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Does a new government = a new NFP sector?

3 min read

In the most recent election campaign, the not-for-profit (NFP) sector was recognised as a very important Australian economic and social player by all political parties. There were policies looking at the future of the sector, before and during the election campaign, including major media releases during the last week of the election campaign. This followed on from the successful Community Council for Australia (CCA) organised National Press Club pre-election forum on the future of NFPs, which was televised on ABC News 24.

It is not surprising that our sector is now on the political agenda. The NFP sector employs eight per cent of the Australian workforce, over one million employees, and has an annual turnover of around $100 billion. It also makes an invaluable social contribution in almost every aspect of our lives – environmental, health and wellbeing, welfare, housing, employment, the arts and recreation, overseas aid, animal welfare, education and religion. Over five million of us volunteer to support these activities.

While each major party may have different ideologies and use different terms, one positive outcome from the recent election campaign was that it generally confirmed a shared set of goals for the sector. All political parties want charities and NFPs to grow stronger and more connected to their communities with less red tape and compliance costs, better access to capital and increased philanthropy, ensuring that there are better information systems available for the sector and about the sector.

The biggest difference that emerged between political parties during the campaign was how the shared goals were going to be achieved. The Coalition has made it clear that they see the government as enabling a stronger, civil society rather than becoming directly involved in actively driving reform. At the same time, they support a Centre of Excellence for the sector, the re-establishment of the Community Business Partnerships chaired by the Prime Minister, and revising reporting requirements for Commonwealth funding to reduce compliance and red tape. CCA and most of the sector has supported these policies.

The major point of contention informing the National Press Club Forum main discussion was the future of the newly established independent regulator for the sector, the Australian Charities and
Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).

With the Australian Labour Party, The Greens and Nick Xenophon all supporting the continuation of the ACNC it will be difficult for the Coalition to pass more than 30 legislative changes needed to scale back the ACNC prior to the introduction of the new Senate after July 2014. In the meantime, it is expected the ACNC will have a further nine months to show that it can reduce red tape, establish the national charities register, recruit more state and territory regulators and roll out the much needed charities passport.

In its first nine months of operation, the ACNC has already registered over 1,000 new charities, responded to over 30,000 requests for information, run more than 100 consultations across Australia, investigated over 200 complaints about charities and established the first ever national online database of all Australian charities. It has also negotiated agreements with at least two state governments, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the Office of the Register of Indigenous Corporations, the Independent Schools Commission and others to share rather than duplicate information, including some of the
onerous jurisdictional fundraising regulations. New Commonwealth Grant guidelines requiring all government agencies to use the ACNC data rather than duplicate requests for information have also been put in place.

While there will always be some short sighted criticism of any new start up regulator – some charities seem resentful that the ACNC asks for any information at all – the ACNC is already showing that for less than $15 million a year it can deliver real outcomes at lower costs than was previously provided by government officials for similar, but less impressive services. The latest survey results suggest 80 per cent of the sector already support the ACNC, with only six per cent supporting returning regulatory functions to the Australian Taxation Office.

Aside from the Coalition policy, which is at odds with what the sector has been asking for, there is a lot the sector can do to work more constructively with the new government to further reform and strengthen civil society.

Perhaps even more importantly, this has been the election campaign where the relationship between the government and the NFP sector attracted more attention and discussion than ever before. While the diversity of the sector is one of its strengths, there is no doubt that having a stronger collective voice has already had an impact.

We need to build on the success of this election campaign and ensure the sector continues to raise its voice, holds the government to account, continues to grow and be given the kind of support and recognition it deserves.

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