Government, make things easy for non-profits? Ha!
Civil society comprises the groups of individuals which freely associate to pursue their mutual social, cultural, professional, sporting, religious or other communal interests.
They are the local carer’s groups. They are the sporting clubs, the congregations, the communities that fund and build schools, the welfare agencies, the bands of people who work together to support medical research, or assist the poor and afflicted, both here and overseas. They are the myriad of large and small associations that provide the organic vitality of our nation.
They have one thing in common. They are neither created nor controlled by the state. Instead, they arise from the desire to associate to fulfil common objectives. They are built on mutuality and trust.
Starting with the family and extending to the many, varied groups of people, they preceded the state.
It is the Coalition’s strong belief that the political community - the state, the government and its bureaucratic agencies - should be at the service of civil society.
Where the state interacts with civil society, it should be to facilitate it. A good example was the introduction of associations’ incorporation legislation.
This legislation enabled associations to better fulfil their mission. It allowed them to attain the benefits of incorporation, to ease contractual arrangements, to obtain insurance, and to protect individuals. It was ‘light touch’ enabling legislation, seeking not so much to regulate, as to empower and enable.
It recognized that the sphere of government is separate from civil society. It acknowledged that the all-powerful state ultimately becomes Caesarean. It respected the principle of subsidiarity - that government should remain limited, and that a responsibility of the elected arm of government is to ensure that the bureaucratic wing should regulate only where, and to the extent, necessary.
It was also built on the premise of trust - that individuals and the organizations they established were motivated by the common good of their members. This is the common story of associating for the welfare of the individual’s concerned, and their neighbours, whether in local communities or further away.
This understanding is now under assault. Under the pretext of simplifying and easing the regulatory burden on associations, the federal government proposes a new regulatory body, the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission. But what was promised and what has emerged from the bureaucracy are poles apart.
A primary objective of Labor’s reform was that it should reduce administrative compliance and duplication of reporting by agencies, enabling them to direct more of their limited resources to their charitable and related activities.
Yet the Bill, developed in a secretive process, with a minimum of time for general comments, fails to meet this objective. The Bill fails to provide any basis for the reporting requirements of companies limited by guarantee to be transferred to the ACNC; for relevant parts of the Not-for-Profit reporting requirements of Commonwealth agencies to be transferred to the ACNC; of for any clear commitment to obtaining the agreement for the rationalisation of government reporting requirements between the ACNC and the relevant State and Territory authorities.
Let me take one example, namely, the case of non-government schools. In addition to the proposed ACNC reporting and accountability requirements, schools will continue to be subject to all the current State and Commonwealth reporting requirements, after a three year exemption for the latter.
This example of just one realm of activity that would be captured by the ACNC legislation illustrates the flaws in the proposal. What had been promised as simplification turns out to be costly and burdensome additional reporting requirements, with no reduction of red tape and no reduction of duplication.
The government concedes that the premises upon which this legislation is being brought forward will not be met.
In addition, the new system, far from saving associations the financial resources that could be best directed to their community activities, will cost them more. The experience of the UK was that many associations have had to employ additional employees with regulatory, legal and financial expertise, to meet the new requirements.
The same would happen here. The Baptist Church alone has estimated that it will have to spend an additional $1 million per annum of scare resources to meet the new requirements. Multiply this sum through the many associations upon which this regulator system is to be foisted, and the cost will be enormous.
David Gonski warned: “We might be the first country in the world to make being on a not-for-profit as a director more onerous than being on a for-profit.”
When groups ranging from the Conservation Foundation to schools, charitable service agencies, and sporting groups like the Surf Lifesavers all complain that this Bill is unwanted and unnecessary, the government should take notice. It has failed to identify the mischief the bill is intended to address.
Kevin Andrews is the Opposition spokesman for Families, Housing and Human Services.
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