Observers could be forgiven for thinking that Australia has been a nation of much talk but little action when it comes to reform of the not-for-profit sector. Along with many other jurisdictions with a common-law definition of charity based on the list of charitable purposes in the Elizabethan Charitable Uses Act 1601, Australia undertook a re-examination of its definition around the 400th anniversary of that act. Unlike most other jurisdictions, however, Australia waited almost a decade before the recommendations of the resulting inquiry to be acted on.
In the meantime, Australia’s charitable sector has continued to operate and grow despite the burden of 178 separate and often overlapping pieces of Commonwealth and state/territory legislation, coupled with increasing calls for transparency and accountability. The sector has also dutifully participated in at least four separate government inquiries since 1995, each of which resulted in remarkably similar recommendations: harmonisation of regulations across state and territory jurisdictions, a statutory definition of charity, and an independent body to regulate, educate and provide public information on the sector. Those recommendations led to little actual change – until now.
In 2011 the Government announced the establishment of Australia’s first national independent regulator for the not-for-profit sector. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) will be in place by July 2012 and one of its first tasks will be to provide a statutory definition of charity.
This has enormous potential implications for Australian philanthropy, removing some current uncertainties around the entities and purposes which Australian foundations can legally fund. The Government has indicated that the definition will be based around that recommended by the 2001 Report of the Inquiry into the Definition of Charities and Related Organisations, and will take into account the results of recent judicial decisions.
After so much time, energy and printer’s ink has been expended in examining the sector and the definition of charity, these concrete developments are extremely promising. And while we may be wearied from so many enquiries and consultations, the not-for-profit sector is passionate and committed. We can rouse enough enthusiasm for a robust dialogue with government, hopefully resulting in a much-improved regulatory system.