Above: Anne Robinson, Principal of Prolegis Lawyers, deputy chair of the Not-For-Profit Sector Reform Council, and chair of the World Vision Australia board.
By Stephen Easton
Representatives of not-for-profit aged care providers are at odds with most other charitable and community organisations, when it comes to government proposals to reform the whole not-for-profit sector.
A long list of criticisms from Aged and Community Services Australia (ACSA) can be found in a recent submission on the draft bill to establish the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), which draws heavily on a submission from Catholic Health Australia (CHA) in both tone and content.
According to the ACSA submission, the release of the ACNC Bill exposure draft in December with a deadline for submissions in late January left the organisation unable to consult its members "to any reasonable degree" or seek external advice.
"ACSA therefore wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Catholic Health Australia in helping our understanding of the ACNC Bill," the submission states.
Among other criticisms, ACSA argues the ACNC legislation will do the opposite of the government’s stated intention of reducing red tape, and “misses the opportunity” to truly achieve even the most fundamental intentions of NFP reform, as established through a long period of investigation and consultation with the sector.
But this rejection of the ACNC Bill in its current form represents a “fairly extreme view” and most of the broader NFP sector supports the reforms, according to the deputy chair of the Not-For-Profit Sector Reform Council, Anne Robinson.
“That position is standout different from almost everybody [in the NFP sector],” Ms Robinson said. “I’m not quite sure what’s driving [those] fairly extreme views, but that’s a real outrider position.”
Ms Robinson, who is also the chair of the World Vision Australia board and a lawyer specialising in NFPs, said the reforms generally reflected what the NFP sector wanted, and the recommendations of successive expert reviews, reports and inquiries over the past 16 years.
One element of the NFP reform agenda that was controversial and could arguably create more red tape was the introduction of a tax on ‘unrelated commercial activities’, she said.
“But the consultation process is still underway,” Ms Robinson said.
“We haven’t given up on the possibility that the government can be convinced to give [the unrelated commercial activities tax] up. A lot of members of the Reform Council have been saying this would increase complexity – but just this one [proposal], not the whole thing.”
Representatives and stakeholders from the NFP sector were approaching the consultations “with a spirit of goodwill”, she said, in line with the National Compact between the NFP sector, state and territory governments and the Commonwealth.
“It’s easy to be cynical about these [in-principle agreements] but what that did was set out a way we would work together, and it’s not good enough for us to go sledging the government and arguing things that aren’t fair.
“It’s a two-way street – if we want the government to respect the sector, we should be respectful to the government and engage respectfully in this debate.”
CHA chief executive Martin Laverty recently explained the extensive and detailed list of criticisms to AAA, which he said amounted to the government “creating another layer of reporting in addition to state and territory requirements” and imposing tougher regulations on aged care providers than private sector organisations like mining companies and banks.
“[The ACNC] should lead state and territory governments into a national framework for charities, but it doesn’t, and there’s no need to change governance rules for charities,” Mr Laverty said.
“The Corporations Act and the Associations Act are both well understood, and should continue into the future. The same rules should apply to for-profit providers and not-for-profit providers, and there is no case as to why there should be tougher regulations on a not-for-profit provider, contrasted with a for-profit.”
“It ain’t broke, so don’t fix it,” Mr Laverty said, summarising CHA’s views. But according to Anne Robinson, that is not the situation for the vast majority of charities and NFPs.
“It might not be broken for those who are already large endorsed charities, but for smaller ones – which are the vast bulk of the sector – and for new entrants, it is difficult [under the current system],” Ms Robinson said.
And according to former CEO of ACSA, Greg Mundy, who now heads up the Council of Ambulance Authorities, larger charitable organisations were responsible for blocking past attempts to enact similar reforms.
“…The system is broken and does need to be fixed,” Mr Mundy said in a comment posted on the AAA website, in response to Martin Laverty.
“Australia had two failed attempts to fix charities regulation under the Howard Government – stymied by big end of town charities who were doing very nicely under the status quo. If this third attempt fails to get up as a result of the same forces that torpedoed Howard's Bill another opportunity will have passed us by.”