Matter of public importance
Australians are a generous people.
The most recent Giving Australia survey found that an estimated 14.9 million Australian adults (that is, around 80 per cent of Australian adults) give around $12.5 billion to charities and not-for-profit organisations each financial year.
I saw this generosity first hand in my own electorate of Indi this past summer as the bushfires ripped through and devastated communities and livestock and wildlife. Within a matter of weeks, over $500 million was raised to help support the volunteers fighting the fires, as well as provide emergency relief and recovery assistance to the communities reeling from their impacts.
Another story emerged during that time as well, Mr Deputy Speaker, around the efficacy of the management and distribution of these monies.
Charities and fundraising drives of all shapes and sizes were inundated with generous donations – from large multinational aid organisations like the Red Cross, to online platforms like Go Fund Me, regional organisations like the Country Fire Association of Victoria, and local organisations operating out of our region like the Into Our Hands Community Foundation.
Each of these organisations had bona fide objectives – to do the best they could, with the resources they had, to assist communities in need in an emergency.
But as the weeks unfolded, questions were raised across Australia – and indeed internationally – about how well this charitable giving was co-ordinated, and whether the system governing charities in Australia was getting in the way of an effective response.
Many expressed frustration at large sums of charitable donations destined for bushfire-affected communities sitting in the trust accounts of large organisations, waiting for sign-off to be deployed. Others welcomed non-charitable methods of raising funds that could be injected into communities and households overnight – such as crowdfunding campaigns on social media – but were wary of the lack of oversight and exposure to abuse.
In the moment, it was difficult for even the most well-intentioned to know how best to help. We all remember the amazing work comedian Celeste Barber did to raise $51 million in charitable donations for the NSW Rural Fire Service, which the NSW Supreme Court later found could not be legally redirected to other bushfire relief charities or for other purposes – even if the NSW Rural Fire Service wanted to – because of its governing trust deed.
Just yesterday, the ABC reported that of the $282 million donated to the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul, $135 million is yet to be spent. Now there are often good reasons for this. Bushfire recovery is not a one week thing. It lasts for many years. It makes sense to keep some money in the bank to finance recovery needs a year or two down the track once the spotlight has gone.
But many members of the public are wondering where their donations have gone, and how it is being spent, especially when there is so much need still out there. Part of this is also anger at the slowness of the Government’s response. When people look at their situation, now six months on from the fires, when very little support has been forthcoming, it’s fair enough to direct that frustration at the general powers that be.
It is heartbreaking to hear people say that after this bushfire season they will never donate to bushfire recovery again. Australians are generous people, but they don’t like to feel the wool being pulled over their eyes. Now I don’t believe they are, but clearly we must do more to ensure there is transparency about how the money we donate to bushfires will be spent.
This is not about bashing the charities – the Red Cross, The Salvos, Vinnies, and many smaller charities – these are often the first people on the ground in the wake of a disaster and many have committed to being around for years to come. But there is clearly a gap between community expectations and the way support is delivered on the ground. There are many things we can learn from this bushfire season, and re-imagining how our charities work is one of them.
The motion raised by the Member for Fenner notes that current fundraising laws and governance regimes do not allow charities to make optimal use of the resources donors provide, and that current rules are from a time gone by and not nimble enough to respond to real community needs.
I would like to echo these concerns, and will support any push in this place to support charities and the work they set out to do.
Australians have an immense spirit of giving, and we should do what we can to cultivate that to ensure that these generous everyday Australians feel confident and have the trust to give again when inevitably we need to call them in future.
[June 10, 2020]