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Canberra Times – Charities free to speak up

June 24, 2022


Canberra Times/By: Jenna Price

[New assistant minister Andrew Leigh has removed the gag preventing charities and not-for-profits from speaking out on public policy issues. Picture: James Croucher]

There were good people in the Coalition government, I am confident. Especially those who stood up for their beliefs in public – Bridget Archer among them.

But there were others who behaved so badly, it’s hard to forgive. Take, for example, Sarah Henderson – once the member for Corangamite, but dumped by her electorate before being transmogrified into a senator by her party. The height of her career was her appointment as assistant minister for social services, housing and disability services between August 2018 and May 2019. Somehow, though, she decided to take it into her own head to monitor the activities of charities, who under the Coalition were forced into silence. Charities had to abide by a gag rule – don’t advocate, don’t criticise.

Tug your forelock and all will be well … completely gobsmackingly undemocratic. And don’t get me started on the way international aid organisations and others were bullied to within an inch of their lives. Australia should always be very mindful of its privileged status in the world.

And what organisation should come into Senator Henderson’s sights? The Parenthood, part of a network fighting for changes to childcare and preschools. That work did not go down too well with Sarah Henderson, the shadowy minister for hectoring activists. OK, that wasn’t her actual gig, but that’s certainly what she did when her team was still in power. She wrote a 26-page letter to Australia’s charities and not-for-profits commissioner, Gary Johns, which said the group should be disqualified from charitable status for a breach of the Charities Act. She claimed The Parenthood was touting for Labor. And poor old Georgie Dent, The Parenthood’s executive director, had to deal with this entire waste of the organisation’s meagre resources, while at the same time assisting the NSW Treasurer, most assuredly a Liberal, with developing plans for free universal preschool.
But now Henderson’s sneaky behaviour – or that of anyone else who wants to dob against democracy – will no longer be of any interest to anyone. Charities across Australia can breathe a giant sigh of relief, because the new Assistant Minister for Charities, Andrew Leigh, is scrapping the gag rule and promising no-one will ever lose their charitable status for speaking out.

I have never ever heard a man as happy in the service as Leigh. Honestly, the enthusiasm for his new work is wild. He says the Coalition waged a war on charities. It tried to stop anti-poverty charities from speaking out on inequality. It tried to stop environmental charities from speaking out on climate change and deforestation.

“They tried to muzzle some of the best-informed voices speaking out about our most vulnerable. They tried to treat them like naughty children, seen and not heard,” he says.

And how will he feel when they start to criticise Labor (because trust me, that will happen)?

Leigh says: “It is very important we have a principle that charities can criticise [government]. Of course, I would rather have nice things said about our government. But if they are critical of our government, that’s not going to affect their ability to deliver services.”

Whereas being starved of funding really did. You can only deliver for those who need you if you have the right resources. Wouldn’t it be glorious to have a government which wanted to support charities to do the best work possible?

So Leigh’s appointment to his job is good news. The removal of the gag clause is good news. Sarah Henderson’s powerlessness is good news. And the best news of all might be that Gary Johns quit his post one hot minute after the election.

Andrew Leigh promises, cross his heart and hope to die, that he never even spoke to Johns, the man who seemed to love monstering charities. Johns took the election result as a sign of things to come. I’m a bit disappointed no-one got to sack him.

Dent, of The Parenthood, says the gag on advocacy was very intimidating, and Henderson’s actions terrified her.

The thing is, the Coalition never wanted to engage on issues such as support for families. How else do you get your message out to the community if not through advocacy when politicians won’t agree to meet you? I mean, it’s not as if Dent was advocating for blowing up Juukan Gorge or sending thousands of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The Parenthood was advocating for families.

And of course, anyone who did advocate to save the planet was quickly brought into line. John Grimes, chief executive of the Smart Energy Council, says when his organisation sold wheelie bin stickers which showed prime minister Scott Morrison and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce holding coal with slogans that said: “Bin him” or “Chuck them out”, it was swiftly told to stop or lose its charitable status.

“The Coalition did not like our message or that we were prepared to call them out on not having a climate policy or an energy policy. It was such a potent message and they wanted to shut that down,” he says.

And what about the end of the gag rule?

“Democracy has been restored. I congratulate the government on an important, principled decision. Charities should be able to advocate for important causes and for the disadvantaged … it is their role and their right,” says Grimes.

For years, Michael Smith, chief executive of the Eastern Community Legal Centre in Melbourne, ignored the gag clause. He was, among others, a tough advocate for funding for his sector, which provides legal support for those who can’t fund their own. My god, the CLCs were at the forefront of helping those being hunted down with robodebt.

“That was an obvious, glaring and tragic example, and the government did not want to be told,” he says.

Even in its death days, it did not want to be told.

So how good is it that Andrew Leigh, who has long advocated for pulling off the gag, has done it within the first month of government? No wonder he’s so happy in his work. He confides: “I’m loving it. None has ever wanted it more than me.”

It’s glorious to have a politician who loves his work; who wants to move us from a nation of “me” to a nation of “we”.

The original story can be found here

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