Turnbull echoes Trump

Anyone who thinks Malcolm Turnbull is a step up from Donald Trump needs to look at the appointments his Cabinet Ministers are making and the way they are copying the Trump technique – don’t worry about being unable to change the law, simply appoint someone who will undermine it.

It is exemplified by the new CEO appointment, Dr Gary Johns, to the ACNC (the Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission). The ACNC was opposed by Tony Abbott – largely at the urging of Cardinal George Pell and a number of trustee companies. Why George opposed it is a bit of a mystery but some trustee companies (who administer deceased philanthropic estates) were presumably not that keen on disclosing the fees they charged for administering said estates.

What is interesting is how little the mainstream media is paying to the process. Fairfax, which might have been assumed to be interested, gave it one par earlyish in The Age, the ABC had one good online piece, The Saturday Paper a wonderful leader and the rest of the media was largely silent.

What is even more interesting is the fact that much of the media doesn’t seem to have grasped what the political implications might be. There are more than 54,000 registered charities in Australia. That’s probably too many and there is much duplication of small charities pursuing similar goals but merely incurring excessive overheads because of their small size. However, the ACNC has been doing a good job of weeding out such problems as well as those associated with problems such as the Shane Warne charity. Transparency about charitable operations has also been dramatically increased which could give a hint to what George was concerned about. But they’re not the objections of the Turnbull Government. It’s rather that many of these charities advocate for policy change – in the same way that business does through tax deductible lobby groups – of which more later.

The political implications are a bit like the sleeper that the Turnbull NBN has become. The media concentrated for ages on questions of overall cost and alternative models until they twigged that there were thousands of angry consumers out there seriously unhappy about an expensive sub-standard product. Similarly, comfortable assumptions about the charity sector overlook the sheer number of people involved. 54,000 charities translates into a huge number of donors and charitable workers.

The ALP’s Shadow Minister for charities (an indication of how they perceive the sector’s importance), Andrew Leigh, has excoriated the Turnbull government approach in a recent newsletter. He says: “After spending years waging war on Australian charities, the government has appointed a trenchant critic of charities to oversee the sector. The appointment of Gary Johns as the Charities commissioner signals a major escalation in the Turnbull Government’s war on charities. Gary Johns must resign for the good of the sector.”

Leigh says “Australians overwhelmingly trust the charity sector to give voice to their concerns on vital issues like the environment, health, education, Indigenous advancement and inequality.

“By contrast, Gary Johns has used his public roles to denigrate causes that matter deeply to many Australians and the motives of existing charities” citing a number of specific examples:

‘There is a great deal of impure altruism in the charity business’ – The Charity Ball, 2014
“The Abbott government promised to abolish the Charities Act 2013, which includes advocacy as a charitable purpose. It must make good that promise in a way that makes it clear to the High Court that advocacy is not a charitable purpose.” – The Australian, 2 December 2014
“[Indigenous reconciliation charity] Recognise is the officially sanctioned propaganda arm of the Australian Government” – The Charity Ball, 2014
“The Beyond Blue line that the tragedy of some LGBTI people is all about discrimination and nothing to do with sexual identity is not supported by evidence. An attempt to draw conclusions unsupported by evidence does no dignity to the national debate and is not remotely the work of a charity.” – The Australian, 8 September 2015
“[Parliament’s inquiry into environmental charities] should question the presumption of public benefit in environmental charities” – The Australian, 8 April 2015
“If a person’s sole source of income is the taxpayer, the person, as a condition of benefit, must have contraception. No contraception, no benefit.” – The Australian, 30 December, 2014
“Look, a lot of poor women in this country, a large proportion of whom are Aboriginal, are used as cash cows, right?” – appearing on The Bolt Report, 12 July 2015

The Saturday Paper has lots of other examples, some even more damning than Leigh’s, of why Donald Trump and his cronies would jump at the Johns appointment.

It all stinks of the same push Central European governments such as Hungary and Poland are making to attack civil society organisations, particularly any funded by George Soros. Critics in Australia have targeted Get Up on the grounds of foreign donors such as Soros although one assumes it is not partly motivated by anti-Semitism, as it is in Poland and Hungary, and is simply a reaction to Get Up’s effectiveness.

What is breathtakingly hypocritical is the Turnbull Government’s silence on the huge spending and advocacy of business lobby groups and overseas-owned companies. The extent of this – and the cost to the taxpayers – has been analysed by Michael West in an investigation into the billion dollar corporate lobbying business. One of his key findings is that “In most cases, the standards of financial reporting and disclosure are poor.” Unlike, of course the rigorous reporting standards the ACNC requires.

West says: “Together, their (of the 20 business peak bodies) lobby group revenue surpassed $1.94 billion over the past three years. Besides funding advocacy via their peak bodies, large corporations also have “in-house” government relations capabilities and communications teams whose role is to effect political outcomes. Many large corporations also hire specialist government relations consultancy firms to lobby.”

His analysis of the peak bodies is not exhaustive and the number of such organisations is in the hundreds. He admits he didn’t cover “entire sectors such as food, retail, media, advertising and insurance. It covered only the major peak bodies in health, property, energy and banking and finance.”

“Some of the top tier lobby groups representing big resources companies, pharmaceutical giants and the global oil majors – such as Minerals’ Council of Australia (MCA), Medicines Australia and Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association (APPEA) – are majority controlled and funded by foreign shareholders,” he said.

Among the advocacy themes the lobby groups pursue are calls for lower corporate tax rates and lower entitlements for workers, West said.

West points out that much of this corporate activity can be claimed as tax deductible and that the membership of business and professional associations is totally tax deductible. We are all waiting for the Turnbull Government and Dr Johns to campaign around this problem.