The appointment comes amid moves to limit the advocacy rights of charities, including an upcoming review of the ACNC, including a number of parliamentary reviews, a Treasury review and an upcoming review of the ACNC Act.
Gary Johns, a Labor minister under the Keating government, is known for his views that charities should not be allowed to advocate for changes to government policy and was head of NGOWatch at the Institute for Public Affairs, which investigated charities the IPA thought were targeting businesses.
He has also argued that people on government allowances should be required to take contraception, described Indigenous mothers as “cash cows”, attacked Indigenous charities and criticised BeyondBlue’s campaigning for marriage equality.
Speaking after the assistant minister to the treasurer, Michael Sukkar, announced his appointment, Johns said he wanted the ACNC to focus more ensuring charities were fulfilling their charitable purpose.
“But we need to keep in mind the purpose,” Johns said. “The overall market here is that donors give money to charities in the expectation that most of it will be used for the charitable purpose … And that what is more, the work that is undertaken on behalf of a donor works. So these are matters I want to bring to the fore as part of the work of the charities commission.”
The appointment of Johns was met with outrage. “It’s bizarre, absolutely bizarre,” said David Crosbie, the chief executive of the Communities Council of Australia, a peak body for not-for-profit organisations. “Why you would appoint a well-known anti-charities campaigner to head up the charities regulator is beyond me, even if you are trying to close down advocacy by the charities sector.”
Cassandra Goldie, the chief executive of the Australian Council of Social Service, said the appointment undermined the regulator’s independence. “We see the appointment through the lens about what it says to the government’s approach to the regulation of the charitable sector,” she said.
Johns said his political views were not relevant and that he would be a “technician”, simply applying the law.
But the sector sees the appointment in the context of an ongoing battle with the Coalition government, which is trying to limit the ability of charities to advocate for policy change.
Purcell said: “We’re concerned that this appointment couples with the upcoming review of the legislation for the charity regulator could combine into a perfect storm that may destroy charitable advocacy and tax deductions for advocacy.”
Purcell said during the five-yearly review of the ACNC legislation, which is due now, the government would have the ability to change the remit of the regulator, giving Johns the ability to implement his views.
Dermot O’Gorman, the chief executive of WWF Australia, said there was “deep shock” in the sector. “I wasn’t expecting someone who would be our best friend,” he said. “But what message is the minister trying to send here?”
At the press conference, Sukkar defended the appointment. “He is here to apply the law as it is contained in the act. And the fact that he has a deeper understanding of the issues in a more philosophical sense is a strength.”
A Labor spokesman, Andrew Leigh, said the appointment was “like putting Dracula in charge of the bloodbank”.
“Mr Johns has been a foe of charities and he has been one of the strongest critics of charities in Australia. He has attacked Indigenous charities, he has attacked mental health charities and he has attacked charities that attempt to engage in advocacy,” Leigh said.
“That’s the thing about this government, they have a ‘charities should be seen and not heard’ approach. They think that charities are OK so long as they’re running soup kitchens, but once they start talking about poverty and inequality, they’re overstepping their mark …
“A leopard doesn’t change its spots. Gary Johns will not cease being a foe to charities in this new role.”
Writing in the Australian in 2014, Johns said: “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.”
Appearing on TV with the rightwing commentator Andrew Bolt in 2015, Johns reportedly described Aboriginal women on welfare as “cash cows”. “Look, a lot of poor women in this country, a large proportion of whom are Aboriginal, are used as cash cows, right?” Fairfax Media reported Johns as saying. “They are kept pregnant and producing children for the cash. Now, that has to stop.”