Australian charities and other not-for-profits have always played a key role in providing necessary services to some of society’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged people. Indeed, prior to the second world war, charities, not government, provided the majority of social services in this country.
The Productivity Commission’s 2010 Contribution of the Not-for-Profit Sector report outlined there are around 600,000 not-for-profits nationally. It found 59,000 economically significant not-for-profits contributed $43 billion to the nation’s GDP in 2006-07, and provided 8 percent of employment.
Today, the not-for-profit sector addresses the needs and advocates for the nation’s poor, people with disabilities, animal welfare services, and the protection of the environment, amongst the other vital work it performs.
A questionable appointment
It’s against this well-respected and acknowledged function that these organisations perform that the Turnbull government has appointed a new head of the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission (ACNC), who seems to be diametrically opposed to these organisations.
On December 7, Australian assistant minister to the treasurer Michael Sukkar announced long-time anti-charity campaigner Dr Gary Johns as commissioner of the ACNC. Charity advocates have labelled it as a “bizarre appointment.”
The move has been taken by some in the sector as more proof that the Coalition government is seeking to further relegate charities and not-for-profits to a position where they can be seen, but not heard.
An enemy in our midst
Dr Gary Johns was a federal Labor MP between the years 1987 and 1996. He held a number of ministerial roles under the Keating government. Johns is also a former senior fellow of the conservative think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, where he headed NGOWatch.
The doctor is a director of the Australian Institute for Progress and an adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology Business School. He’s also the author of 2014’s The Charity Ball: a critique of the industry.
A long-time critic of the advocacy work that charities carry out, Johns said at his appointment that he plans to provide greater transparency about the charities that Australians donate to. And that he assumes his new position “neither as friend or foe” of the sector.
Mr Sukkar said Dr Johns had been appointed to the position on a “merit-based” process via a selection panel. The minister added that the fact that Johns “has a deep understanding of these issues in a more philosophical sense is a strength.”
A peak body for not-for-profit organisations, the Community Council for Australia said Australian charities were “shaking their heads in disbelief that a high-profile anti-charity campaigner” has been placed in charge of the national regulator of the voluntary sector.
Community Council for Australia chief executive David Crosbie outlined in a release that Dr Johns “has made numerous statements” that indicate he’s opposed to many charities. “Only a government committed to attacking the charities sector would” have appointed him as head of the ACNC.
According to Crosbie, ACNC commissioner is a “tough gig,” which requires “real expertise, personal capacity, and a commitment to enhancing the valuable work done in our charities sector.” And the doctor has demonstrated none of these qualities.
Dr Cassandra Goldie, chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service described Dr Johns’ appointment as “untenable” in a statement. She further stated that Johns has repeatedly spoken out against charity advocacy work.
No friend of charities
Writing in an article in the Australian in April 2013, Dr Johns states that charities are “highly government funded” organisations that lobby the government for more money. “Some do little or no charity work, and some do little good.”
In an April 2015 article Johns took aim at environmental charities, and questioned their eligibility to receive tax deductible donations in the face of the advocacy work they do. He pointed to WWF Australia’s campaigning against a lack of government protections for the Great Barrier Reef.
The “government should be reticent about tax assistance to organisations that seek to promote viewpoints on issues where there is reasonable disagreement in the electorate,” Dr Johns wrote. His position seems to be that a charity’s funding should be reliant on no forthcoming criticism of government.
And later that year in another article, the doctor criticised beyondblue’s campaign for marriage equality. He disputed the mental health not-for-profits’ claim that discriminatory policies, such as denying same-sex marriage, lead to worse health outcomes for LGBTIQ people.
Attacking the poor
Dr Johns also believes it should be mandatory for welfare recipients to use contraception. In December 2014, the doctor argued that people receiving benefits should not be eligible to do so unless they use contraception, as they shouldn’t be able to procreate if they’re receiving welfare.
While in July 2015, Dr Johns caused outrage when he appeared on the Bolt Report and stated “a lot of poor women in this country, a large portion of whom are Aboriginal, are used as cash cows right. They are kept pregnant and producing children for the cash. Now that has to stop.”
The appointment of Dr Johns as ACNC commissioner is seen as a further evidence that the government is attempting to clampdown on the voice of charities and not-for-profits.
On December 5, Turnbull announced legislation that would prevent charities that receive overseas funding from advocating for social and environmental issues if their activity is deemed political. It comes amid a Treasury inquiry seeking to limit the amount of advocacy work that charities can engage in.
Those in the charities sector have warned this will have “a chilling effect,” as many trusts and foundations take a global approach to these issues, which can involve funding from foreign sources.
The week prior to the announcement of the proposed legislation, a coalition of development and aid charities issued a joint statement condemning the move to limit the amount of charity advocacy work, along with their ability to receive funding from overseas donors.
Labor’s shadow minister for charities and not-for-profits Andrew Leigh said that the appointment of Dr Johns as the new commissioner was taking the Coalition government’s “war on charities to a whole new level.” He likened the move to “putting Ned Kelly in charge of bank security.”
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.