Independent MPs urged to support recommendations for transparency and accountability in charities sector

Si Gladman / 24 January 2024

The Rationalist Society of Australia has urged Independent members of the federal parliament to support recommendations aimed at enhancing “public transparency and accountability” of religious charities.

In a letter to all Independents this month, the RSA called on them to advocate in support of the Productivity Commission’s recommendation for the removal of the concept of ‘Basic Religious Charities’ (BRCs).

As reported late last year, the Productivity Commission, in its draft report to its inquiry into philanthropy, said that the “unjustified reporting exemptions” to governance and financial reporting standards created “a gap” in the regulatory framework.

The report said all charities registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) should “have the same governance obligations and reporting requirements proportionate to their size.”

A number of Independent MPs were elected to parliament on a platform of improving accountability and transparency in government.

“In parliament and in your discussions with the government, we urge you to advocate in support of the Productivity Commission’s recommendation in order to boost accountability and public trust in the charities system,” the RSA told them.

In recent weeks, religious organisations have criticised the Productivity Commission’s recommendations, which also included excluding from the Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) system all activities for the purpose of ‘advancing religion’, and removing a DGR category that enabled faith schools to raise money for buildings.

Lobbying group Freedom for Faith described the recommendations as demonstrating “a clear anti-religion agenda”; the National Catholic Education Commission said the report was “direct attack” on faith communities.

In a submission to the Productivity Commission last year, the RSA argued that the lack of transparency regarding BRCs was undermining the public’s trust and confidence in the charities system.

Government officials have confirmed that “potentially billions” of dollars are going unreported in the economy because BRCs are exempt from submitting financial information to authorities and meeting other governance standards.

The RSA also informed the Independents about the research of Dr Phil Saj into BRCs. At an RSA Webinar last year, Dr Saj outlined that the exemptions regime was at odds with the ACNC objective to promote “public trust and confidence” in the charity sector. He said requiring BRCs to have the same level of financial transparency as other charities would not result in any increased administrative burden since most BRCs produce more detailed financial reports within their faith networks already.

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Si Gladman is the Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

All the more reason.