The appointment of Gary Johns last week as director of the regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), has created incredulous disbelief and concern amongst NGO leaders. For decades, Johns has been proactive in criticising the public advocacy of NGOs and even their very existence.
In announcing the appointment, Michael Sukkar, Assistant Minister to the Treasurer, described Johns as the ‘standout’ candidate for the job. However, the sector fears that he will use his new position to further undermine their public role.
Media coverage of his appointment has focussed on statements by Johns over the past decade indicating an antagonism towards the NGO sector’s advocacy. As a columnist and author of books specifically criticising the sector, Johns has provided a wealth of quotable quotes. For example, he has called for compulsory contraception for welfare recipients, opposed international development aid as giving money to ‘Third World kleptomaniacs’, questioned whether there was any public benefit in environmental charities and described Indigenous women on welfare as ‘cash cows’.
However, Johns has a much longer history of antagonism towards the sector stretching back 20 years that should also be considered. A former Labor Assistant Minister, he lost his seat at the 1996 election and soon after moved to the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). There he headed up their newly created NGO Watch, a project specifically created to campaign against NGOs. Johns broke his links with Labor, and in 1998 was quoted in the Canberra Times as accusing the Keating government of being captured by ‘special interests’ of ‘Greens, gays, feminists, ethnics and the disabled’. Throughout all of the publications by NGO Watch can be seen a neoliberal public choice view of NGOs, which maintains they interfere with the ‘market’ and should be restricted.
During his time at the IPA from 1997 to 2006, Johns’ language was neither measured nor temperate in describing NGOs. In a 2002 article, he referred to ‘cashed up NGOs’, describing them as ‘a dictatorship of the articulate’ and a ‘tyranny of the minorities’. He also attacked their supporters, saying they were the ‘mail-order memberships of the wealthy left, content to buy their activism and get on with their consumer lifestyle’.
In a 2001 IPA publication, he went so far as to question the need for NGOs in a democracy saying, ‘In democratic societies with accountable governments, strong regulation of the corporate sector and an absence of endemic corruption in business-government dealing, the role of NGOs is problematic.’
In 2003 on behalf of the IPA, Johns’ led a $50,000 government-funded consultancy inquiring into NGOs’ relationships with the federal government called, ‘The Protocol: Managing Relations with NGOs‘. The report was a blueprint for later repressive moves by the Howard Government against the sector. The idea for a Protocol was initiated by the IPA. When the proposal was put to the Howard government, it was accepted with no tender, no public announcement and no adherence to National Audit Office guidelines, which require selection criteria or evaluation of the consultants. The ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing pointed out the irony of the IPA, which did not disclose its donors, contracting in secret to monitor NGOs for their transparency and accountability – a fact that seems to have been lost on both the Howard government and the IPA.
Johns and his co-author John Roskam presented their report in 2004. Threaded throughout was a neoliberal perspective of NGOs having too much influence and affecting free market operations. There was no reference to a pluralist model of NGO representation or any reference to corporate influence on public policy. Although no protocol was established, the report foreshadowed policies introduced in the final term of the Howard government – various taxation measures against NGOs, and legislation introduced by Senator Eric Abetz requiring NGOs to report to government on their activities.
When I interviewed him in 2008, Alec Marr of the Wilderness Society claimed that the IPA consultancy was a means to gain information on NGOs that was later used elsewhere against them. As part of the consultancy, Johns and Roskam were given access to donation information for the entire charitable sector, including names of individual and group donors. Marr claimed this gave Johns, Roskam and the IPA a wealth of information, not just on the finances of NGOs, but about individuals and organisational networks. Marr’s concern was how this information could be used against specific NGOs.
Over the years, Johns’ has not given up the ideological claim that advocacy is not the role of NGOs. In 2014, he was quoted as saying: “The Abbott government promised to abolish the Charities Act 2013, which includes advocacy as a charitable purpose. It must make good that promise in a way that makes it clear to the High Court that advocacy is not a charitable purpose”.
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), which Johns will head up, was created with the support of the NGO sector in 2012 to ensure accountability and transparency, to support good governance and innovation in the sector and to promote the reduction of unnecessary red tape. As far back as 1995, the sector was looking for these outcomes in submissions to an Industry Commission Report, Charitable Organisation is Australia. However, the idea was not pursued at the time, because NGOs feared the Howard government was not sympathetic to their democratic role as they saw it. It was not until 2007 under a Labor government that they revived the idea of an independent body to regulate the sector. The UK Charities Commission was seen as a model in the way it not only regulated NGOs, but also nurtured the sector with support programs to develop best practice. However, when the ACNC was set up in 2012, although described as an independent regulator, it became a statuary office under the umbrella of the ATO with a memorandum of understanding setting out the services the ATO undertakes for it.
With the appointment of Johns, the hope that the ACNC would become a nurturing, supportive organisation for the sector appears to have been removed, and a very different regime may be about to appear.
Dr Joan Staples was the ACF National Liaison Officer during the Hawke Government and is currently an Associate in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, where her research area is the democratic role of civil society.