Steve Elder would like to employ more teachers for his Catholic schools, rather than the accountants he needs to fight his way through government regulation.
“We are the most over-regulated, compliant entity that I think exists in Australia,” he says of the Catholic Education Office Melbourne.
His organisation is required to comply with commonwealth and state funding obligations, plus a “plethora” of others from quasi-government organisations and, because many of its schools are companies limited by guarantee, even the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.
That’s before you deal with myriad commonwealth and state regulations that cover charities and not-for-profit organisations.
What Elder would like to see is a one-stop-shop to address what he sees as an unsustainable compliance regime that is swamping his schools and their principals.
“Because we are taking money away from teaching kids in schools and putting on more accountants.”
Elder is no fan of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, the national regulator established by the Gillard government.
Its role is to register and oversee the 60,000 charities and non-profits that exist around the country, employing about one million people with a combined turnover close to $100 billion a year.
It was also given the task, but with no power, of “promoting” a reduction in unnecessary red tape.
The problem with that latter function, as Elder sees it, is that some states are reluctant to comply with a national regulatory standard.
As a result, Catholic Education is backing the Abbott government’s attempt to abolish the commission, putting it offside with some of the nation’s best-known charities including the St Vincent de Paul Society.
The government introduced repeal legislation to parliament on Wednesday with Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews arguing the commission hadn’t done anything to reduce red tape.
His plan is to replace the commission with a smaller, charity-focussed centre for excellence, which will act as an advocacy, training and development body.
It will not be a regulator. That will be left to the Australian Taxation Office.
Community Council for Australia chief executive David Crosbie is not keen to see a return to the “bad old days”.
“It is simply putting the fox in charge of the hen house,” he said.
If the ATO decides who is a charity and who is not, it would create a situation where its decisions could only be challenged in the High Court.
Crosbie says that option is impractical, expensive and hugely time consuming.
Andrews argues the commission was established with the intention of it being a single reporting point for charities.
That hadn’t eventuated because the majority of charities continued to still provide information to multiple jurisdictions.
Tim Costello, the head of World Vision, says he has been told the Sydney diocese of the Catholic Church headed up by Cardinal George Pell – a confidant of Prime Minister Tony Abbott – has been lobbying hard for the commission’s abolition.
“Some wealthy individuals weren’t happy about it either,” he told ABC radio.
Crosbie also believes the government’s “disturbing” motives are about satisfying a small minority that oppose transparency across charities.
Andrews rejects as “simply nonsense” any suggestion the church has pressured the government in a bid to avoid scrutiny of its finances.
“This is not something that relates to any one particular religious group; it’s something which goes across the board,” he said.
Costello argues that eight out of 10 charities support the commission, an assertion disputed by Elder.
He says Costello is using a survey returned by 1500 charities and not completed by the 486 separate entities he represents in Victoria.
“So I would hardly call that an overwhelming endorsement.”
Costello, along with 53 others, including the heads of RSPCA Australia, Lifeline, Musica Viva, Ted Noffs Foundation, Save the Children and Wesley Mission, signed an open letter to Mr Abbott this week calling on the government to retain the commission.
They reminded him the establishment of an independent regulator was first seriously proposed through a Howard government review in 2001 and recommended since then by the Productivity Commission, the Henry tax review and various Senate committees.
In any event, the commission had done what few new regulators achieve – gained widespread support across the sector it was regulating, the group said.
Abbott was unmoved as he made a statement to parliament outlining his government’s plan to repeal 9500 unnecessary or counter-productive regulations and 1000 acts.
“People serving our community don’t deserve a new level of scrutiny,” he said of the bill to abolish the charities regulator.
More regulation was not the solution to every corporate, community or personal failing.
“Sometimes we just have to accept that mistakes are inevitable and that misfortunes are unavoidable.”
Costello and his group countered by telling Abbott that he is about to make a “huge” mistake.