News blog: Latest political twist for the sector

Posted on 11 May 2022

By Staff writers

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Stay in touch with news and information on the politics affecting the community sector.

Swinging voters want a fundraising fix

Updated: 11 May 2022

A survey of 3,400 voters in Australia’s most marginal electorates shows electors want a future government to fix fundraising once and for all.

The results of the study commissioned by the Community Council for Australia found at least 74% and as many as 92% of electors in those seats wanted their local MPs to ease current fundraising red tape which compels charities, not-for-profits and community groups to wrangle different systems in every state.

“Charities continue to face an ongoing dog’s breakfast of outdated dysfunctional regulation that is strangling charitable fundraising in Australia,” said Community Council for Australia chief executive David Crosbie.

He said current regulations meant a small charity posting a “donate here” button on its website was required to register as a fundraising organisation in most states and territories, filling out multiple different forms. The council said the survey reinforced the need for charities and not-for-profits to focus on serving their communities, not filling in duplicate forms for numerous officials.

And Mr Crosbie said there had been a string of inquiries, commissions and recommendations highlighting the waste of resources.

“What has been delivered in response to all these reports and recommendations are numerous hollow commitments followed by recurring government committees who have wasted countless hours playing word salad footsies as they endlessly debate in-principle agreements and regulations,” he said.

Sector demands attention from future federal government

Updated: 4 April 2022

As the federal election campaign heats up, community advocates continue to press for a place at the decision-making table and for the right to speak out.

In the latest lobbying effort, a coalition of for-purpose organisation has written to both the Liberal minister in charge of charities, Michael Sukkar, and Labor’s charity spokesman, Andrew Leigh, seeking comprehensive reforms to the sector.

The letters were drafted by Australian Democracy Network, Human Rights Law Centre, ACOSS, Australian Conservation Foundation. Each were signed by more than fifty organisations, calling on any future government to halt moves to curtail community voices and instead enact reforms to protect the right to advocate.

The campaign seeks:

  • federal funding agreements that enable and encourage advocacy
  • actions to protect civil society participation in elections
  • tax and charity laws that “enshrine a right for civil society to speak out”
  • a guarantee of the independence of charities in how they pursue their purpose
  • restored funding to peak civil society voices.

The letters lay out the reform program in detail but urge action to protect “a vital part of a healthy democracy” and promise that the group stands “ready to engage constructively … to deliver the outlined reforms in the most effective way possible”.

Communities need more covid-19 backing

Separately, the Charities Crisis Cabinet – of which Our Community is a member – has written an open letter to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and to the National Cabinet seeking increased involvement by the sector in critical covid-19 responses.

The letter seeks acknowledgement of the work of the sector and a greater commitment from Australian governments to providing greater support, including:

  • making RATs freely available to charities
  • greater flexibility in federal flood support and emergency relief to include groups such as charities that are providing help on the ground
  • decentralised decision-making in government programs to enable more effective responses by charities
  • better integration of volunteers in workplace planning, including higher priority access to vaccines, tests and PPE
  • allowing overseas students to help for more hours without breaching visa conditions.

The February letter was signed by the group’s co-chairs, Adjunct Professor Susan Pascoe and the Reverend Tim Costello.

Ms Pascoe is the chair of the Community Directors Council, which advises the Institute of Community Directors Australia (ICDA) on policy and strategy matters.

Labor promises to remove community 'gag' in election pitch

Updated: 15 March 2022

The Labor Party has promised to reverse a crackdown on activist organisations that has seen the Coalition crimp the ability of organisations to campaign in politically sensitive arenas.

Those measures have included restrictions on election campaigning and a threat to deregister charities whose members or volunteers have committed minor legal infringements. The latter measure was scuttled by independent senators last year.

Now federal Labor politicians with the community and social justice portfolios have given guarantees that they won't be following the same path.

"We will end the Coalition’s attacks on the community sector, by scrapping gag clauses and restoring the freedom to advocate," the joint statement said in the lead-up to an expected May 2022 poll.

The release was issued by MPs Linda Burney and Andrew Leigh, along with Labor senator Jenny McAllister.

The group also said an Albanese Labor government would "support a stronger, more diverse and more independent community sector".

This support could include grants that "reflect the real cost of delivering quality services, ending the practice of competing on wages", while contract terms could be extended to allow for better planning.

And funding would go to "a greater diversity of not-for-profits", and prioritise partnering with organisations that had "strong local links".

"Labor will give the sector the voice and respect it deserves," the statement said.

The Community Council for Australia, in a message to members, described the policy as "welcome" and said it would build on an existing 10-point policy platform by Labor released in April 2021.

The not-for-profit and charity peak advocacy group said it was "seeking commitment from all parties and candidates to positive policy agendas that recognise and value the role and contribution of Australia’s charities and community groups."

"We want the next Australian Government to work with our sector to realise real benefits for our communities."

Advocates say it’s time for a better deal for the sector

Updated: Friday, December 17

The Community Council for Australia has urged community organisations to consider lodging pre-budget submissions to influence the political process, as major players continue to jostle for position in the sector in the lead-up to next year’s federal election.

Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar last week called for “submissions from individuals, businesses and community groups on their priorities for the 2022–23 Budget”.

He said the Government “places considerable importance on receiving submissions”, which close on January 28.

The Community Council for Australia’s David Crosbie put in an early claim for funding, saying, “as a sector that works at the heart of communities and employs more than 11% of Australia's workforce”, the country’s 55,000 charities and 500,000-plus not-for-profits could do much to achieve the budget’s goals of creating jobs, guaranteeing essential services and building a more secure and resilient country.

The Assistant Treasurer’s announcement came shortly before the National Cabinet again agreed to reduce unnecessary duplication across governments, including fundraising red tape.

While fundraising wasn’t specifically mentioned in Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s announcement on regulatory reform, a Fix Fundraising group spokesperson, Sue Woodward, welcomed the fact that fundraising reforms were now among the top 10 priorities for the Council on Federal Financial Relations.

“We are pleased to see all governments working together at the highest level to implement a simpler single national scheme for the regulation of charitable fundraising,” Ms Woodward said.

Current laws require organisations to seek separate fundraising licences in each state.

But the shadow Assistant Minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, lashed the latest promises, given the Morrison government promised to fix the country’s outdated fundraising laws at the same time last year.

“In another demonstration that the Morrison government is all announcement and no delivery, a full year has gone by since the Treasurer’s empty promise,” Mr Leigh said.

And he said “nothing happened” in the wake of a 2018 bipartisan Senate recommendation to address the same issue within two years.

Groups concerned new laws will ‘scare’ charities off advocacy

UPDATED: Tuesday, December 7

More charities face new restrictions and reporting, after the federal government pushed through changes to existing political campaigning laws.

Groups, including charities, that spend more than $250,000 on advocacy and campaigns related to elections – or more than a third of revenue – must now register as campaigners, after the existing threshold was halved by amendments supported at the last minute by the Labor Party.

Labor charities spokesperson Andrew Leigh told community radio program The Wire that the support was a necessary compromise to avoid voter ID legislation.

Mr Leigh told the program that it had watered down the laws, including upping the threshold from a proposed $100,000 limit and changing the terminology of registered organisations from “political campaigners” to “significant third party”.

“If we hadn’t acted the government’s voter ID laws would have passed the Senate and the political campaigners threshold would have been reduced to $100,000.”

“It would have been a catastrophic outcome for charities and for disadvantaged Australians.”

He believed the latest laws were part of “an ongoing war on charities that the government has been waging on charities since 2015. They think that charities should be seen and not heard.”

Charity groups are not happy with the result.

Hands off Our Charities spokesperson Ray Yoshida said charities had lobbied hard against the "bad policy" and "poor process" which retrospectively broaden who is affected by the rules, and which were rushed through Parliament.

Changes mean that more charities will have restrictions on foreign donations and will have to abide by a much broader definition of what’s counted as electioneering.

Charities have concerns about the additional red tape, the effective spending cap on campaigns, the retrospective nature of laws that will hit environmental activists and those “holding the government to account”, and the vague definitions that are likely to require groups to seek more legal advice.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Alice Drury said in a Tweet, “This process has been brutal, and the outcome is a breath-takingly complex law that will scare charities off advocacy.”

Australian Conservation Foundation chief Kelly O'Shanassy told Australian Community Media that the law "unfairly and incorrectly conflates advocacy with running for political office".

"I have not seen another piece of legislation that has the potential to so severely muffle community voices as this one," she said.

Community Council for Australia chief David Crosbie said that the laws would stifle legitimate advocacy.

“Charities are not seeking political office or power over others, just a voice to power on behalf of those they serve. Charities are already regulated by the ACNC – these new laws will stop many smaller charities raising their issues – is this the Australia we want?”

Assistant Minister for Electoral Matters Ben Morton told Parliament that the laws aimed to “enhance public confidence in Australia's political processes by aligning transparency of political actors who seek to influence the outcome of an election to more closely resemble the disclosures of political parties, candidates, or members of the Australian parliament”.

He said the changes were not a significant change for those who met the new thresholds, since they were already required to submit reports, and that the amendments “simply change the type of return they lodge with the Australian Electoral Commission”.

He said the laws would help voters make “an informed choice” by placing equal requirements on “political actors seeking to influence election outcomes”.

Senate crunches charities crackdown

UPDATED: Friday, November 26

The Australian charities and not-for-profits sector has praised the intervention of federal senators who blocked proposed laws aimed at cracking down on activist groups.

The proposals would have given the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) the power to deregister charities for minor offences, even when it believed they were merely likely to occur.

More than 100 charities joined forces under the Hands Off Our Charities (HOOC) banner to fight against the rules, which could have cost the sector $150 million in compliance costs.

But the laws have been scuttled in the Senate by senators led by South Australian independent Rex Patrick, who tabled a disallowance motion to comfortably defeat the changes with the support of other crossbenchers, the Labor Party, and the Greens.

Senator Patrick told the Senate that the regulations “amount to a prohibition of freedom of political communication and expression, and expose charities to the risk of deregistration for actions most Australians accept as a right … such as peaceful protests and sit-ins.

“Quite simply, the intent of these regulations is to stop charities engaging in lawful advocacy in pursuit of their charitable purpose.”

Notably, Senator Concetta Fioravanti-Wells, who chaired a Senate committee that previously unanimously recommended the laws be scrapped, voted with the Coalition in an attempt to stop the disallowance motion from succeeding.

HOOC spokesperson Ray Yoshida said charities and not-for-profits were relieved that “efforts to silence those who speak up” had failed in the face of collective opposition.

“This incredible result means that more than $150 million that would have been spent on administration costs can now be diverted back into essential services such as emergency food relief, family violence and mental health support,” Mr Yoshida said.

Fred Hollows Foundation CEO Ian Wishart summed up the feeling of many charity leaders when he described the Senate vote as a momentous win for democracy.

“Our charity sector works tirelessly to service the nation’s most disadvantaged people and cannot have its precious resources tied up in bureaucratic red tape,” Mr Wishart said.

Benevolent Society CEO Lin Hatfield Dodds said the decision would benefit vulnerable people and communities and that allowing people to be heard shouldn’t be discouraged.

“Efforts should be made to nurture this, not take it away.”

Save the Children Australia CEO Paul Ronalds said the changes would have given “an unprecedented amount of power to the Charities Commissioner (Gary Johns) to shut down a charity for advocating on vital social issues.”

“It struck us as totally outrageous that the Government would focus on trying to make life harder for charities in the midst of a global pandemic. Australia’s charities are the lifeblood of our country, and we thank those who sided with common sense today to stop these unfair and unjustified regulations from going ahead.”

The acting CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), Edwina MacDonald, said the decision was a common sense win for charities.

“Over the past 18 months, the community sector has been crucial in helping hundreds of thousands of people endure the pandemic,” she said.

“Community organisations everywhere can now focus on their core work without worrying about the negative impact of these changes.”

George Selvanera from the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) said the Morrison Government should be investing in not-for-profits instead of “trying to silence and control them through regulations.”

“As a not-for-profit community legal service for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, VALS must have the legal right to advocate for systemic change. It is essential to addressing the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the justice system.”

Oxfam Australia CEO Lyn Morgain said the changes would have wasted valuable public donations on unnecessary red tape.

Battle continues against regulator’s push to stymie charity activism

UPDATED: Tuesday, October 26

The future of regulations designed to pare back political activism by charities remains up in the air, after the Senate delayed a decision on the crucial matter.

The controversial change would give the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) powers to deregister charities where it believed a minor offence may occur.

The Hands Off Our Charities (HOOC) coalition, comprising 100 leading charities, has strongly campaigned against the rules, and earlier this month released modelling that showed the rules would cost charities $150 million in compliance costs.

HOOC spokesperson Ray Yoshida said the regulations were unnecessary, would stifle free speech, and would affect vital services.

“This [modelling] outlines the extraordinary red-tape burden the Morrison government is imposing on charities that provide vital services to vulnerable people, including emergency food relief, family violence support and mental health assistance,” Mr Yoshida said.

HOOC’s call follows a cross-party recommendation from a Senate committee scrutinising new laws, chaired by Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, that the changes be scrapped.

The regulations are likely to be in the hands of crossbench senators, such as One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcom Roberts, with a vote now expected on the matter on November 25.

Ms Hanson told The Australian she was concerned about “careless wording” that could also harm religious charities and churches, but she did not object to moves to reduce the influence of activist groups.

Anti-poverty campaigner wins crucial status

In a related matter, anti-poverty charity and campaigner Global Citizen last month won a case against the ACNC after it was initially denied public benevolent institution (PBI) tax status over its political work.

The ACNC had refused to allow the organisation to become a PBI, which would enable the organisation to claim deductible gift recipient (DGR) tax status and apply for grants from a broader range of funders.

The ACNC had claimed that the organisation should not be a PBI because it did not provide direct aid, but instead was involved in lobbying, but the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) ruled it was satisfied Global Citizen’s role in promoting poverty relief was legitimate.

“The evidence clearly established that most large PBIs engage with the political process as a regular and indispensable part of their work,” the tribunal found.

The decision was hailed by Save the Children CEO Paul Ronalds and Community Council for Australia co-chair Tim Costello, both of whom made witness statements during the case.

The ACNC has decided not to appeal the decision by the AAT, but it would be “carefully considering the tribunal’s decision”, it said in a statement.

Full ruling | Read a summary of the decision here.

Charity regulator lodges report, faces more scrutiny

The ACNC this month lodged its annual report, which highlighted:

  • a sharp rise in searches on its site, up more than one million to 4.2 million
  • 2001 complaints about charities
  • 76 investigations completed
  • that major charities involved in 2020 bushfire support acted diligently
  • 13 charities had their registrations revoked over “serious non-compliance”
  • 2659 charities were registered.

ACNC Commissioner Gary Johns said the sector had shown great resilience through the pandemic and that new features in the popular register would soon allow would-be donors to much more easily find charities doing the work they were interested in supporting.

“In 2020–21 we implemented a new way for charities to provide information about their programs, and soon the register’s search features will be enhanced to allow donors and supporters to easily find organisations doing the type of work they are interested in supporting, and to allow charities to showcase their incredible work,” he said.

But CCA chief David Crosbie wrote in Pro Bono news that the report also showed the organisation had performed poorly, with a “diminishing level of … services across critical areas”. He highlighted indicators such as delays in wait times for phone calls, registrations and investigations, and a reluctance to address red tape issues raised by CCA members.

The ACNC is set to face scrutiny over its activities and performance during Senate estimates hearings scheduled for 3pm on Wednesday, October 27.

Senate report rejects charities crackdown

UPDATED: Thursday, September 30

Proposed laws that a coalition of charities say will muzzle advocates should be scrapped, a Parliamentary committee has found.

The committee scrutinising new laws, which is chaired by Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells (pictured), unanimously recommended the Senate disallow the new regulations, which are opposed by an alliance of more than 100 charity groups.

The proposals would give the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission powers to deregister charities for minor offences, even if Commissioner Gary Johns only believes an offence may occur.

Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar has not yet responded to the recommendation but has previously said that the laws would curtail the activities of “activist organisations masquerading as charities”.

The recommendation was welcomed by sector advocates including the “Hands Off Our Charities” group and the Community Council for Australia (CCA).

CCA chief executive David Crosbie told members this week that “while this does not mean the proposal is defeated, it does give a lot more weight to the arguments against the proposed amendments and (will) delay any implementation”.

The committee cited “significant scrutiny concerns regarding the conferral of broad discretionary powers on the ACNC Commissioner and the impact of the instrument on the implied constitutional freedom of political communication” in recommending the Senate reject the changes.

Shadow charities minister Andrew Leigh welcomed the recommendation.

“The Morrison Government should listen to this unanimous, bipartisan report from a respected Senate Committee, and withdraw its anti-democratic attack on Australia’s charities,” Mr Leigh said.

Resistance grows over powers to clamp down on sector advocates

UPDATED: Thursday, July 22

Charities have welcomed the intervention of a Liberal senator who has raised concerns about proposed laws they claim will silence advocates, and have written to the UN seeking "urgent action".

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who chairs a Senate committee scrutinising new laws, has written to Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, the minister in charge of charity regulation, seeking answers about the changes.

Proposals would give the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission powers to deregister charities for minor offences, even if Commissioner Gary Johns only believes an offence may occur.

The senator said there were serious questions about whether the laws were unconstitutional and “infringe the implied freedom of political communication”.

Connie FW
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has asked the minister in charge of charities to explain the changes.

An alliance of 30 top Australian charities comprising the “Hands Off Our Charities” group welcomed the letter, with spokesperson and Community Council for Australia chair Tim Costello taking aim at the proposals, which could be introduced as early as August 2021.

“These anti-democratic regulations will silence legitimate advocacy by charities and the voices of the millions of people they represent, including the most vulnerable, undermining our freedom of speech.”

"Giving the charity commissioner power to shutter a charity for a minor offence by a member is the equivalent of the electoral commissioner having discretion to deregister the Liberal Party because a party member damages someone's lawn when putting up a sign," he said.

"It is heartening to see that this important committee shares the concerns of charities from across the sector, which have formed a broad alliance to condemn these egregious regulations."

Senator Fierravanti-Wells sought detailed advice for the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation about:

  • why it was necessary to expand the ACNC commissioner’s discretionary powers
  • eetails of those powers, including specifics about summary offences that could trigger actions
  • how the commissioner might determine potential future breaches
  • safeguards for those discretionary powers
  • how the changes complied with implied free political communication.

While Mr Sukkar has not publicly responded to the questions, he previously said when revealing the proposed changes: "The Morrison government is strengthening laws to ensure activist organisations, masquerading as charities, that promote and engage in unlawful behaviour will no longer be tolerated."

Read the Hands Off Our Charities release and a copy of Senator Fierravanti-Wells' letter

Groups call on United Nations to intervene

As the resistance to the measures continues to grow, a group of a dozen charities have written to the United Nations to seek "urgent action".

The charities have written to three UN Special Rapporteurs, urging an "intervention" to stop changes "which could shut charities down for speaking out".

The letter states that the new rules "would breach the rights to freedom of expression and assembly, which are protected under international human rights law.

"The UN Special Rapporteurs have been asked to call on the Australian government to refrain from introducing the regulations in parliament."

In a letter to the UN representatives, the group said it believed that "the proposed regulations breach articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights".

The UN petition is signed by 12 organisations including Amnesty International, Anglicare Australia, Baptist Care Australia, Oxfam, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, The Fred Hollows Foundation, St Vincent de Paul Society and UnitingCare.

In a media release issued by the Human Rights Law Centre, senior lawyer Alice Drury said: “These rules would silence charities at a time when their advocacy is more crucial than ever, as charities support Australian communities through unprecedented crises like catastrophic bushfires and the pandemic. These proposed laws are a case of extreme overreach, and have no place in a democracy.”

Read the media release from the Human Rights Law Centre | Read the letter to the United Nations

Sector study increases pressure to 'Fix Fundraising'

UPDATED: Wednesday, May 26

Australian charities say fundraising regulations are too complicated, with groups slugged compliance costs of more than $11,000 before they even start their fundraising campaigns. With 56,000 registered charities and thousands more not-for-profits, the impost represents hundreds of millions in lost donations.

A Piazza Research study quizzed 600 charities and not-for-profits on behalf of a sector coalition led by the Community Council for Australia (CCA). The study found:

  • Groups were stung an average $11,633 for registration and compliance
  • Queensland was the hardest state for fundraisers to deal with, while the NT and ACT caused the least bureaucratic problems
  • More than one in five groups (22%) said the red tape was a “barrier to fundraising”
  • 53% of groups faced "significant" fundraising issues
  • 39% were unaware they must dice with seven different jurisdictions
  • The vast majority of charities and NFPs (91%) support a single national regulation scheme for charitable fundraising

CCA CEO David Crosbie said the Queensland Government should “immediately dismantle its charity fundraising bureaucracy” to ease the burden on charities and not-for-profits, and other jurisdictions should follow the lead of the Northern Territory, which had simplified red tape by relying on existing consumer law and the oversight of the charities regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).

Download the full study | CCA report - See how your state fares

Charities fight back over proposed crackdown

UPDATED: Friday, May 28

Australia's peak body for not-for-profits continues to lobby against proposals that would give the sector regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, much greater powers to deregister an organisation if it “reasonably believes” its members might commit an offence.

More than 200 charities are expected to lodge an open protest letter about the changes, which it believes will unfairly target activist organisations.

The Community Council for Australia chief executive David Crosbie recently spoke with ABC Sydney's Wendy Harmer about his concerns about the proposal in the wake of a detailed report raising serious concerns in The Saturday Paper ($). Community radio current affairs program The Wire also spoke to several sector representatives about their fears.

Labor outlines policy platform for not-for-profits

UPDATED: Tuesday, April 20

The peak body for not-for-profits says the next Federal election is shaping up to be an important one for the sector, after the Labor Party laid out a 10-point plan to strengthen charities and not-for-profits.

Community Council for Australia (CCA) chief executive David Crosbie said the decision at the recent ALP national conference would be a "game changer", with charity reform measures in line with those the CCA has pressed for in recent times.

Among those measures include:

  • Creating an expert body to strengthen communities
  • Improve the safety of vulnerable people with a national approach
  • Reforming fundraising rules, cutting red tape and increasing charity access to donors and philanthropy
  • Reforming funding models for contracts
  • Revisit the 2010 Productivity Commission recommendations into NFPs
  • Recognising the primary role of not-for-profits in delivering community services and ensuring fair wages and payments
  • Prioritising funding for specialist services catering for women, LGBTIQ groups, first nations, disability and CALD communities
  • Allow and protect the right of groups to freely advocate for their causes
  • Boost the help for volunteers
  • Help community groups "bridge the technological divide"

Mr Crosbie said the ALP's position put increased pressure on the Morrison Government to demonstrate its commitment to the sector.

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