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"Newman Online"

"Newman Online" Weekly commentary by Dr Muriel Newman MP

The Uncharitable Labour Government

This week, Newman On-Line examines the Charities Bill – a Labour Government attempt to use legislation and regulation to take control of the charities sector.

As most New Zealanders instinctively recognise, a great many laws passed by Parliament are fundamentally unnecessary. Most have been designed by people who want to rectify some aspect of uncivilised, abnormal or unlawful behaviour. But rather than using existing laws to vigorously pursue offenders – bringing them to justice or, at least, into line – socialist governments regard passing yet more laws as an easier option.

The problem with this excessive law-making approach is that, all too often, such new laws impact heavily on the majority of law-abiding citizens – eroding their freedom and their basic democratic rights. Meanwhile, the law-breakers – who usually won’t obey the new laws anyway – get off scot-free.

At the heart of this matter is the government’s belief as to whether people can be trusted: can people be trusted to get on with their lives, and do what is right by society at large, or is a plethora of laws needed to keep them in line?

This is a defining issue that delineates the political Right from the Left: while the Right believes that citizens can be trusted to live their lives in the wider interests of their community and the nation, the Left believes they must be kept in line through a raft of regulations to ensure they are on a tight leash as they journey through life.

Now in its fifth year, Labour has proved to be an enthusiastic subscriber to the view that the Government “knows best”, passing some 511 laws and 1,785 regulations during its term of office. That’s over 26,000 pages of rules that are giving rise to new layers of bureaucracy and politically correct red tape. Their effect is to progressively stifle free enterprise and dampen the nation’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Nowhere is this more evident than with the Government’s Charities Bill.

The Charities Bill – strongly promoted by both United Future and Labour – was understood by the community and voluntary sector to be designed to protect and promote ‘charity’. Instead, the Charities Commission proposed in the Bill was intended to be a policing and enforcement agency funded by the sector itself. As a result, the Commission’s core role would be to punish groups who failed to comply with the raft of new Labour-proposed draconian rules and regulations, to catch those rogue charities that are supposedly abusing or misusing their status.

This is a classic Left-wing strategy: the Government justifies excessive regulation by claiming that a group of law-breakers – in this case, the so-called ‘cowboy’ charities that rip people off – is a significant problem, and that a law change is needed to catch them. That argument, however, is not credible. The sector itself is largely unaware of the existence of more than just a handful of such organisations. The widely held view is that, in regulating all charities to catch that handful, the Government is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

As a result of this heavy-handed approach, some 30,000 agencies and groups – involved in activities as wide-ranging as religious ministering, volunteering, scientific investigation, and philanthropy – face draconian legislative and regulatory changes that could do untold damage to the sector.

In fact, many charities have already advised Labour that its proposed changes will impose totally unreasonable compliance costs on their organisations. As a result, they fear that precious funds – raised for charitable purposes – will have to be diverted into unnecessary bureaucracy. But that’s not all: the sector has warned that the proposed hard-line personal liability penalties on office holders will act as a massive deterrent on individuals who have, in the past, been prepared to volunteer for these jobs. Under these new regulations, they caution, it could become nigh on impossible to attract volunteers to take on these important jobs.

According to sector representatives, Labour’s heavy-handed attack on what is the core of New Zealand’s civil society was totally unexpected. The charitable sector largely operates outside State control – providing a range of services, assistance and support to people in need. They embrace the concept of free association, and were particularly troubled by the Government’s intention to restrict the ability of registered charities to advocate against Government policy.

For Labour to attempt to centrally control this sector through its legislative and regulatory powers smacks of totalitarianism. The fact that the sector has spoken out in such a forthright and fearless manner is a credit to everyone involved. Their actions are forcing the Labour to consider completely re-writing the Bill.

But I urge a note of caution: those organisations that have taken a leadership role in this battle against State regulation and control must be vigilant. They must insist that the sector, as a whole, be given an opportunity to resubmit to any new Bill that may emerge. If they don’t, they may find that the Government’s agenda of undermining the independence of New Zealand’s charitable sector may well be implemented by stealth.

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