Church lobby in win over charities watchdog
Article by ROYCE MILLAR published front page of the Age and other Fairfax outlets September 01, 2013
If Tony Abbott is elected prime minister on Saturday he will abolish the watchdog established by Labor to keep an eye on the billions of dollars received and spent by Australian charities each year. Why?
The answer, in part at least, may be the lobbying power of church conservatives, the Catholic Church in particular, and the office of Sydney Cardinal George Pell, more particularly still.
And their focus has not been the Coalition alone. Labor insiders acknowledge the impact of Cardinal Pell's office as it reduced the scope of its new national regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission.
Charity leaders, church heads and political insiders have told The Sunday Age about the lobbying campaign over charities regulation by the Sydney archdiocese, notably Cardinal Pell's business manager and chief political envoy, Danny Casey.
The pressure applied by the Sydney church through the charities debate has raised the question of the access and sway it may enjoy under Australia's first Catholic Liberal prime minister and his Catholic-strong frontbench that includes Kevin Andrews, Barnaby Joyce, Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull (a convert), Andrew Robb and Christopher Pyne.
Labor senator Ursula Stephens has watched the campaigning over the commission at close quarters, including from her former position as parliamentary secretary for social inclusion, where she had responsibility for reform of charities regulation.
A proud Catholic, she confirms heavy lobbying of both sides of politics, including by the national Catholic Bishops Conference and separately by the clearly more anti-regulation Sydney archdiocese.
She says she had ''absolutely'' no doubt that Cardinal Pell's representatives had had a big influence on opposition family and human services spokesman Kevin Andrews' promise in mid-2012 to abolish the commission, well before Labor detailed its final, amended form in Parliament, a position he reiterated last week.
''I'm well aware that Sydney lobbied the opposition very hard on this issue, says Senator Stephens. ''They got to Kevin Andrews early.''
Across the Catholic Church is an array of views about the commission, and widespread concern about additional red tape and duplication in the early days of its operation.
Paul O'Callaghan, the head of Melbourne-based Catholic Social Services, says the major church welfare agencies support a single national regulator, but want it to be of ''lighter touch'' in its work.
Another senior church figure contrasts this with the Sydney archdiocese's breakaway lobbying, describing it as driven by ''fear and suspicion''. ''There are a few in the church, like Danny Casey, that are anti-commission, full stop.''
Over 20 years a string of commissions and committees has called for better regulation of Australia's $43 billion charitable sector.
In 2010, the Productivity Commission slammed the regulation regime shared by the Australian Taxation Office, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission and the states as too complex, too costly, and too short on transparency.
Labor's response was the new charities commission, which opened for business in January. It is meant to be a one-stop shop that keeps a register of charities - there are 60,000 large ones and 600,000 not-for-profit groups in all - helps them meet their obligations, and investigates them when they don't.
Given the Liberals' ideological commitment to the idea of small government, suspicion about a national regulator is arguably consistent with the Liberal philosophy.
Mr Andrews says Labor's commission is an unnecessary level of bureaucracy established to hunt down ''mischief'' it has never identified.
''We don't believe that any real mischief was made out to justify a whole new bureaucracy. It is total overkill for what is required for the charities sector,'' he says.
Yet charity sector leaders such as World Vision's Tim Costello insist that, while the new commission has had teething problems, it is settling as an effective and efficient regulator of, and friend to, charities. ''The commission is actually working for us, and it gives the public confidence [in the spending of their donations],'' he says.
A survey last month of 1500 not-for-profit groups by online not-for-profit information agency Pro Bono Australia found 80 per cent supported the commission.
And the Victorian and Tasmanian-based Churches of Christ Community Care has begun an online petition to save the commission, warning that the Coalition alternative would be ''an advisory body with no teeth''. That, say critics, appears to be the point.