Charities Commission: stay of execution or indefinite reprieve?

By Jason Whittaker

February 12, 2015

There’s confusion about the fate of the charities regulator, with the government appearing to back away from a pre-election promise to abolish the body.

But the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission is still in the dark, with a spokesperson unable to confirm whether it’s a stay of execution or an indefinite reprieve.

The Melbourne-based agency of 100 staff manages a database of 60,000 charities for compliance. Labor set up the body in 2012 in response to a Productivity Commission call for an independent regulator of charitable organisations and not-for-profit entities.

The Coalition argues the ACNC has been a red tape burden for charities and vowed to scrap the body. But new Social Services Minister Scott Morrison said last week it was no longer a priority. He told Fairfax Media:

“My top priority is addressing the development of a families package including child care which will help parents of young children get back to work so they can better support themselves and their families.

“I have advised key stakeholders in this area I have no immediate plans to be progressing that issue while I focus on higher order priorities.”

Labor stands against the abolition and it’s understood enough cross-bench senators are opposed to kill a repeal.

The Mandarin asked Morrison’s office to clarify the situation but has not received a response. An ACNC spokesperson would only say:

“We continue to implement the objects of the act working to improve transparency in the charitable sector, reduce red tape for charities and promote a robust and vibrant not-for-profit sector. We work with charities to ensure their compliance with the requirements of the legislation.”

Speaking to The Mandarin in October, ACNC commissioner Susan Pascoe said an Ernst and Young report found the regulator is only responsible for 0.1% of the overall red tape burden on charities and she believes the plan to scrap the body comes down to political philosophy:

“There’s a preference for ministerial decision-making rather than statutory entities. There’s a preference for small government and, explicitly in relation to civil society, there’s a preference for government getting out of the way. There’s a view that charitable entities are inherently good, that they operate altruistically and that there’s no need for government oversight.”

Pascoe is critical of the Coalition’s stated aim of returning regulation of the sector to the Australian Taxation Office because she believes there’s an inherent conflict — the ATO is a revenue raiser and assigning charitable status removes tax revenue.

Pascoe said she has given staff the commitment that “we would be here, if this is what it ends up being, until the end”:

“I’ve said to the staff, ‘if we have to take down the shingle, I’ll take it down’. I think that gives the staff a sense of stability …

“The other thing is that we’ve said to them … the one thing that we can all do is do a good job. I think that keeps them focused … We began with this ethos of having a really client-centred approach anyway and a personalised service so that means they can keep doing that.”

Pascoe said she’s working with the ATO “to plan for an ordinary transfer should the repeal bill be passed”.

More at The Mandarin: Uncharitable cut? Aust’s not-for-profits regulator stands tough

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