Community groups are the sleeping giant that can transform our nation

Posted on 04 Apr 2022

By Denis Moriarty

Delegates CIC 2017 13
One of the delegates at a recent Communities in Control conference hosted by Our Community.

I’ve spent the past 20 years working with what’s known as the third sector, and it’s a term that’s beginning to get up my nose. Why does the community sector come in third, behind government and business? It should be number one.

It may not be the largest group – not-for-profits account for about 11% of the economy compared to 18% for government and 71 % for businesses – but it was the first. When our ancestors were fending off hyenas on the African savannah they didn’t have either commerce or government, and helping people was just something everybody did, or else. Now, again, community is the key to our survival.

If I ever start my own party it’ll be the Community Party, dedicated to putting the community sector in its proper place at the peak of the system. And it’ll have a full program.

Our first day in government will be spent on clearing away the obstacles to community sector growth.

Governments across the country have tangled groups up in regulatory razor wire. We’ll clear it away.

  • We’ll clear the states out of not-for-profit regulation and let all groups operate nationally. (Is there really a peculiarly South Australian way to run a sporting club? Surely not.)
  • We’ll recognise the invention of the internet and abolish archaic state-based fundraising rules.
  • We’ll scrap pettifogging regulations and make all gifts to every not-for-profit tax deductible.
  • We’ll mandate diversity in community groups (equality of the sexes on boards, to begin with).

Our next job would be to give the sector the tools it’ll need to take on its new responsibilities.

Community groups are struggling under their load now. If we want more from them, we’ll have to put more in.

  • We’ll give two think-tanks – Per Capita and the Grattan Institute, say – $50 million to start planning for an efficient, generative, and sustainable community sector.
  • We’ll set up a new government-funded Advocacy Institute and give it $50 million to teach community organisations how to advocate more strongly and effectively.
  • We’ll give Volunteering Australia $100 million to implement a national 10-year strategy to dramatically boost volunteering.
  • We will demand Andrew Leigh be annointed as the first Minister for Charities and not-for-profits.
  • We’ll fund the Community Council for Australia with $100 million to set it up for life and give it the strength to embed community policy in our economic drivers.
  • We’ll give social tech company Infoxchange $250 million to administer a Technology Transformation Fund for the community sector.
  • We’ll set up and fund a Cut-the-Crap Now Centre where Australian not-for-profits can review each other’s procedures and swap ways to improve and simplify practices and systems.
  • We’ll establish a Community Sector Energy Transformation Leadership Fund to switch the sector’s operations and car fleets to the green end of the spectrum.
  • We’ll make a top-up payment to fund an immediate superannuation increase to 15% for all community sector workers paid less than $70,000 and move them all to a four day working week.
  • We'll require all philanthropic foundations that receive tax benefits to distribute 10 per cent of their corpus for the next five years to accelerate community impact.

And once we’ve got community groups revved up, we can go about shifting power to the community.

DenisMoriarty_CIC2021_PennyS
Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty

Community groups know where Australia’s deepest problems lie, and how to deal with them.

  • We can reduce the advantages of incumbency by ensuring that government grantmaking is for the public good rather than political advantage.
  • We can bring unions back to be celebrated as part of civil society and restore their role in protecting and advancing workers’ rights.
  • We can shift functions from the feds and the states to local government.
  • We can respond to Indigenous concerns through a treaty and a third chamber of Parliament.
  • We can solve homelessness (again) as we did when covid-19 struck.
  • We can put a tax on financial transactions to fund a $5 billion program, run though the community sector, for arts organisations to flourish in every community and town for every person.
  • We can heavily tax gambling revenues to fund a Social Infrastructure Fund, run though the community sector, to make grants to libraries, women's sheds, galleries, community sector resources and to advocates for gambling reform.

That’s what community should mean, if we took it seriously. All these are things that would be obvious and natural if we did in fact place community at the forefront of our politics. This money is chickenfeed compared to the $100 billion plus being spent on six toxic submarines.

These things are not part of the deal now because politicians see us as atomised individuals with no meaningful connections, as consumers and not citizens, as voters, not communities.

Australia’s governments are mining the resources of the community sector – its trust, its co-operation, its idealism – without replacing it. This isn’t sustainable. There’s an assumption that the sector will always be there to pick up the pieces. Don’t count on it.

Without the community sector, Australia hardly functions. If we’re encouraged and supported to bring out the best in each other, we can change the country into what we dream it can be.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.

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