Abbott government blamed for not for profit pessimism: Tim Costello

Tim Costello says the not-for-profit sector overwhelmingly believes the government has got it wrong in its attempts to dismantle the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission. AAP/Alan Porritt

The not-for-profit sector is pessimistic about its performance and its future, with the Abbott government’s approach to funding and regulation blamed for the negative perceptions, according to a survey.

The chief executive at World Vision and chair of the Community Council of Australia (CCA), Tim Costello, said the Pro Bono Australia’s State of the Sector Survey of more than 1200 respondents found most participants felt the sector’s performance was declining significantly.

Comparing respondents’ perceptions of the sector’s current performance with performance over the last year and looking forward to next year, there was a 34-point drop in the Not For Profit Sector Perceived Performance Index.

“This perceived decline in sector performance was universal. It is not just the view of leaders and managers but across all roles, across all states and industries, and across all sizes of not-for-profit organisations,” Costello told the National Press Club.

“This sector overwhelmingly believes the government has got it wrong in its attempts to dismantle the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission and return regulation of the sector to the ATO [Australian Taxation Office] – only 6% support this policy while over 80% support retaining the ACNC.”

Labor set up the commission; the Coalition has legislation before Parliament to abolish it, saying it involves too much red tape.

Costello said respondents in small organisations were particularly pessimistic. The survey did find some more positive perceptions, with some parts of the sector doing better than others. Religious-based charities see their future 50% more positively than do arts and culture organisations. Not for profits in Queensland feel much more negative about their current performance than do their counterparts in Victoria.

Costello pointed out the sector contributed about $58 billion to GDP, turned over more than $105 billion, employed almost 1.1 million Australians (not counting volunteers) and held more than $175 billion in assets.

“Perhaps more importantly this is a sector that not only holds our communities together in good times and bad, it is often the incubator and nurturer of trust and fairness within our communities.”

Reflecting on the anniversary of the Abbott government, Costello focused on trust and fairness.

He said political leaders needed to recognise some basics that were required to maintain people’s trust. They needed to “play by the rules”, avoid special deals for special interests, whether they be party donors or industries seeking largesse, and they should say what they meant and mean what they said.

“People expect a degree of dishonesty in political campaigns, but don’t imagine that means they accept it or forgive it. Breaking promises comes at a political cost. If you don’t intend to keep a promise, don’t make it.”

The trust deficit for politicians was much greater than the budget deficit. When there was not fairness people were not going to step up and make sacrifices, Costello said.

There would always be tension between a competitive economic system, which generated enterprise and wealth, and the social need to moderate the harsh effects of unlimited competition. But it was possible to reconcile them.

This meant not getting caught up in ideological crusades about the size and role of government; it meant doing what was both fair and sensible when it came to the tax system and the benefits system. “It means not letting each Australian fend for themselves and devil take the hindmost.”

Costello said there was “space for a bit of rethinking our government’s approach” to some of these issues. “The survey gives us cause to stop and think. If leaders and workers in NFP organisations are feeling so pessimistic about the sector’s future, then that is a voice we should be listening to.

"Government and leaders of all kinds need to take seriously the need for trust and for fairness. And as citizens, as participants in the economy, as stakeholders in Australia’s future, everybody needs to start demanding that our leaders do just that.”