Statutory commissioner wanted; stakeholder relations experience essential

By Stephen Easton

June 14, 2017

Susan Pascoe with her public administration award.

There’s a great public sector job going: a statutory appointment to lead a relatively new, award-winning independent regulator that enjoys strong support from a fiercely loyal group of key stakeholders. An ability to fill the incumbent’s big shoes and maintain that stakeholder support will be highly regarded. Must be available to start in October.

For whoever becomes the next commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, a large group of the organisations that enthusiastically engaged in the consultation process prior to the regulator’s establishment and lobbied hard in favour of it — against opposition from some of the largest NFP groups — have made it clear their continued affection is not guaranteed.

A group of over 100 organisations belonging to the Community Council for Australia and concerned individuals have made it clear they only have eyes for inaugural commissioner Susan Pascoe, whose term will end on September 30. In an open letter to Malcolm Turnbull published on Friday, the undersigned express surprise and disappointment that Pascoe won’t be reappointed and ask the Prime Minister to give her an extra 12 months at least, so she can take part in an upcoming five-year review.

Given it was only in March last year that Minister for Social Services Christian Porter finally confirmed the government would not abolish the ACNC, its supporters are understandably worried about its future without Pascoe, and who will replace her. The letter claims Porter, the fifth Coalition minister to oversee the commission, has never met with its leader or assistant commissioners David Locke and Murray Baird.

“It is very difficult for the sector to have any confidence that the new appointment process will reflect the need for a strong, effective, independent regulator.”

“This is despite positive support from the Treasury and the ACNC Advisory Board,” its authors argue. “By any measure, Commissioner Pascoe has done an impressive job in leading the ACNC. In November 2016 Commissioner Pascoe was the winner of the prestigious Outstanding Contribution in Public Administration Award – highlighting her world class leadership and professionalism.”

They say public expressions of support from several ministers including Treasurer Scott Morrison were “a welcome and important reversal of previous policies” that have helped the Turnbull government “build a better relationship with the charities and not-for-profit sector” but add: “Unfortunately, it seems not all members of the government are supportive of the very important role played by the ACNC.”

Appealing to his own philanthropic side, the signatories implore Turnbull to ensure a “transparent, fair and consultative” process that leads to the appointment of someone with “a deep understanding and experience” of the NFP world. “Ideally the sector itself would be represented in the selection process,” they suggest, but make their lack of trust in the government clear:

“Given what has happened with Commissioner Pascoe, it is very difficult for the sector to have any confidence that the new appointment process will reflect the need for a strong, effective, independent charities regulator.”

A sector more divided than parliament

What the letter doesn’t mention is the main source of opposition to the ACNC from within the sector — a relatively small number of its largest players, the church-based charitable networks that have long stood in the way of reform to how they are regulated. Despite being in the minority, the lobbying heft of these powerful ACNC sceptics is reflected in Porter’s March 2016 statement, which characterises the very strong enthusiasm for reform among most of the sector as merely “sufficient” for the ACNC to avoid the axe.

What is does mention is that not only is this reform extremely long-awaited, it has also enjoyed support from a range of influential sources in the public sector:

“The establishment of an independent national charities regulator was first seriously proposed through a Howard Government review of the definition of charity in 2001, and has been supported by many, including the Productivity Commission, the Henry Review, and several Senate Inquiries involving hundreds of submissions and numerous public hearings.”

The letter writers say the agency has “done what few new regulators achieve – improve public trust and confidence while gaining widespread support across the sector it is regulating” and the ACNC’s own advisory board also paid tribute to Pascoe and what the organisation has achieved on her watch, including its win in the digital transformation category of last year’s Australian Public Service Innovation Awards.

“Susan’s leadership, integrity and drive have seen the ACNC flourish in the face of sustained uncertainty,” said UNICEF Australia chief executive Tony Stuart, who chairs the board. “Under Susan’s leadership, the ACNC has not only survived – but thrived.”

Image: Susan Pascoe with her award for Outstanding Contribution to Public Administration, judged by an eminent panel of public administrators and presented by Chartered Accountants Australia New Zealand.

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