Opening address to the Building Partnerships between Governments and Not-For-Profits Conference 20 May 2014, Canberra

Speech Location:

Hotel Realm, Canberra

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Thank you Fiona for that warm welcome.

I appreciate this opportunity to convey a few thoughts on the appropriate scope and role of civil society in 21st century Australia.

Even at the best of times it’s not an easy thing to draw the lines of delineation that demarcate the respective responsibilities of the not-for-profit sector and Government.

It’s a complex and delicate task;

A task that involves a multiplicity of interested parties that encompass every level of government as well as a plethora of NGO stakeholders.

Each with their own perspective, their own agenda and their own priorities.

A task that can at times be likened to herding cats;

A task that it brings to mind that famous quip by Winston Churchill:

“Democracy is the worst form of government except all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Almost two years ago I launched the Coalition’s blueprint for empowering civil society by means of engaging the community groups that comprise it.

I drew on de Tocqueville’s classic work Democracy in America that noted the centrality of grassroots voluntary organisations to the modern democratic experiment in the United States.

I lamented the ‘mission creep’ of the paternalistic welfare state that can warp social incentives and sap the dynamism of the not-for-profit sector.

Nowhere is this problem illuminated more tellingly than in this submission to the 2010 Productivity Commission report on the not-for-profit sector:

“These tiny, generally understaffed and low cost organizations are now required, as a part of receiving generally quite small allocations of government funds, to put in place vast and extensive policy manuals, Occupational Health and Safety procedure manuals that would choke a horse, to undertake extensive reporting processes to government, write a strategic plan and undertake extensive governance training, all of which they seemed capable of coping quite well without for many decades. Which raises the question are these really necessary to do the job or are they simply meeting a bureaucratic need for work creation and imposed order?”

Those were the sentiments expressed by the New South Wales Meals on Wheels Association.

Those are sentiments I very much share.

The problem so ably highlighted by NSW Meals on Wheels is something I promised a Coalition Government would work to reverse.

I promised that we would implement policies that invigorate rather than debilitate;

That lessen the burden, rather than adding to it;

That make life for civil society easier, not harder.

The government remains committed to slashing red and green tape to make it easier for both the not-for-profit and for-profit sectors.

Last March we inaugurated the first of our semi-annual ‘Repeal Days’ that are wholly devoted to the legislative task of stripping away regulations that are outdated or otherwise unnecessary.

Amongst the many ‘red-tape removal’ bills introduced on that day into Parliament was legislation to abolish the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission.

And let me reaffirm that the Government remains resolute in that intention.

We believe Australia’s charitable and not-for-profit sector is composed of good people doing good things for their communities on a voluntary basis.

Rather than the regulatory approach of the ACNC that is coercive by definition, we believe these good people deserve a ‘rebuttable presumption of virtue’ that minimizes the intrusion of government into their affairs.

We will thus persevere in the fulfillment of our election commitment to abolish the ACNC.

We hold that Government is neither omniscient nor omnipotent and that you’ll always know how to do your business better than we do.

So the best thing we can do is to get the regulators off your backs and out of the way to the maximal extent possible.

We want to liberate you to do what you do best – address local issues in local communities through marshalling the good will of local people.

We believe the optimal way to build a better society is by facilitating the capacity of community members to confront shared problems and shape a shared future.

Our cornerstone objective – what guides us in our efforts to build a more productive partnership between Government and civil society – is that we fundamentally believe that local people understand local issues and are best placed to solve local problems.

We want to put all of you in the driver’s seat of program delivery.

The Government’s role should be limited to drafting the general rules of the road and providing some of the funding you require to provide for those in need.

But this is far from the best of times.

Every facet of our policy is influenced by the dire fiscal circumstance we inherited nine months ago.

The previous Labor government had set the Commonwealth on a trajectory to $667 billion in debt.

Not only is this economically unsustainable, it’s morally unconscionable.

Unconscionable because the previous government was borrowing, not for the future, but from the future.

Unconscionable because Labor’s chronic debt-fuelled overspending is a form of intergenerational theft that leaves our children to foot the bill created by our inability to live within our means.

Last week our first Budget provided the opportunity to begin putting our philosophies into practice.

We took the first steps towards reining in the fiscal excesses of the past six years.

Yet we sought to do so while ensuring those in genuine need would receive the support they deserve and require.

Within my portfolio we began to foster a new form of partnership between Government and service providers.

We committed substantial funds to services covering families, aged care, disability and settlement support.

But the object of our exercise is to provide these services in a manner that stimulates civil society rather than stifles it.

I’ve already mentioned our initiative to lessen the red tape burden on the charitable and not-for-profit sector.

This will help you to help others by fostering innovation and collaboration that will produce new and better programs.

It will streamline government processes and reduce duplicative compliance burdens.

To this end my Department is reforming the manner in which Government interacts with our civil society partners.

I’m sure you’re all aware of new grant arrangements that take effect from July this year.

We are collapsing the current unwieldy 18 discretionary grant programmes into just seven larger funding buckets.

These new grants will entail longer-term agreements that will provide greater certainty as you plan the services our communities need.

We will also simplify the administrative process by negotiating single consolidated agreements between the Department of Social Services and service providers.

The genesis for these reforms is what you’ve been telling me during the many conversations I’ve conducted with civil society stakeholders.

You have all expressed your concerns to government. And we have listened.

So allow me to elaborate further on the practical steps we have announced in response to your requests.

We’re rolling out a streamlined system that adds three newly broad-banded programmes to complement those already existing in Ageing and Aged Care.

These are:

  • Families and Communities
  • Housing and Homelessness
  • Disability, Mental Health and Carers

The Families and Communities Programme incorporates a large portion of the current social services grant programmes.

Priority areas include early intervention activities that focus on financial capability, stronger communities, support for migrants transitioning to life in Australia and family wellbeing.

The revised structure of this new programme means funded organisations will have greater flexibility, a lighter administrative burden and greater control over how they fashion services to meet the particular needs of their communities.

The Housing and Homelessness Programme will generate the policy advice we require to grapple with the conundrum of housing affordability in Australia.

The Disability, Mental Health and Carers Programme will provide support for people with disability and mental health issues and their carers.

This includes proactive assistance for the work-capable disabled to find employment that bestows dignity and self-sufficiency.

These three new programmes sit alongside those Ageing and Aged Care Programmes that were streamlined previously.

We will continue to implement the reforms are already on track in this sector.

What will these new arrangements mean for our partners?

First and foremost they will significantly reduce red tape.

They will give service providers greater flexibility to drive local solutions to local issues by reducing prescriptive service delivery.

Simplifying the number of grant programmes will also help streamline reporting requirements.

In other words, we want you to spend more time on helping people and less on unnecessary paperwork.

This was our promise and this is what we are now in the process of delivering.

My department is also working further to reduce the reporting burden by implementing a ‘one-agreement per provider’ system where we can.

Gone are the days when you needed a plethora of agreements with government before you could even get out the door.

We are also streamlining the financial acquittals process to further reduce red tape.

Another important innovation coming out of DSS in the wake of the Budget is our new performance reporting.

We want to move the focus from the stick to the carrot as we implement new ways of collecting, reporting and utilising programme performance data.

Reporting for new funding agreements will also be as streamlined and automated as possible.

My Department will reduce the amount of reporting to priority information only.

From now on, every piece of information we request will have a clear purpose.

We won’t be in the business of collecting information for the sake of collecting information.

We seek to make this a work of genuine collaboration between us and you.

I know you want a greater focus on outcomes.

So do we.

But I also know this is difficult to achieve.

Outcomes may be difficult to measure, but they are indispensible when we come to consider how best to invest our finite resources.

We will work in partnership with you to collect outcomes data that relevant, proportionate and rigorous;

But all the while bearing in mind that this isn’t your primary role and you aren’t funded to be specialist researchers.

My Department will share what we learn through regular reports on service coverage areas, benchmarking and service delivery trends over time.

The information will be provided in ways that best support innovation in service delivery.

We will link with other Australian Government data sets and periodic surveys to give you a more holistic picture of your clients and your local community.

This will improve the understanding of client pathways, strengthen visibility of outcomes over time and reduce the cost of evaluations.

We’ll work closely with you over the course of the next financial year to adopt a flexible transition process into these new arrangements.

I know these are changes that you have been requesting for some time and I am pleased we’ve been able to initiate them within our first year of Government.

We’ve also committed more than $1.5 billion over five years for new five-year agreements for more than 250 providers who deliver:

  • Communities for Children Facilitating Partner Services;
  • Family and Relationship Services; and
  • Family Law Services under the new Families and Communities Programme.

These longer term agreements will help reduce staff turnover and enable a long term strategic outlook for these priority services.

To minimise service delivery disruption we have also committed $590 million for six and 12-month extensions to most grants due to expire on 30 June this year.

Another Budget item of particular interest to this audience is the Community Business Partnership.

We have set aside six million dollars to re-establish this concept that operated very successfully when we were last in Government.

The Prime Minister will chair the Partnership and I will be his deputy.

It will bring together leaders from the community and business sectors for the promotion of philanthropy and volunteering in Australia.

The Partnership will also facilitate collaborative cross-sector relationships that enhance the sharing of expertise between the business and community sectors.

Productive, collaborative partnerships across and between sectors are essential for a healthy and empowered civil society sector.

As promised, we have set about removing the burden of government over-reach and introducing in its stead a new way of working.

We recognise the vital role of civil society and are taking practical action to help you strengthen and grow.

We want to be a help rather than a hindrance;

We want to be facilitators rather than frustrators.

We want to impose the lightest of possible touches because we trust that individuals and organisations in our community are motivated by the common good.

This trust is the basis of the partnership we wish to nurture with you.

Best of luck with your deliberations and I look forward to working with you all over the coming months and years.