Tuesday, April 29, 2014

What is the real intent behind plans to abolish Australia's charity regulator?

This government does not like campaigning and advocacy organisations, and the removal of the ACNC as an independent regulator simply exposes those organisations to attack.  
Greg Ogle

Excellent piece by Greg Ogle,  Independence of Charities Under Threat,  on the real intent behind Abbott Governments plans to repeal the national charity regulation body — the 18-month old Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission (ACNC)- and hand back the regulation of charities to the Australian Tax Office. 

Ogle argues that repeal of the ACNC paves the way for a return to the political attacks of the Howard Government years (1996-2007), particularly attacks on environmental and campaigning groups involved in public advocacy, direct action and activism.

The Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission (ACNC) was set up less than 18 months ago by the Federal Labor government to regulate the charitable sector. The governing legislation for the ACNC ensured the independence of charities and their right to advocate for charitable causes.

The objects of the Act that established the ACNC committed to ensuring a “robust, vibrant, independent and innovative” charity sector. The legislative provision ensured that the governance standards required to be met by charities did not constrain advocacy. 

In essence, the legislation gave charities some protection for pursuing advocacy and activist campaigns that challenge Government policy or corporate malfeasance.

Ogle reminds us of the Howard Government's direct attack of advocacy and campaigning by charities and NGOS: 
Under the Howard government, the tax office was used to attack and pressure charities who were advocated for policies the government didn’t like. This was at a time of recurring public and parliamentary attacks on those charities by senior Liberal politicians like George Brandis, Brett Mason and Eric Abetz, echoed by industry groups and right wing think tanks. The pressure meant that between 2004 and 2007 The Wilderness Society, for instance, faced at least 20 different public calls for them to be stripped of their charity status. They passed the three Tax Office audits of their “political” activity, but other groups like AidWatch had long court battles to secure their tax charity status.
In a separate article, Andrews leads fight to abolish Charities Commission, Mike Seccombe shows how the campaign to abolish the ACNC was driven by the self interest of the financial services sector (who administer charitable trusts) and influential parts of the Catholic Church, who are concerned about revealing financial details of the Church. 

Seccombe notes how Cardinal Pell, former Head of the Catholic Church in Australia and confidant of Prime Minister Abbott and Minister Andrews, made it clear that he opposed the ACNC.

Although there were some initial concerns among charities about the likelihood of increased compliance and regulatory costs, the majority of the charity sector now support the ACNC. Seccombe describes the campaign waged by the powerful financial services industry to abolish the ACNC

While the financial services industry claimed they are concerned about the cost of complying with its financial disclosure requirements, Seccombe shows that their real concern is the likelihood of scrutiny by the ACNC of their  administration of charitable trusts, that would reveal the grossly excessive fees they take for looking after the bequests of philanthropists.

Seccombe quotes Tim Costello CEO of World Vision Australia and Chair of the Community Council of Australia: 
“It’s pretty apparent there are only two main groups that are strongly opposed. The trustees, who handle dead people’s money, are a major source of opposition because they don’t want transparency about what they charge. The other is the Catholics".
Ogle refutes the Minister's claim that the abolition of the ACNC is designed to reduce red tape, by highlighting  other ways that the Federal Government could reduce red tape, but refuses to do so.

 Ogle gets to the heart of the matter:
This government does not like campaigning and advocacy organisations, and the removal of the ACNC as an independent regulator simply exposes those organisations to attack.
Spot on!!! 

Monday, April 21, 2014

The strategic advantage of non profits and civil society groups

image: Storm Force by John Gaffen

"After decades of discourse about how nonprofits need to be more businesslike, I am driven to discuss the differences structurally and in more detail. The admonition to be more like a business is a preposterous proposition—ill informed and exhibiting a sloppy state of mind that tries to draw us all off track to a space of unaccountability. Don’t fall for it. For goodness’ sake—if you want to act like a business, be a business! The major distinguishing factor of a business is its ability to build the wealth of individual owners rather than build collective well-being and value. Decide which bottom line you are dedicated to, and make it your own"
Ruth McCambridge

Like Ruth McCambridge, I have long been a critic of those who claim that nonprofits should be more business-like and operate like business to remodel themselves along business and market lines. It is both an ill informed and dangerous claim.

The claim reflects a naive understanding of non profit organizations and is predicated on a false assumption that non profits need a dose of "business thinking" to be more effective and effective.

Others who express similar views to McCambridge and I, include Michael Edwards and Deborah Allcock Tyler.

In her article Use it or Lose it: Frittering Away Civil Society's Strategic Advantage in the excellent online and print journal Non Profit Quarterly, of which she is the Editor, McCambridge argues that non profits have a strategic advantage that they are often blind to because they don't recognize or use it. 

And she argues that blindness to this strategic advantage is leading the nonprofit and civil society sector to lose its opportunity to become more influential, particularly in terms of responding to debates and solutions about important social, economic and political issues.

McCambridge argues that this strategic advantage springs from a number of distinguishing characteristics of non profits that need to be valued much more and worked with in a more conscious and powerful way.  

Strategic advantage is not to be found in the lure of competition, business metrics, market orientation, growth for growth's sake and obsession with money and profitability.

Some of the strategic advantages highlighted in Ruth McCambridge's article include:
  • the tradition of collective association and collective endeavor for the common good
  • the tradition of being close to constituents and to communities and of providing opportunities to maximise and amplify their voice
  • the importance of shared values and collective aspirations
  • the importance of scale, particularly smallness and nimbleness 
  • close engagement and shared fit between the interests and aspiration of those who run the organization and those who benefit from its activities
  • the focus on mutual benefit and the common good
  • the tradition of mobilizing people to work together for shared value and of working non competitively in networks
  • the important of trust and credibility in the eyes of constituents and stakeholders, rather than public image and brand 
  • acting as the vehicle through which constituents and citizens can take action for the common good and mutual benefit
  • appealing to common cause and individual aspiration through activity aimed explicitly at common benefit as a way for engaging the energy of stakeholders.
  • availing ourselves of our constituents/stakeholders’ unpaid/volunteer labor.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Abbott Government, social policy and the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism

Treasurer Joe Hockey's announcement that the Abbott Government plans to increase the pension age (from 67 to 70), impose more welfare means testing and introduce co-payments for medical services comes as no surprise, but provides more evidence of the continuing assault on public spending for the less well off, the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

The Abbott Government has already imposed severe spending cuts across many portfolios and shown its intention to cut back public expenditure for the less well off by fundamentally transforming income support in areas such as the Disability Support pension (DSP), family and welfare payments and welfare support for the long term unemployed.

In addition, there is the expectation that both the report into the Welfare System (the McClure Review) and the report of the National Commission of Audit (the Business Council of Australia report), both due to be released soon, will recommend serious austerity policies and market driven social policies.

The Abbott Government's market fundamentalist policies and its austerity agenda are intended to dismantle public spending for the less well off and the vulnerable, and fundamentally transform public spending and public assets to make them suitable to deliver profit to the business and corporate sector and largess to the already well off.

What is also worth noting is that this fundamental transformation of social policy and welfare support is being undertaken without any real consultation with the social policy and welfare sector, and continues to be driven by advice from, and the agendas of influential pro- business and corporate lobby groups, such as the Business Council of Australia.

Moreover, the Abbott  Government has consistently concealed its real social policy intentions and denied it was planning to impose these policies. None of the policies were made public prior to the last election and back in November 2013 Treasurer Joe Hockey lied when he said that the Government had no plans to increase the pension age.

While it dismantles social policies that support the less well off and the vulnerable it retains and expands profligate policies for the corporate and business sector and the rich and already well off, such as superannuation tax concessions, various housing-related tax benefits, paid parental leave, asset tests and corporate tax benefits, to name but a few.

On his blog En Passant former Tax Office economist, blogger, activist and academic John Passant alerts us to the hypocrisy and deceit of Treasurer Joe Hockey's proposals on the age pension:
Let me get this right. The revenue forgone on tax concessions for superannuation at $45 bn will soon be more than the cost of the pension (over $40 bn). Of that $45 bn in tax concessions $10 to $15 bn will go to the top 10% of income earners. Yet Australia’s greatest Treasurer, Joe Hockey, wants to rein in expenditure on the pension by for example extending the access age to 70 (after Labor increased it to 67 over time by 2023) and tightening up the asset test to perhaps include the family home. Priorities. 

According to the OECD Australia has one of the lowest relative pensions of any member countries (Turkey and Mexico are lower) and 35% of Australian pensioners live in poverty. Priorities.