Senator The Hon. Zed Seselja
Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters
KIERAN GILBERT: Joining us now is Liberal front bencher and the [Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matters] Zed Seselja, thanks so much for your time. In terms of the focus on charities, you gave a speech in the last few days in relation to this broader sector. Obviously we know St Vincent de Paul and Salvos, but you’re worried that this is being blurred by others that maybe should not be categorised as charities. Can you talk us through it?
ZED SESELJA: Yes Kieran, I mean obviously we’ve got a very diverse, wonderful, charitable sector and it’s a great privilege to be the Assistant Minister with the responsibility for it. And as you say most of the sector, you’re talking about the Salvos, you’re talking about Vinnies, you’re talking about the Red Cross, Fred Hollows, there are hundreds and thousands of organisations who do an extraordinary job and there’s a lot of confidence in the community in those. But we do also see within the sector and we see in some cases a decline in trust in charities, some surveys showing that in recent years, and I think part of that some charities that are I guess a bit on the fringe, and I talk about groups like Aussie Farms, who have the same status as Vinnies or the Salvos or others.
GILBERT: - they organise protests, sit-ins and so on?
SESELJA: - effectively vigilantes. I mean if you look at what they encourage - they published the names and addresses of farms, and we’re obviously taking separate action with legislation before the parliament at the moment for that kind of activity. But I think as I consider the review into the Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission and into the sector, the point I was making in my speech was: is it reasonable? Is it reasonable for groups like Aussie Farms who effectively encourage vigilante action to be in the same category as Vinnies, and Salvos and Fred Hollows and so many wonderful charities who do such an amazing job? And that’s the conversation we’re having. At the moment that is the legal framework we are under but it is worth considering how we might look at it into the future.
ANNELISE NIELSEN: Well that’s the thing isn’t it – how do you practically regulate this kind of industry? We know it’s notoriously opaque about where the moneys going and where it’s coming from, what can you do?
SESELJA: Well look there’s a couple of things. One, the first thing I’d say is I don’t have a problem, and nor does the government, with charities engaging in advocacy and the like for causes they care about. That’s a legitimate part of being a charity. We don’t always like what every charity has to say but they are free to advocate. But we do need to look at the margins where there are groups who seem to exist primarily to encourage the breaking of the law, or that seems to be certainly a big part of what they do.
Now under our governance stands they are meant to comply with the law, but there’s a number of constraints here. We’ve got an independent Charities Commissioner. Now that Charities Commissioner when he investigates concerns which are raised, and I’ve raised concerns about groups like Aussie Farms, there’s strict confidentiality, so the community can’t even know if those organisations are being investigated unless they self-identify, I as the Assistant Minster can’t know whether they are being investigated, so that’s one of the things that we need to look at.
GILBERT: So you can’t just go in and remove their charity status?
SESELJA: No certainly I have no ability to do that, and the Charities Commissioner who acts independently of Government does in certain circumstances, in fairly limited circumstances it must be said, have the power to strip a group of their charitable status. Remember there’s a couple of things, there’s charitable status and there’s also some of the benefits that go with both that and associated things –
GILBERT: Tax deductibility and so on.
SESELJA: - and so tax deductibility both at a state level, and a federal level is obviously a major component. But it’s also the status we give charities. Charities get a certain status in the community by virtue of the fact they are doing good things, that they are doing good work and they get a lot of good will and a lot of support, and when a charity speaks out on an issue in general terms people will listen, if Vinnies speaks out on an issue around poverty you’re likely to listen the Vinnies right. That should continue and that will continue but then there are these question marks about are they complying with their legal obligations, where is the appropriate line to be drawn in terms of the regulatory framework and that’s certainly something I’m looking at at the moment.
NIELSEN: The thing is shouldn’t that logic then apply to Churches? We’ve seen that they enjoy charitable status, they enjoy tax exemptions, and we’ve had royal commissions into the ongoing abuse of the law, but that they’ve done for many years. Catholic Church for instance we’ve seen very little response about going forward and fixing that. Why should they continue to enjoy those exemptions?
SESELJA: Well you’ve got to look at all the different parts of course, because if you’re talking about for instance one of the churches you look at the St Vincent de Paul Society, which is of course I guess an arm of the Catholic Church but it is a very large charitable arm. It is the charitable works that get the special status. It is that that gets the tax deductibility status, and that should be properly regulated.
Whether you’re a church or whether you’re anyone else we need to make sure. But if there are groups who don’t seem to do much charitable work and do seem to engage in effectively encouraging the breaking of the law, and that seems to be basically what they do, you have to ask the question - why should they get charitable status alongside the Salvos, alongside Fed Hollows, alongside Red Cross?
GILBERT: So will the Government move to change the structure of the governance here, because if it’s all at arm’s length, if it’s all done by the Commissioner and you can’t even initiate the repeal of some groups charitable status it seems that there might be some reform needed?
SESELJA: Well I think there is reform needed. There was a review of the Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission and we’re going through a process in responding to that review. One of the simple recommendations was that when there is an investigation there shouldn’t be the same secrecy around it, which I think in principle sounds like a very sensible sort of reform. But this is the kind of conversation I want to have in the community and with the charitable sector, because what I don’t want to do is overreact to parts of the sector and therefore impose additional burdens on the large chunks of the sector who do the right thing. So we want to get that balance right, but I think there’s a legitimate concern in the community, and a legitimate discussion in the community about where there are groups who deliberately set out to break the law, or incite people to break the law, as to why they should be getting the same benefits as other charities do.
GILBERT: Assistant Finance Minister thanks so much for your time talk to you soon.