Wasting our time – marginal seat voters have their say

A new survey reveals voters in marginal seats strongly support fundraising reform for the charities sector, writes CCA CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News, 5 May 2022.  

Wasting our time – marginal seat voters have their say, Pro Bono News, 5 May 2022

Pre-election surveys of over 3,400 voters across the 20 most marginal electorates in Australia conducted for the Community Council for Australia by Piazza Research found that: Across all surveyed electorates, high proportions (74 per cent to 92 per cent) of electors wanted to see their local MP make greater efforts to get the Australian government to improve fundraising rules to make it easier for charities to raise money.

CCA will be releasing the full results of the marginal seat survey next week, but what we can now safely say is that voters in marginal seats strongly support fundraising reform for the charities sector. 

This finding is one of many that support the idea that charities should spend their limited time and resources serving communities, not government officials. 

There has already been over a decade of high-level inquiries and reports including royal commissions, Productivity Commission and Parliamentary Inquiries, thousands of submissions, and an endless stream of recommendations. All of them have highlighted the waste of charity resources as a consequence of the current regulations. Every single inquiry and report has called for change. 

What has been delivered in response to all these reports and recommendations are numerous hollow commitments followed by recurring government committees who have wasted countless hours playing word salad footsies as they endlessly debate in-principle agreements and regulations. The years of meetings and discussions have served only to perpetuate the irrelevance of these groups. 

Meanwhile, charities continue to face an ongoing dog’s breakfast of outdated dysfunctional regulation that is strangling charitable fundraising in Australia. 

You cannot help but wonder why this mess exists? Why is it so hard to get rid of these regulations when it is acknowledged they represent the duplicated excesses of bureaucratic overreach? 

The answer is an unfortunate combination of Federation, bureaucracy, the digital world, condescension and political will.

Having sat through countless state and territory officials telling me why harmonisation cannot be done, why their state/territory sovereignty is so important, and how they need to have their own legislation to protect their interests, it seems states and territories are often reluctant to let go of their powers. They want to be able to coerce charities into compliant administrative behaviour.

And so, some jurisdictions continue to insist that Australian charities engaged in fundraising provide their office with a whole lot of meaningless information. To suggest the information they require is not needed, that it makes no difference, and that their work is being duplicated, is to challenge their status as guardians of public concern. To any overzealous self-important state bureaucrat, the work of other jurisdictions is inadequate, so why harmonise, unless of course, the others are adopting your more informed approach?

Most states and territories actively involved in fundraising regulation have yet to move into the digital world, let alone embrace cryptocurrency. They treat online charitable fundraisers as though they are physically raising funds in their jurisdiction. What most fail to acknowledge is that the world, and especially the fundraising world, has moved on from the days when the length of the pole attached to collection boxes had to be regulated because fundraisers were poking their donation boxes into public bars without getting off their horses.

The small local church charity that puts a “donate here” button on their website is still being forced to comply with regulations in most states and territories because the internet has opened up the potential for every small local church to be raising funds from people across Australia.

As I sit at my desk today, however, I can go to any number of well-known websites and make a donation to one of thousands of causes in Australia. The vast majority of these thousands of active fundraisers are outside of any state or territory oversight. There are many more fundraisers I can donate to internationally.

I have shown these sites to state officials and asked what they are doing to regulate them. The response has been to suggest they would be too hard to regulate, that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission or even police can be called in for more extreme cases of deception, and so the regulators will continue to focus their efforts on Australian charities.

When I use the word condescension, I mean a gentle form of official disdain, a kind of patronisation grounded in a belief that charities and the people who work in them mean well, but lack the policy skills of seasoned government officials. Furthermore, the work of government officials is self-evidently complex and important, while the work of charities obviously contributes to society, but requires a lower level of skills and has less importance.

If the charities sector was an industry group – like mining, or tourism or agriculture – it would not only be much bigger than any other industry group, it would also be much less powerful than most industry groups. I cannot think of any industry group that would put up with a dysfunctional regulatory system imposing inter-state roadblocks that reduce the capacity of organisations to go about their business. Of course – when it is only charities – not a for-profit industry group – there is little real pressure on government officials to address their concerns.

Finally let us talk about political will. There are incredibly simple solutions available to fix the fundraising regulations in Australia, but they would require that a federal government stand up for charities against myopic state interests. Up until now, no such political will has existed, despite all the fine words.

The ALP has indicated to CCA and the broader sector that if they are elected, they will fix the fundraising mess. Our experience is that this is easily said, but the wait for reform has been long and pointless. In fact, it has been so pointless that less than 20 per cent of Australian charities even pretend to be compliant with all the required regulations – it is just too much work and the regulations are only rarely enforced anyway. 

The Northern Territory government allows all registered charities to fundraise with the simple proviso that they do not engage in misleading or deceptive conduct. That’s it. The regulations covering misleading and deceptive conduct are administered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, not the jurisdictions. They already have that role, they already do that work so there is no requirement on the NT government to do anything more than make a referral to the ACCC if an issue arises.

Voters in marginal electorates, charities, experts, parliaments, royal commissions have all supported urgent reform of fundraising regulations. 

Time is up. Regardless of who is in government following the election, if the reform of fundraising regulations is not addressed, CCA will be supporting a call for all Australian charities to adopt the fundraising regulations that currently apply in the Northern Territory. Anything less would be wasting the invaluable support of our donors, our volunteers, and our communities.

Read on Pro Bono News: wasting-our-time-marginal-seat-voters-have-their-say