Minister steps up moves to remove secrecy muzzle from ACNC

Posted on 11 Jul 2023

By Greg Thom, journalist, Our Community

Magnifing glass

The federal government has reaffirmed its commitment to lifting secrecy provisions that prevent the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) from disclosing investigations into misconduct in the sector.

Charities Minister Andrew Leigh said the ACNC was currently “muzzled” when it came to disclosing investigations or their outcomes to the public.

The minister released a statement confirming the government plans to push ahead with legislative changes following Canberra’s announcement in the May budget of $2.9 million in extra funding over the next four years and a further $600,000 per year after that for the charities regulator to deliver on the planned reforms.

Current secrecy provisions prevent the ACNC from disclosing:

  • whether it is investigating alleged misconduct by a charity
  • the outcomes of investigations
  • the reasons for revoking the registration of a charity.

Speaking on ABC radio, Mr Leigh said the current situation limits the ability of the public and charities to learn from ACNC regulatory activities.

“The situation is the charities commission is basically muzzled when it comes to telling us what investigations it's doing,” he said.

“Now, often that's important for due process, that it doesn't disclose the investigation’s afoot until it finds evidence of wrongdoing.

Andrew Leigh
Charities Minister Andrew Leigh

“[But] sometimes it can actually be useful to set the public's mind at rest that the watchdog is on the job.”

Mr Leigh said the Albanese government takes the integrity of the charity sector seriously.

He said the government is changing the law to allow the charities commission in exceptional circumstances to disclose that an investigation is underway.

“We think that'll improve public confidence in the charity sector and it puts the charities commission on par with its counterparts in other countries and with similar agencies in Australia.”

The changes enable the ACNC to publish information to increase public understanding of registration and compliance decisions for educational purposes, with the aim of improving transparency and accountability in the charity sector.

When asked why the current ACNC secrecy provisions exist, Mr Leigh said the answer came partly down to workload.

“If you've got to make a decision about whether you go public with certain claims, then of course you've got to go through the lawyers and make sure that you've got your i's dotted and your t's crossed,” he said.

Mr Leigh said the ACNC had evolved in the decade since it was established, and with responsibility for regulating more than 60,000 charities, it is now better placed to handle the task of not only investigating but commenting on complex investigations.

“It's growing up, it's maturing into the sort of agency that is able to talk to the public about some of those investigations.”

"The situation is the charities commission is basically muzzled when it comes to telling us what investigations it's doing."
Charities minister Andrew Leigh

Mr Leigh said some previously high-profile investigations had made their way into the media, leaving the charities commission in the difficult position of not being able to comment while its investigation was underway.

“So, this is about giving the commission just that little bit more flexibility, which of course means they need a little bit more legal support, hence the additional funding.”

ACNC commissioner Sue Woodward described the proposed changes as an important reform that would foster enhanced trust and confidence in the charity sector.

“It helps us be a more effective regulator,” she said.

“Initially it will involve the ACNC publishing deidentified reasons for decisions to accept or refuse applications for registration of charities where these reasons are of educational benefit to the wider charity sector.

Sue Woodward
ACNC Commissioner Sue Woodward.

“Public consultation will take place to ensure the right balance between improving transparency and integrity of the charity sector and ensuring due process is applied to investigations.”

The changes received support from the CEO of the Community Council for Australia, David Crosbie.

He said the lack of information about ACNC enforcement actions had caused considerable confusion and frustration – particularly for complainants.

“Not knowing if the ACNC has followed up on complaints or is investigating a complaint has in some cases led to problems that might easily have been resolved if the ACNC could [have provided] a little bit more information about their activities,” said Mr Crosbie.

He said there had been numerous recommendations to allow the ACNC to be more transparent about its activities.

“CCA supports these new measures which go some way to addressing concerns expressed by politicians and others who have made complaints and then not been able to even confirm if their complaints had been acted upon.”

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