Taking over the corporate regulators, one IPA appointment at a time

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Commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, Gary Johns, is a former IPA Senior Research Fellow

Far from providing a balance between left and right interests, recent IPA-linked, regulatory appointments by the Abbott/Turnbull/Morrison Government only contribute to increased inequality, writes Rosie Williams

THE ABBOTT GOVERNMENT attempted to abolish the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, which also takes in the role of the privacy commissioner, as previously discussed in IA.

While the legislation was intended for two information commissioners – one to rule on freedom of information disputes and a separate privacy commissioner to rule on privacy disputes – the continued cuts to the office has left a single officer, Australian Information Commissioner and Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk, doing the job intended for both roles. At the same time, Charities Commissioner Susan Pascoe was leading her team through similarly turbulent times as the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) had also been put on the chopping block.

Former Commissioner Susan Pascoe recounts this period:

It was impossible to ignore the contested political backdrop. As Commissioner, I was responsible for a start-up venture that was threatened with immediate abolition should the government change. During the caretaker period in August 2013, I sought advice from the Australian Government Solicitor.

The advice was unambiguous: as a statutory office-holder, I was legally required to implement the ACNC Act until Parliament repealed or modified the legislation. As an independent officer of the Parliament, not an appointee of the government of the day, I could only be removed with parliamentary approval. Of course, this put me at loggerheads with the newly elected Government in September 2013.

Once the Administrative Orders were published, we noted that the ACNC Act sat within the Treasury portfolio alongside the other financial regulators, and the Charities Act sat between Treasury and Social Services, as the Minister for Social Services had responsibility for civil society. We met with our substantive Minister, the Assistant Treasurer, Sen. Arthur Sinodinos, in November 2013. He courteously explained the government’s preference for ministerial decision-making rather than arms-length bodies and further communicated that he was deferring to the Hon. Kevin Andrews MP, Minister for Social Services, on policy leadership in the charities area.

Gareth Hutchens and James Massola in the Brisbane Times explain the push to close the fledgeling regulator as coming through Ted Lapkin, a former research fellow with the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), who became an advisor to Member for Menzies Kevin Andrews.

Radio National's Sarah Dingle took up the case for regulating the charities sector, pointing out how little is known about the "river of gold" flowing out of government coffers through tax concessions available to charitable trusts. Set against such observations, the Catholic Church strongly opposed oversight, with the Victorian arm of the Catholic Education Commission having ongoing disputes with the ACNC due to their close ties to the Labor Party in Victoria.

Surviving the early efforts to abolish the charities regulator, one can only imagine the feeling among such battle-weary staff when former IPA Senior Research Fellow Gary Johns was selected to replace Susan Pascoe as Charities Commissioner at the end of her five-year term.

Johns was well known for his extreme views, publicly advocating the abolition of the ACNC, calling for mandatory contraception for welfare recipients and questioning the public benefit of environmental and LGBT+ charities.

Labor's Andrew Leigh said that 

“ ... putting Gary Johns in charge of the Charities Commission is like putting Ned Kelly in charge of bank security.”

After failing in their attempt to abolish the charities regulator, the interests powering the IPA seem to have decided, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em — a philosophy that might explain the number of regulatory appointments given to people with ties to the think tank.

Member for Goldstein Tim Wilson's prior placement as Commissioner for Human Rights (2014-16), off the back of the IPA's campaign for the "right to be a bigot", is probably the most tendentious example. John Lloyd, who recently resigned as Public Service Commissioner while under investigation for partisanship based on his communications with the IPA Director John Roskam, is another.

According to Veronica Burgess in The Mandarin, while not directly tied to the IPA, the recent appointments of three 'long-time staffers and close associates of Coalition governments' have raised the ire of the left, as then Treasurer Scott Morrison moved Phil Gaetjens to the Commonwealth Treasury, Michael Brennan to the Productivity Commission and Simon Atkinson to Treasury, as deputy secretary of the fiscal group.

What is common to these occurrences is that it is the Left that seeks to establish regulators on behalf of the common good and protect the vulnerable from anti-social interests. It also appears that it is the Right, which so often strategises to undermine, then take over these institutions, strengthening the reach of the powerful at the expense of the poor and vulnerable.

A bureaucracy striving to "balance" right and left motivations, or be non-partisan, is not making a neutral, or just, decision but opting to provide as much power to the elite as they do to the poor and vulnerable who are the majority. This can only lead to increased economic and political inequality.

If Australia wants to move forward as a fair and just nation, we need to dispense with the false equivalence of balancing the right and left as though this balances equal rights. It is this false equivalence that provides the hegemony facilitating the appointment of commissioners who are known to have held that very role in contempt, when any right-minded individual would expect such opinion would automatically preclude them from candidacy.

IPA spokespersons detail what they expect from the new Morrison Government

Rosie Williams is a citizen journalist who runs privacy workshops at rosiewilliams.com.au. You can follow Rosie on Twitter @Info_Aus.

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