News

Announcing strident critic of charities Gary Johns to head the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission betrays a questionable selection process and a campaign to nobble the sector.

The Gary Johns appointment

The new head of the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission Gary Johns in Canberra last week.
Credit: AAP IMAGE / MICK TSIKAS

Even veterans of the charity sector were caught off guard by the announcement. Despite Michael Sukkar’s assurances of “an open and transparent merit-based selection process”,  stewardship of the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission was being given to Gary Johns.

The agency’s founding administrator, Susan Pascoe, was being replaced by a former Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) fellow who had spent much of his career criticising charities. One source told The Saturday Paper several highly qualified candidates who applied for the job never heard back, and only learnt the position had been filled when Sukkar and Johns held the press conference.

“My understanding is that the government cast around for an ideological stablemate,” the shadow minister for charities and not-for-profits, Andrew Leigh, said. “There were rumours that highly qualified people were receiving very cursory interviews, lasting as short as 20 minutes. It seems to suggest they were going through the motions with the highly qualified folks as they looked around for an ideologue to put in the role.”

Over the past four years of Coalition government, the charity and non-profit sector has got used to unpleasant surprises. The foreign aid budget has been repeatedly gutted. Money has been abruptly pulled from programs funding community legal centres and women’s shelters, only to be restored after public outcry. The Indigenous sector has been defunded, refunded, redefined and defunded again. But this was something new.

 

Donald Trump and the phrase “quiet achiever” do not sit naturally together. His uniquely bombastic demeanour and his seeming inability to complete basic tasks have been two of the most defining characteristics of his tenure so far.

But the Trump administration is making real progress on one of its top priorities: crippling America’s government agencies. When he cannot simply abolish those parts of the federal government he does not like, Trump has neutered them by appointing their self-described enemies to oversee them.

Former Texas governor Rick Perry, Trump’s head of the Department of Energy, pledged to abolish the department when he ran for president in 2012. Perry has been a boon for the fossil fuel industry, gutting environmental protections and pushing for government subsidies to struggling coal plants.

Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to run the Environmental Protection Agency, is a climate denier who has sued the agency 13 times. Since becoming the agency’s administrator, Pruitt has defended the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate accords and the first Trump budget’s plan to cut EPA funding by 31 per cent.

“You want to avoid these Trump-like comparisons because it suggests that Australian politics might have jumped the shark, but it’s hard to find an Australian example which is so similar,” Leigh says of Johns’ appointment. “You’ve got to go to those American appointees who’ve spent their entire careers arguing for the departments they head to be disbanded. I don’t recall another appointment that the Abbott or Turnbull governments have made who is as deeply ideological and, frankly, unsuited to the role as Gary Johns.”

 

The chief executive of the Community Council for Australia, David Crosbie, questions Johns’ capacity in the role. “He has literally never run an organisation other than one- or two-people organisations. The ACNC has more than 100 staff and a $15 million budget. He’s not supportive of the ACNC – never has been – and has a view of the charity sector that very few people share.”

After leaving politics in 1996, Johns pioneered the centre-left-to-lunar-right trajectory that Mark Latham would later make famous. He is best known now for his plan to have mandatory contraception for women on welfare, as well as his 2015 comments on The Bolt Report describing Aboriginal and low-income women on welfare as “cash cows”.

Johns’ work to undermine the right of charities and non-profits to engage in public advocacy makes for fewer gaudy headlines, but is infamous in the sector. In 2004 he wrote “Participatory democracy: Cracks in the façade”, an article in the Institute of Public Affairs Review journal in which he aired his opinion of the charities and non-government organisations over which he now presides.

“The welfare lobby exaggerates the extent of poverty, misrepresents its causes and boosts an egalitarian ideology, none of which help the poor,” he wrote. “The environmental lobby exaggerates some harms to the environment, such as greenhouse gases, at the expense of scientific solutions to harm … The human rights lobby, in the case of refugees, seeks to impose a legal method that weakens the rights of citizens in preference to the rights of non-citizens. The Indigenous lobby seeks the collectivisation of Aboriginal life that is antithetical to the welfare of Aborigines.”

Johns has often found a willing ear for his ideas in the Coalition. In 2003, the Howard government paid the IPA $50,000 to audit non-government organisations receiving taxpayer funding. Johns headed the review, telling a seminar he co-hosted with the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, that the audit would “maybe end up with some legislation” requiring NGOs to submit onerous annual returns reporting their activities in minute detail.

Johns’ audit came a month after then treasurer Peter Costello released a draft bill removing tax-exempt status from NGOs that focused more on advocacy and lobbying than community work. Johns also ran the IPA’s NGO Project, a campaign prosecuting his argument that “it is time to set limits on what can be done in the public’s name with the public’s money”.

 

The story of how someone with views such as Johns’ came to oversee Australia’s 55,000 charities and NGOs has roots stretching back to before the ACNC’s foundation by the Gillard government in 2012. Susan Pascoe noted that when she started as its administrator, “charities were not required to report annually, there were no governance standards they had to meet, there was little guidance and advice”, and “there was no register for quality assurance for donors and grantmakers”. The sector had been calling for a national agency to streamline its interactions with governments and enforce transparency and governance standards since 1995, when an Industry Commission report recommended the Keating government adopt “a common framework and set of standards for all types of providers”.

The ACNC’s progress in bringing the sector into shape is impressive, given it has spent most of its life under an existential cloud. The Abbott government promised to abolish the commission before the 2013 election, over the objections of dozens of major charities such as World Vision, Lifeline, Save the Children and the RSPCA. Then social services minister Kevin Andrews said “we can’t see what good there is” in keeping the agency. A 2014 government report by the senate economics legislation committee recommended abolition on the grounds that doing so would “relieve the regulatory burden from many charities”. Johns supported the ACNC’s abolition at the time, urging the government to “make good” on its election promise in order to make “it clear … that advocacy is not a charitable purpose”.

It wasn’t until March 2016 that the government dropped its plans, folding to opposition from the sector and the senate. Four months later, charities and not-for-profits minister Michael Sukkar announced Pascoe would not be reappointed, ahead of a mandatory five-year review of the agency in December. The Community Council for Australia and more than 100 other organisations urged the government to reappoint Pascoe for another 12 months to lead the review, but their calls went unheard.

Leigh believes Pascoe “would have been happy to continue in the job, but Michael Sukkar failed to reappoint her”. Sukkar is the fifth charities and NGO minister in five years, and did not meet Pascoe, the ACNC’s assistant commissioners or advisory board before announcing her departure. Pascoe declined to comment on Johns’ appointment when contacted.

 

Johns’ public remarks since accepting the position have been much more subdued than his usual offerings. He sounded positively bland in his most recent Australian column, praising the work of his predecessor and voicing a desire to beef up the ACNC website and give the public more insight into the agency’s inner workings.

It remains to be seen if Johns can keep holding his tongue in his new role, but his particular conception of how charities should operate will make itself felt as he heads the ACNC review this month. Crosbie believes Johns and the government will work in concert to “review not just the ACNC, but the Charities Act as well”.

“Sukkar and others are opposed to charities being involved in advocacy, but the reality is hundreds of thousands of people in Australia give to charity to support exactly that,” he says. “There are many more people who give to charities and NGOs then there are members of political parties. It’s how they express their voice on issues that they care about.”

Since Johns cannot be removed from his five-year statutory appointment other than through proven misconduct, Leigh has started a petition calling on him to “do the right thing and step down”.

“It’s not usual that you would do this kind of thing,” Leigh said, “but appointing someone as radical as Johns is not something a government would usually do.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 16, 2017 as "Charity case ". Subscribe here.