Don’t mention the war…on charities

Posted on 26 Mar 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

Censorship advocacy megaphone

Opposition Charities spokesman Senator Dean Smith may be hoping the sector has a short memory when it comes to the former Morrison government's fractious relationship with charities, even while attacking the current government for moving too slowly on reform.

The Albanese government has been accused of being all talk and no action when it comes to solving the challenges faced by the charity and not-for-profit sector.

In an interview with the Community Advocate, Opposition Charities spokesman Senator Dean Smith said the federal Labor government had concentrated too much on dialogue and process and not enough on getting stuff done.

Senator Dean Smith
Opposition Charities spokesman Senator Dean Smith.

“While the Coalition would prefer to approach many of the challenges confronting the sector in a bipartisan spirit, Labor’s failure to deliver practical solutions makes this difficult,” said Senator Smith.

“There has been an emphasis [from the government] on dialogue and process – from several rounds of national round tables to the Productivity Commission report [into philanthropy] rather than urgent and meaningful action.”

There are several reviews into the sector currently underway:

  • NFP Sector Development Blueprint

The blueprint is intended to guide government reform and sector-led initiatives to better support and connect with communities. The findings and a summary will be released by April with the final blueprint scheduled to be handed down mid-year.

  • Department of Social Services (DSS) study of community sector funding

Submissions to the review into grant funding arrangements for community organisations will be published in late April, but no date has been set for a final report.

  • Productivity Commission inquiry into philanthropy

Described by Charities Minister Andrew Leigh as a “once-in-a-generation review of philanthropic giving in Australia”, the final report is due to be handed to the federal government by May 11 and tabled in Parliament soon afterwards.

In a wide-ranging interview, Senator Smith said he:

  • was inspired by the sector’s resilience and determination to deliver to those in need
  • has spent the past 18 months since being appointed shadow charities minister travelling the nation talking to sector organisations to get a firsthand view of the issues they face
  • is working on policy reform to be introduced as new legislation in the Senate in the near future.
“The pressing needs of charities and NFPs, and those depending on them, mean the Coalition is focussed on supporting the sector in the present and future, with a focus on consultation and cooperation.”
Dean Smith meeting with food relief charities
Senator Smith meeting with representatives of food relief charities OzHarvest, Foodbank and SecondBite.

Senator Smith acknowledged the vital role played by the not for profit and charity sector has played a vital role during the nation's cost-of-living crisis.

“Australia’s charity and NFP sector is hugely inspiring, characterised by its resilience and determination to deliver for those in need,” he said.

“It was a bulwark for the country’s most vulnerable during the pandemic, and that continues to be the case in the cost-of-living crisis.”

Senator Smith said the sector continued to juggle the rising demands of those who rely on its services against significant challenges such as falling volunteer numbers and steadily increasing costs.

“The sector is facing unprecedented demand, particularly regarding food and housing stress, and catering in many cases to clients who are presenting for the first time.

“This unprecedented demand is happening against a backdrop of falling donations and volunteer rates, and rising overheads.”

Senator Smith said he planned to introduce a private members bill in the Senate outlining tax incentives for donating food.

“The food donation bill would provide corporations with tax offsets as an incentive to give any surplus food to charities,” he said.

“For example, companies would be able to claim the costs of transportation and preservation.”

Sen Dean Smith meeting with grandparent and kinsship carers
Senator Smith listens to the concerns of grandparents and kinship carers.

Senator Smith’s conciliatory approach to the charities sector is at odds with that of the former Coalition government, whom Charities Minister Andrew Leigh has repeatedly accused of waging a “rolling war” on charities during its nine years in power.

In a speech to federal Parliament on December 18 last year, Mr Leigh accused the the former Coalition government of having attacked public advocacy by community groups.

“Community legal centre's, anti-poverty groups and overseas aid organisations were among those whose funding was threatened by gag clauses and behind-closed doors threats,” Mr Leigh said.

“In the Coalition’s worldview, charities should be seen and not heard. These attacks led to three open letters from the charity sector to successive Liberal prime ministers, asking the Coalition to stop undermining the community sector.”

Senator Smith refused to be drawn on whether he thought the characterisation of the Morrison government as anti-charities was fair and accurate.

“The pressing needs of charities and NFPs, and those depending on them, mean the Coalition is focused on supporting the sector in the present and future, with a focus on consultation and cooperation,” he said.

More information

NFPs in the cross-hairs of major inquiries

Steps toward a stronger sector

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