19 December 2017
The National COSS Network is deeply concerned over the Australian Government’s appointment of the Hon. Dr Gary Johns as Commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not for profits Commission (ACNC).
Dr Johns has in the past demonstrated qualities and expressed a range of views that make his appointment untenable. He has strongly held views about charities and advocacy, has referred to Aboriginal women as ‘cash cows’, and called for people on income support to be forced to use contraception. These comments undermine any confidence in this appointment, and ultimately risk undermining confidence in the ACNC itself.
We are also concerned about the attack on advocacy that this political appointment represents. Advocacy is an essential part of a thriving civil society, and it is essential that the community sector has a voice into the debates that affect us all. Dr Johns has consistently criticised charities for having a voice on issues that affect the people and communities they work with. It is important in his new role that Dr. Johns recognises the settled law that advocacy is a legitimate function of a charity when carried out in conjunction with its charitable purpose.
As the regulator for the charitable sector, it is essential that the ACNC operates independently, at arms-length from government and the sector. This gives both government and the sector certainty, trust and transparency. The ACNC has earned the respect of both the public and the charitable sector in Australia by doing just that. In his new role as ACNC Commissioner, Dr Johns will need to put aside his previously held positions and statements and implement the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission Act 2012. The objects of the Act include:
(a) to maintain, protect and enhance public trust and confidence in the Australian not-for-profit sector; and
(b) to support and sustain a robust, vibrant, independent and innovative Australian not for profit sector; and
(c) to promote the reduction of unnecessary regulatory obligations on the Australian not for profit sector.
These objects have been useful guidance for the ACNC since its inception, and provide a framework from within which Dr. Johns should carry out his functions as Commissioner of the ACNC. We welcome Dr Johns’ reiteration of Charity Commission chief executive Helen Stephenson’s comments that “Charities are neither our friends to be let off the hook, nor foes to be fought. We are their regulator …”. That said, we remind Dr Johns that in carrying out his regulatory functions in the Australian context, he must do so in a way that supports and sustains a robust, vibrant, independent and innovative not-for-profit sector, and maintains, protects and enhances public trust and confidence in the sector.
The National COSS Network will be watching closely to see that the ACNC carries out its functions judiciously in the period ahead, and will watch how it carries out its regulatory functions in relation to advocacy.
We will not hesitate to speak out if we see these functions and advocacy being threatened.
We fought hard for the creation of this regulator, and will continue to collectively advocate for a regulator that carries out the objects of the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission Act 2012.