Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Struggle Street and a hard-earned win for charities

You wouldn't know it from the budget papers, but the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission is here to stay.

Budget Related Paper 1.16 uses the same studiously neutral language it used last time...

"The ACNC provides independent determination and registration of charities, health promotion institutions, and public benevolent institutions for all Commonwealth purposes."

"The implementation of a 'report-once, use-often' general reporting framework is to reduce red tape and simplify the regulatory framework... to make it easier for not-for-profits to deliver their services to the community."

"On March 19, 2014, the government introduced the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Repeal Bill. However, the ACNC will continue to operate in its current form whilst the current ACNC Act remains in effect and the program expenses reflect this."

What's happened behind the scenes is that the government has given up abolishing the ACNC, or as the assistant treasurer says, determined that abolishing it is "no longer a priority".

In place since December 2012, the charities commission is a one-stop shop for charities and non-profits who deal with the government. It replaced the Australian Tax Office as the body that had to decide who had the right to claim that status and a myriad of other state, territory and Commonwealth bodies that investigated complaints and advised the public about who it was safe to deal with. The Tax Office was particularly unsuited to its role, being primarily concerned with raising revenue.

Over the past two years the ACNC has investigated 1300 complaints against charities, revoked the status of 9, prepared guides for volunteers and guides for charities wanting to use volunteers and opened to the public the records of 23,000 organisations.

The Coalition came to office promising to abolish it. It included it in its first red tape repeal day. The minister Kevin Andrews said it was heavy-handed and unnecessary. This wasn't the view of the overwhelmingly majority in the sector who were was pleased to at last have a charity-specific regulator that cared about it (Private companies that administer charitable trusts and some in the Catholic Church, not enthusiastic about the extra scrutiny, were the most critical).

A Senate inquiry into the government's plan to kill the commission was flooded with submissions praising its gentle approach and the fact that it has already made life easier.

"If the Government decides to proceed to repeal it, we strongly urge that the good works that have been done and the progress made in reducing reports be retained by any subsequent body," one submission said from the ACT. Another said the commission was a "dream come true".

This is a sector whose clients have been ignored or pushed around by two consecutive federal budgets.

Community health is especially aggrieved as areas like drug treatment have only received basic bridging funds while the Commonwealth throws money at a glossy and confronting ad campaign on ice-addiction with an arguable evidence-base. Meanwhile attacks on the states mean less money for public hospital emergency departments dealing with increasing numbers of aggressive ice-affected patients. Go figure.

SBS's Struggle Street brought the complexity into our living rooms (insensitively, although television easily reduces lives to outrageous soundbites). With the cameras gone, and no meaningful state or federal political reaction, residents of stigmatised Mount Druitt just feel shattered.

Canberra's struggle streets are not so clear. Disadvantage is peppered throughout the city with less defined patterns of intergenerational poverty. That's a good thing although groups rather than places are persistently poor; single parents and the long term unemployed struggling to live on depressingly low income support in a high-cost city.

Indirectly the charities commission will help not-for-profits better allocate resources so they can enhance their support for disadvantaged communities, and with less administrative hassle. The ACNC will eventually provide data sets about which charities are working where and therefore how they may work together to empower peoples' lives.

Governments generally divide communities by isolating "problems" with buckets of funds for problem areas such as mental health, drug and alcohol etc. It has forced charities to be issue-specific rather than holistic and community-development minded. Just maybe charities can break this nonsensical approach and more of them can become more collaborative and innovative under the umbrella of a supportive regulatory body.

As we head to the end of the financial year, charities will be updating the ACNC with their annual information statements. The aims are increased accountability and transparency.

The charities commission will face tougher times as it steps up to be a regulator with all that implies. But the sector's successful fight to defend the it puts the ACNC in a stellar position to get on with the job.

First published in The Canberra Times, Revised for Pro Bono News

Friday, May 8, 2015

In search of policy logic and certainty

Tony Abbott came into office seeking to be the "infrastructure prime minister". Imagine him pulling down bridges and ripping up roads. Of course not. There would be outrage. He'd be accused of reckless vandalism.

The Prime Minister hasn't been blowing up rail lines, but in the past 20 months he has been ripping policy infrastructure. Big time. It's as if none of the work that that has gone before him matters.

During the election he claimed to be on a "unity ticket" with Labor on the Gonski school funding reforms. "We will honour the agreements that Labor has entered into," he said. "We will match the offers that Labor has made. We will make sure that no school is worse off."

Right after the election Labor's Gonski report disappeared from government websites. It didn't return to public view until a Fairfax journalist put in a freedom of information request which forced its publication under a rule requiring documents released under the Freedom of Information Act to be made public.

The Coalition says funding under the Gonski formula will end after 2017. Then it will probably holding another inquiry, reinventing the wheel.

That's how it was for the Henry Tax Review. Rather than consult an expert review commissioned by Labor that had taken years to produce, the Abbott government commissioned its own new report, the taxation white paper.

On climate change, rather than build on or refine the emissions trading system that the carbon tax was about to transition into, it abandoned the infrastructure and set up its own "direct action" plan. The first permits have been auctioned. Instead of charging businesses that pollute, the government is paying some of them to pollute a bit less, using taxpayers' money.

On mental health the Coalition went to the election wanting to expand existing programs but has since offered no certainty for services now close to the brink and bleeding workers.

It may have some good ideas but more often than not it doesn't explain them, while at the same time turning its back on what has gone before.

While taking a hammer to many community service organisations and allowing others to haemorrhage while it delays decisions about their funding, it has asked the same sector to support young people out of work and unable to access the unemployment benefits it plans to deny them for six months.

Wherever you look it's hard to find certainty and logic. A big chunk of the electorate is angry. A bigger chunk is switching off.

In earlier years pre-budget speculation got us excited. Not this time. Leaks, aimed at mounting a campaign for change or softening us up, are few. There's not even much talk about debt and deficit, the old standby when the Coalition was in opposition (How could it use that tired catch cry when it's spending money like water on punitive border protection measures?).

If Abbott's approach is to knock things down and rebuild them in his own image, it'll be a struggle this time. With many of his signature items abandoned or blocked by the Senate it's hard to work out what his new image will be. I am reliably informed that members of his government are knocking back the usual invitations to give post-budget speeches, so unenthusiastic are they about what's in store.

That's a shame since reaction to the last budget offered a template for how to construct and sell the next. Reacting to the 2014 budget Australians said they believe in a fair go and a strong social contract. Many of us didn't ask what will the budget do for 'me' but what will it do for others. We looked beyond ourselves.

Governments have to convince us that some measures may cost us individually but that the changes support our neighbours. If the change is well explained, and backed by strong analysis, then people are prepared to cop some adverse impact for the greater good.

The link between good policy and electoral success seems broken, but it needn't be permanent.

First published in The Canberra Times