Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Regulator of the Australian not-for-profit sector is in doubt

Excellent and timely piece here by El Gibbs in New Matilda on the Federal Government's  plan to set up an Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit (NFP) Commission to improve regulation of the not-for-profit sector.

The Federal Government's legislation to set up up the Australian Charities and Not-for Profit Commission to  manage all aspects of NFP governance and require annual financial reporting by organisations across the country went through the House of Representatives last week and is due to come before the Senate in the next sitting of Parliament.

The relevant bills have been through an extensive consultation process, including a formal review by a Senate Committee. The Greens, who hold the balance of power in the Senate, support the legislation in broad terms, but intend to move amendments in the Senate and may block the legislation if their amendments are not adopted.

The Opposition Liberal National Parties currently oppose the creation of the Commission. and provided over 30 speakers against the Bill when it came before the House of Representatives last week.

As El points out the main industry bodies representing the not- for- profit sector in Australia have been calling for the streamlining and improvement of the regulation of the not- for- profit sector for some considerable time and there is widespread support for the Commission.

However, despite this level of support there remain concerns that, without support from the states and territories, the impact of the Commission will be to increase, rather than decrease, the administrative burden on NFP groups, particularly smaller agencies.

I have cited El's piece in full:

Will a Charity Commission cut Red Tape 
by El Gibbs

A proposal to regulate and oversee a section of the Australian economy that employs 8 per cent of workers and comprises over 600,000 different organisations went through the House of Representatives last week. It’s due to come before the Senate in the next sitting of Parliament.

The proposed legislation will set up a commission to manage all aspects of governance and require annual financial reporting by organisations across the country.

The Australian Charities and Not-for-profit (NFP) Commission is a long-standing goal of the NFP sector and has been recommended in a series of reports into the sector since 2001. Currently, charities and NFP groups report to a myriad of government agencies. They often have to report a number of times and in different ways, creating a great deal of red tape. 

"We are at the altar of the reforms we want and need and we ask for the support of our national parliament and of the states and territories to deliver for us better and smarter regulation. We don’t want to be jilted yet again," David Thompson AM, Director of the National Roundtable of NFP Organisations, told New Matilda. 

The Commission will also oversee future changes to the definition of what is a charity and which organisations are able to claim the lucrative Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status, that allows donations to be tax-deductible — this has an impact on the kind of fundraising an organisation can do. The Commission could also frame the unique place the NFP sector holds in relation to the government and business sectors. 

The CEO of ACOSS, Dr Cassandra Goldie has said:
"Our sector is overly but ineffectively regulated. For the reams of paper and hours of analysis that charities put in to reporting the same information to multiple funders and regulators, we know little about the activities, size or scope of this essential sector."
The proposed Commission will, according to Senator Ursula Stephens, have three main objectives.
"Its first object is to maintain, protect and enhance public trust and confidence in the NFP sector. Its second object is to support and sustain a robust, vibrant, independent and innovative NFP sector. The third object underlines the important role that the ACNC will have to promote the reduction of unnecessary regulatory obligations on the NFP sector."
In a statement from the State, Territory and National peak groups for the sector, Goldie states that "the creation of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission is the culmination of a long process and has broad support from the community and social services sector. 

UnitingCare Director, Lin Hatfield-Dodds, told New Matilda that the opportunities offered by the Commission could be of great benefit to the community and to the sector:
"It’s important that funders can quickly and easily get an objective and transparent look at the community groups they support. The Commission could also act as a ‘Report once, use often’ tool, so that community groups report to one agency across all government. When we are spending public money, we have to be transparent. However, there is a risk that we spend more time and administration on reporting, rather than delivering innovative services."
However, there are concerns that, without support from the states and territories, the impact of the Commission will be to increase, rather than decrease, the administrative burden on NFP groups. Currently, organisations can either incorporate, and be regulated by ASIC, or form an association, which is regulated by state-based Departments of Fair Trading. The addition of a Commission, with no corresponding reduction in state-based regulation, is of concern to many groups. COAG is due to consider these issues early in 2013. 

In the interim, the Commission could drive reform of red tape within the federal government by streamlining reporting requirements across departments and agencies. For example, each time a group applies for a grant, they have to start from scratch, rather than being able to register with the Commission once for all other agencies. 

The relevant bills have been available for public scrutiny for some months, and have been through an extensive consultation process, including a formal review by the Senate Community Affairs Committee.

 The current legislation is the result of many changes, however there are still concerns held by the Greens, who intend to move amendments in the Senate in the next sitting of Parliament. 
"As I outlined in my dissenting report on this legislation, the Greens remain concerned that there’s not enough detail about gag-clauses for advocacy groups, and we think there needs to be more consultation on the governance arrangements and independence for the sector to advocate on behalf of those they look after," Greens Senator Rachel Siewert told New Matilda:
"Not-for-profit groups are an essential part of civil society and it’s important that this legislation gives transparency in dealing with government. We also want to see the Commissioner given more power to drive the red-tape reduction agenda."
The Greens confirmed to New Matilda that they will consider blocking the legislation if their amendments are not adopted by the Government. However, they stated their commitment to working with the Government to improve the bills to address the remaining issues of concern to the NFP sector.

The LNP currently opposes the creation of the Commission. Despite the broad sector support, the LNP provided over 30 speakers against the Bill when it came before the House last week. Kevin Andrews, the Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services, stated  that "this is legislation which has been foisted upon the charitable sector in Australia which they do not want, which there has been no case made by the hapless minister at the table." 

"This is simply not true," said Thompson, who leads the sector’s peak body. "The evidence is in the thousands of words in submissions from the sector, calling for this reform. The Government has taken on board a significant number of issues raised in submissions." 

Other LNP members quoted a range of charitable and NFP groups’ concerns about the Bill. However, some of these quotes were from submissions about a much earlier version of the legislation and many of these concerns have now been remedied. Several sources have confirmed that there has been considerable disquiet among those groups named by LNP members in the debate. 

One, the Australian Institute of Company Directors, is quoted as having concerns regarding the impact of the legislation on board members, most of whom are volunteers. In a recent statement, the AICD said: "if suitable amendments giving effect to these changes were to be made to the current Bill, and subsequent to our review of the revised Bill wording, we would support its passage through Parliament." They support the amendments that the Greens will be putting to the legislation. 

The Bill has been introduced into the Senate and is due to be debated in the next sitting, starting 9 October. If the legislation is not passed, Thompson says "it will be back to the drawing board in the quest to get the regulator we want. We have waited a long time and an enormous effort has been put in to get it this far."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Gerry Georgatos and the power of combining citizen journalism and social justice campaigning

Gerry Georgatos is a West Australian journalist who combines investigative reporting with a powerful commitment  to campaigning on social justice and human rights issues.

Gerry is  a Western Australian based reporter for the National Indigenous Times for whom he writes important stories about Indigenous and social justice issues that few other journalists are willing to cover.

Gerry is also the Principal and Convener of the Human Rights Alliance through which he has initiated  and led groundbreaking social justice campaigns in WA. Gerry is also a Phd researcher  on Aboriginal Deaths in custody.

It is this combination of investigative journalism, social and political research and social justice campaigning that has resulted in Gerry exposing injustices ignored by the mainstream media and politicians, including the illegal imprisonment of Indonesian youths in adult prisons in WA, Police violence inflicted on a young Aboriginal man in Albany and the appalling state of Aboriginal homelessness in the Kimberley region.

As well as the National Indigenous Gerry's articles also appear in many other places including Indy Media, Indy Media Brisbane, Green Left Weekly and the Donnybrook-Bridgetown Mail.

Gerry's article below is about the decision by the UK multinational corporation Serco and the WA Department of Corrective Services to deny Aboriginal prisoners access to prisoner transport to attend family funerals. 

The article will appear in the National Indigenous Times this week
Gerry Georgatos on Aboriginal Funeral outrage
The National Indigenous Times has been contacted by two sources during the last couple of weeks, one within the Department of Corrective Services (DCS) Western Australia and another within SERCO, that Aboriginal inmates will no longer be transported to funerals. Instead they may be left with the option of paying their respects to loved ones by either viewing a recorded or where possible live screening of the funeral and the procession while alone in a prison wing room. This has been slammed as inhumane, and culturally inappopriate by most Aboriginal Elders.
Both sources said that this initiative was flagged allegedly due to SERCO's reluctance to transport prisoners to funerals. The multinational which has the contract to much of the State's prisoner transport, and manages Acacia Prison, on the outskirts of Perth, and the lucrative Immigration Detention Centre network Australia-wide, is allegedly reluctant to provide compulsory funeral attendances for Aboriginal inmates - it has been alleged that SERCO management claimed high prison officer risk issues at funerals and also allegedly cost benefit issues. SERCO is one of the world's wealthiest companies.
The National Indigenous Times contacted the DCS, and its spokesperson Brian Cowie said "Gerry, we will have comment for you next week." 
UWA law student and Nyoongar rights activist Marianne Mackay the former chairperson of the Deaths in Custody WA contacted the National Indigenous Times a few days ago to confirm that she had also been advised that an Aboriginal prisoner was refused transport to a funeral last Friday. "This is a first, it doesn't happen that one of our people is not allowed to attend a funeral. Apparently SERCO refused to transport him and this has stunned us considering how everybody knows how important it is for our people to attend funerals. It attacks our cultural integrity."
SERCO is yet to respond to the National Indigenous Times.
Another Nyoongar rights activist, Iva Jackson-Hayward has responded with a call for the State Government to ensure that the DCS and SERCO ensure Aboriginal inmates do not have their cultural rights eroded. "The DCS and SERCO are dutibound to protect the rights of our people. Aboriginal women and men in prison cannot break their customary duty to attend funerals. It's outrageous what is happening, and it's a human rights abuse. This is all about money, and SERCO trying to make more of it by abusing the rights of our people. It is the Government's duty to pull SERCO into line."
Ms Mackay said the Inspector of Custodial Services, Neil Morgan was contacted on Friday.
The WA Prison Officers Union (WAPOU) said the State Government should scrap SERCO's prisoner transport contract. WAPOU Secretary John Welch made this call following another whistleblower's leaking of serious allegations.
The whistleblower said SERCO transported prisoners to wrong prisons, was late in bringing prisoners to their Court appearances, transported seriously ill prisoners in prison vans instead of ambulances. It was only a couple of months ago a prisoner who had open-heart surgery was returned to the prison in a van instead of an ambulance and arrived with serious injuries which the DCS tried to play down however CCTV footage proved otherwise.
All three whistleblowers said SERCO was not turning up to transport Aboriginal prisoners to family funerals, and that SERCO made no effort to account for its failure.
Mr Welch said SERCO's failure to ensure contracted prisoner transports gave rise to stress and tensions in prisons.
"These latest allegations are so serious that the Barnett Government should cancel SERCO's contract and bring these services back for the Department of Corrective Services to run so that we can be confident the community is being kept safe."
Australia has one of the world's worst prison suicide rates, with privately run prisons, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology, enduring proportionately more deaths in custody than Government run prisons.
Other serious allegations were made by the whisteblowers to the National Indigenous Times and we will follow these through.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The paradox of the Paralympics

Excellent piece here by Amelia Gentleman on the paradox of the Paralympics- the disconnect between the positive attitudes to disability on display inside the Olympic stadiums and the experience of people with disabilities in the wider British society where intensive Government cuts are creating immense suffering for disabled people and increasing hostility towards people with disabilities is resulting in a soaring of hate crimes.

Many radical and activist groups such as Disabled People against Cuts have campaigned and protested against aspects of the Paralympics such as corporate sponsorship by large corporations such as Atos and cuts to services for people with disabilities. Atos who was a major sponsor of the Paralympics is contracted by the UK Government as administrators of assessments that rob disabled people of their benefits.

In this piece on the website of Disabled People against Cuts disability activist Dave King argues that the Paralympics are the precise opposite of the values of disability liberation. King writes
But with the Paralympics we have seen the addition into this cocktail of a supremely powerful and toxic ingredient, the opportunity for liberals to feel good about themselves for supporting the underdog and ‘progress in the fight against prejudice’. It is this thick coating of syrup which has confused even radical disability rights advocates, and is making it almost impossible for critics to speak out, except about the blatantly obvious outrage of Atos as sponsors. But the truth is that, despite all the hopeful talk about how the Paralympics are going to revolutionise people’s ideas about disability, the ideas and values at the core of the Paralympics are the precise opposite of the values of disability liberation. (I write this as a disabled person, one who has undergone one of Atos’ medical assessments and been found wanting, and who is suffering financially as a consequence.

In the Guardian Amelia Gentleman writes:
There has been a clear reluctance among officials this week to sour the happy atmosphere by talking about the Paralympics paradox – the difficulty of reconciling the amazing excitement around the Games, which has portrayed Britain globally as a place where positive attitudes to disability reign, and a bleaker reality that kicks in beyond Stratford.

The guide for journalists covering the event is explicit in its instructions that disability and any issues around it should not be the focus of reporting. It stipulates that reporters should concentrate on "performance, sporting ambition, training, competition and the emotions associated with winning and losing". Most athletes contacted to discuss the broader issues of disability for this piece declined to be interviewed. But many disabled visitors were quick to comment on the disconnection between their experiences within the park and their everyday lives at a time when in addition to cuts to services and benefits payments, charities such as Scope have been documenting worsening attitudes and official figures show that incidents of disability hate crime have soared to their highest ever levels.

Kalya Franklin, a disability campaigner whose Benefit Scrounging Scum blog has charted the rising problems faced by disabled people at a time of cuts to services and benefits, was amazed at the ease of her journey to Stratford from Birmingham, describing it as "the smoothest journey I've ever done on public transport". "People were there waiting to offer help – that's very unusual. There were much higher levels of staffing. That's not typical, nor is seeing lots of portable ramps around," she said.

She was delighted to be at the event, but like many, she was struggling with the Paralympics paradox.
"It's a utopian fantasy of where we need to move towards as a society," she said, pausing for a moment at Stratford station (interrupted on two occasions in the space of five minutes by transport staff asking if she needed assistance). "It's brilliant, because this has shown that with the right attitude, will and financing, it can be done."

The sporting event was for her, like any sporting occasion, a bit of escapism from daily problems, but she was anxious that attention to the pressing issues facing people with disabilities should not be deflected while the country basks in the international congratulations for having mounted a sellout Paralympic event. She pointed to a planned 20% cut in the disability living allowance (DLA), announced in the 2010 budget, in particular, arguing the that extra money, for employed and unemployed claimants to help with the extra cost of disability, had helped finance the extra cost of care and transport for many disabled visitors to the Games.

"What the public haven't realised about the Paralympians is how many of them are completely reliant on DLA. Although they are superfit athletes it doesn't mean they aren't also disabled and have mobility needs and care needs in their day-to-day lives," she said.