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Charities In Limbo -- Time For Government To Act

The change in Australia's political leadership has changed the tone of the Government's approach to policy making. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his treasurer Scott Morrison have rekindled optimism for outcomes where pragmatism triumphs, more often than not, over ideology.

Our optimism about a new energy for timely decisions is based on evidence. Up until the change, the debate over the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement was verging on toxic. Once the change was made, it didn't take long for agreement to be reached on outstanding issues. It was also the case with the softening of some of the harsher elements of the previous administration's cuts to family tax payments. And, most recently, we've seen the Prime Minister talking about the need to assess energy policy, free of ideology.

The country's charities and not-for-profit sector has been caught up in an ideologically driven power-play over the past few years. As well as providing critical services to the community, the sector employs nearly one million Australians and turns over close to $100 billion each year. Right now, it would benefit from some of the Government's common sense, pragmatic decision making.

This week, the national regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), celebrates its third birthday. Created in the dying days of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government, the Abbott administration moved quickly to deliver on an election promise to get rid of it.

The ACNC was characterised by the then-Opposition as an expensive, unnecessary example of heavy handed regulation, and so the instrument of its intended demise, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (Repeal) (No. 1) Bill 2014, was duly introduced into the Parliament. And that's where it sits to this day, waiting to be debated.

The fog of uncertainty continues to cast a shadow over the future of the ACNC. This, in spite of overwhelming support for the regulator from the sector. More than 80 percent of charities in a recent survey said they wanted the ACNC retained, a point reflected by then Social Services Minister Scott Morrison who noted that "there is strong sector support for the ACNC to continue and I would say that view is shared particularly in the Parliament".

These comments signalled that the Government had changed its tune about the ACNC, but Mr Morrison fell short of extending his full and unfettered support to the national regulator. He did not, or was not able to, withdraw the Repeal Bill.

Of course the political ructions of mid-September resulted in Mr Morrison being elevated to the role of Treasurer, and while his replacement in the Social Services portfolio Christian Porter has yet to make clear his intentions for the ACNC, Mr Morrison is both well briefed on these matters and empowered to act.

In the interests of common sense, it is clearly time for the recent breakout of pragmatic policy making to be extended to the ACNC.

It's worth noting that even with its future secured, and the Repeal Bill withdrawn, the ACNC has its work cut out in fulfilling its overarching objectives of improving the effectiveness of the sector. Its key ambitions are to reduce the regulatory burden many charities face and to build transparency and community trust. The ACNC still has the substantial task of working with both federal and state and territory lawmakers in seeking to streamline the complex web of laws and regulations that most charities have to comply with.

Reducing duplication and compliance costs and freeing-up scarce resources to boost service provision is important work in which all of us who rely on charities have a stake. It's work that could be made that much easier if the Government ended the uncertainty over the ACNC's future and withdrew the Repeal Bill.

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