When Dr Gary Johns, former minister in the Keating government and penner of numerous controversial opinion pieces, was appointed commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), it ruffled a fair few feathers, INTHEBLACK reports.
Johns’ views on the Australian charity sector at the time were well known. In addition to a number of media columns and essays, he had written a book called The Charity Ball: How to Dance to the Donors’ Tune, which argued that too many charities in Australia have been hobbled by activism, spend far too much time trying to influence government policy, and are lacking in transparency when outlining the disbursement of donor dollars.
When then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull appointed Johns in December of 2017, some in the charity world were surprised that a “critic of the sector” could be tasked with helming it.
Johns maintains, however, that he is a fervent believer in the vital role that charities have to play in a society.
“I am actually not critical of the charity sector at all,” he tells INTHEBLACK.
“I have been critical of some charities and some spokespersons, many of whom are just ideologues and they should probably be in politics, not charities.”
From 1997 to 2006, Johns was a senior fellow at the conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), where he was head of the Non-Government Organisations unit, and from 2002 to 2004, he was appointed associate commissioner of the Commonwealth Productivity Commission.
“I guess [my approach] is actually still old working class: it’s practical, it’s asking, ‘Is this actually going to work?’,” Johns says.
“Traditionally, charity was always built on a direct conversation between the charity and a donor on behalf of the beneficiary,” he says.
“Today, much of that conversation is built on an indirect relationship of charities talking to government, representing taxpayers, and the government uses its power to take taxpayers’ money, so the direct relationship is lost.”
Governments may want to keep various spokespeople happy, Johns notes, but these groups may not be “bearing sensible ideas, or they may be drifting from their purpose”.
Instead, Johns endorses charities that focus on delivering tangible and quantifiable benefits.
ACNC Commissioner Gary Johns focuses on sector transparency (In the Black)