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Amendments broaden scope of Victorian Bushfire Appeal Fund

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“Today, in recognition of the truly unprecedented circumstances of the 2009 Victorian bushfires, I am announcing legislative changes that widen the permitted uses of the donations in the Fund, giving it the option of extra flexibility to support bushfire affected communities as they recover and rebuild,” said Assistant Treasurer Senator Nick Sherry.

“Australians gave incredibly generously in the aftermath of the bushfires to help their fellow citizens. This decision ensures their intentions can be put into practice,” he said.

Following the devastating 2009 Victorian bushfires, the Rudd government provided $2 million to establish the Fund, listing it as an entity under charity law, allowing donations to be tax deductible.

However, laws stipulating that tax deductible donations be used strictly for charitable purposes limited the types of causes that the Fund could support. The new amendments will broaden the scope of the fund.

Sherry outlined a few of the major impacts of the amendments: “The fund can provide for long term assistance to orphaned minors without the need for annual assessments of their health; discretionary payments of up to fifteen thousand dollars to assist households for the period in which they were in or are in transitional housing; and for primary producers, a grant of up to ten thousand dollars for repair and restoration of farm activities, including re-fencing.”

The changes will also allow the Fund to undertake a range of community benefit projects, extending its reach to endorsed charities, local government bodies, community service organisations, sporting bodies, community and arts events and small business advisory assistance.

The Public Interest Law Clearing House, a partner in Bushfire Legal Aid, has welcomed the amendments to Federal tax law.

Some of their clients were precluded from receiving financial assistance from the Appeal Fund because they were primary producers or owned their primary residences under business names. “The amendments will provide much needed assistance to many Victorians in similar positions whose lives and livelihoods were acutely impacted by the bushfires,” PILCH’s Acting Executive Director, Mat Tinkler said.

Nick Sherry said that one reason the changes took so long was due to particularly complicated tax law.

PilchConnect, PILCH’s legal service for not-for-profit organisations, reflected that the amendments highlight a broader need to modernise charity law in Australia.

“The Federal government still uses a definition of ‘charitable purposes’ based on restrictive categories from a 1601 UK statute. This means that, in Australia, the use of tax deductible funds is restricted to organisations falling within this outdated definition and many organisations miss out, even through they undertake work the Australian community would perceive as ‘charitable’,” said Tinkler.

The primary consideration of the Fund remains the provision of assistance to individuals and communities in towns and suburbs affected by the bushfires to ensure they are re-established to be thriving and socially inclusive.

The changes will have retrospective effect from 29 January when the first fires commenced at Delburn.

The Fund will continue to make determinations consistent with the charitable expectations of the donors, who made their donations in good faith.

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