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It is a great honour to serve the people of Queensland as one of our state's 12 Senators in the Australian Senate, and the people of Australia as the Shadow Minister for Women, Carers, and Communities.

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OPINION PIECE

GENUINE PARTNERSHIP WITH THE COMMUNITY SECTOR IS NEEDED


"This is Clayton's consultation," is a common refrain I hear again and again from those in the not-for-profit sector concerned by the Abbott Government's approach to their regulation and their future.

When consultation is offered it often feels like a "pre-determined exercise", a far cry from governing ''calmly and methodically'' as promised. This is despite the fact that co-designing policy with the sector can result in better policy outcomes with lower costs to government. Working in partnership with the sector, which works with Australians to tackle disadvantage - especially now at a time of rising unemployment - represents good investment in the future of all Australians.
The community sector may rely on volunteers but as Tim Costello says it "isn't just a few amateurs with goodwill.'' Recent ABS data shows there are almost 60,000 economically active not-for-profit organisations, employing more than a million people and providing more than $55 billion to the Australian economy each year. But of course its contribution goes beyond the economy and is what builds our communities to be strong and resilient. It is a sector that deserves the same attention and certainty as the business sector.

The community sector wants to keep the charities commission, the standalone regulator recommended by the Productivity Commission to act as a one-stop shop for information and a support agency that also reduces reporting duplication. Despite this the Minister responsible, Kevin Andrews, insists on roundtables about what replaces the yet to be abolished commission. Naturally, the forums have been poorly attended. The outcomes of discussions with the Department of Social Services appear so fixed that some reluctant participants walked out.

It's not just regulatory uncertainty facing the sector. Many community service providers face turbulent times because of hastily changed funding arrangements and no transition periods across many portfolios. Thousands of jobs are on the line.

Sector players say the scruffy approach stems from an odd attitude to civil society more generally. Like its approach to the Senate summed up as 'my way or the highway', the Government does not appreciate the sector's expertise, connections, experience and passion - strengths that improve the development, efficacy and implementation of good policy. If those strengths are not acknowledged, then advocacy by civil society is subsequently cast as meddlesome.

Labor did a number of forward-looking things while in government to improve the way it worked with and funded the not for profit sector. It was based on mutual respect. We removed gag clauses from government contracts with community service providers, to ensure their voice on national policy could be heard and to help rebuild the relationship with the sector that had deteriorated so badly under John Howard. The subsequent National Compact promoted the value of the sector and tried to meaningfully reduce red tape to create productivity gains.

The first Federal Office for the Not-For-Profit Sector in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, together with a sector-led advisory committee, was established. The Office was able to develop a comprehensive approach to a sector is growing in real terms at nearly 6% per annum. The government appointed National Compact Advocates in all Federal Government Departments. Those advocates were Deputy Secretaries in each Department who could be held accountable for the contracting practices of their Department, for reducing red tape and for the overall relationship with the Not-For-Profit sector.

Not-for-profit leaders were involved with business leaders in a genuine debate on policy and practice with forums such as the Prime Minister's Homelessness Council and the Social Inclusion Board. The advisory groups were disbanded and not replaced by Mr Abbott despite pleas from peak body, the Australian Council of Social Services, to reinstate some mechanism for dialogue. This meant that when the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade proposed a range of additional contractual red tape following its merger with AusAID, there was no one in government who could champion the issue.

Before the last election there was a reduction in the number of one-year grant agreements (the Office for the Not-For-Profit Sector began monitoring the average contract length) and the Freedom to Advocate Act 2013 was brought in to prohibit the use of gag clauses in grant agreements with the not-for-profit sector (Mr Andrews said publicly that he voted for and would retain the Act, but it appears the Government is already violating the Act by inserting gagging clauses in contracts for legal aid centres as confirmed by the Attorney-General in Estimates in February).

Another achievement was the ACNC and Charities Act 2013 which Mr Andrews has said would be repealed. A Code of Best Practice for Engagement was also developed to 'provide a framework for how the government and the sector should work together to achieve better outcomes for all Australians'. It was approved in August 2013. Needless to say, the ink was hardly dry before the new government tore it up.

Meanwhile, the National Compact has been dismissed and all the work of the Office of the Not-for-profit Sector airbrushed from history as part of a machinery of government change. It's as though the reforms never happened.

The Abbott Government has simply killed any momentum for community sector reform at a time when there is increasing demand for services. Not-for-profit reform should be a key focus area for micro-economic reform. If Australia is open for business, why stop listening and trip up a sector as important as this one?

Published in Pro Bono Australia, Wednesday, 3 September 2014






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