requirements will be. Forgive me for being sceptical about this, but I can see it is going to go the same way as other consultations—quite frankly, nothing less than a sham.

The third reason the legislation is not going to help the sector is that numerous not-for-profit agencies have given us feedback saying they are hugely concerned that the reporting requirements are inconsistent and becoming more and more complex, and certainly more burdensome. This is a reflection of the fact that over recent decades governments have been increasingly interfering with the day-to-day operations of agencies. The result is that they are forced to divert already scarce resources away from frontline service delivery simply to comply with the needs of government. A key example of that in my electorate is the case of the Douglas Shire Meals on Wheels, based at Mossman, which has been suffering through an unbelievable regulatory battle with state and federal agencies for many months now.

Steve Macrae, the local coordinator, says that as a not-for-profit organisation they are required to submit their audited books to the Office of Fair Trading each year, a relatively simple process. This is as far as the volunteers are prepared to go with regard to red tape. As it is, they have three volunteers whose sole job is to ensure that the paperwork is completed. This equates to at least 20 man-hours per week. However, to continue to provide their unpaid service to the community, they need to complete at least four funding submissions per year. On top, the Cairns Regional Council now want annual inspections of 'their asset' and copies of various audited documents. In addition, occupational health and safety want them to implement their latest policies, which include a three-yearly police check for all volunteers. Now Queensland Meals on Wheels has jumped on the bandwagon with a new requirement too, and DOHA is forcing them to sign a multipage servicing agreement that will lead to even more red tape. Steve says that even if they complied with this they would need to employ a full-time manager. Steve's argument—quite frankly, he is absolutely right—is that if they are to comply with the Queensland Food Act 2007 and its associated regulations then there should be no further need for red tape regarding their meal production and delivery. But with all these additional bills containing such overly heavy-handed powers and penalties, there is a significant risk that members of the public will be deterred from volunteering. After all, whether people are working, retired or semi-retired, there is only so much of their limited spare time that they are prepared to offer as voluntary work. Steve agrees by saying:

The more red tape that is imposed on us the less time we have to spend on our core business. It makes it harder to find people willing or able to wrestle with these non-productive bureaucratic requirements. We are well and truly past the days of volunteers being well meaning little old ladies.

I have spent some time with this wonderful group, and for each and every one of them their prime reason for giving whatever time they can afford to Meals on Wheels is to actually get out there and deliver a meal. They never, ever envisaged being captured by a range of bureaucratic processes that make it impossible for them to carry out the task for which they volunteered. We need to look seriously at this, particularly when we start looking at the imposition of a broad range of other bureaucratic processes, many of which are being proposed in this current bill. At the end of the day, you are going to find out that there will be people out there who are more capable and willing to do it but that will just refuse to offer this service because of the risk to themselves and, of course, the fact that they are not actually doing what they intended to do. I think this is the perfect example of how a small local organisation, which knows very well how to carry its role independently, viably and successfully, is being overburdened with this bureaucracy.

So what is the solution? The coalition believes that there should be transparency and accountability in the use of taxpayers' funds but that this should not exclude simplicity and efficiency. These organisations have a long history of responsible governance and management. In the case of Douglas Shire Meals on Wheels, they have been delivering nutritious meals to people in their homes since 1952. At the end of the day, it is about getting firsthand advice from those working in the sector as to how to make things more straightforward and not falling victim to those bureaucrats working in departments in Canberra who have little idea of on-the-ground challenges and, of course, operations.

On 18 June this year, the coalition committed to a policy of establishing not another big new regulator, like Labor, but a small educational and training body for the not-for-profit sector—a single reference point for access to information and guidance. The approach has many benefits, including that we will put in place a contract with the department for each agency instead of multiple contracts that duplicate the content and workload. We will simplify the auditing process so that agencies only need to provide one financial report each year. We will make the reporting requirements for governance simpler with the initial benchmark audit that will last for five years. Spot audits will only be undertaken if any adverse conduct is reported. We will work with the sector to make sure that whistleblowers can report misconduct under clear guidelines, without fear of reprisals. Ultimately, our measures as a whole will ensure that the responsibility for the conduct of these agencies rests with the agencies themselves, and not with government.

In closing, bureaucratic red tape is a term that we are all unfortunately too familiar with. The American economist Thomas Sowell summed it up very well when he said:

You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing

But red tape moves from the inconvenient to the tragic when it serves to block the work of charities and not-for-profit organisations. It is time to stand up for a simpler and more efficient system that will allow people on the ground, who know how to do their jobs, to actually do their jobs. For these reasons, I certainly will not be supporting the bills that I am speaking on here today.