He has been a controversial and divisive symbol of overzealous government control since his appointment as leader of the ACNC in 2017. We take a look at Gary Johns’ 5-year tenure.

It has been an appointment marred by controversy since day one. On 3 June, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) announced that Gary Johns would stand down as head of the regulatory body at the end of July, following five years in the role.

What has followed has not exactly been an outpouring of fondness and gratitude. Politicians, to nonprofits, to the media have taken the opportunity to reflect on a tenure that, for many, has been viewed as a dark period for the Australian charity sector.

One of Gary’s most vocal critics has been the new Assistant Minister for Competition, Charities and Treasury, Andrew Leigh, who is now also the minister responsible for the ACNC. Within days of Gary’s appointment in 2017, Andrew started a petition for his removal from the role. Andrew’s media release, also published on 3 June, states, “I welcome the news that the Commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, Gary Johns, has tendered his resignation.” He goes on to say, “The election ended the Liberals’ nine-year war on charities” (Gary denies his resignation is connected to the election of the new Labor government).

Andrew has previously said that putting Gary in charge of the charities commission was “like putting Scott Morrison in charge of ensuring safety at kids’ soccer games“, like “putting Bronwyn Bishop in charge of parliamentary entitlements“, and “like putting Ned Kelly in charge of bank security”:

If you took two minutes to watch the Twitter video above, you would know that Gary’s brazen comments about who is ‘deserving’ of welfare and support are enough to make you wince – he has published a book titled “No Contraception No Dole“…. you get the gist.

So, what specifically, have been the nonprofit sector’s grievances with Gary?

Let’s go back to the start.

At the time of Gary’s appointment in 2017, head of the Community Council for Australia, David Crosbie, described the decision to place an “anti-charities campaigner” in a role that would oversee the activities of… well, charities… as “bizarre”.

“Why on earth would you appoint an anti-charities campaigner with no experience in regulation, no experience in running an organisation?” David asked.

“This is someone who believes charities should stop asking the government for money, that the government gives them too much money, that charities should not be advocates, that not enough charities do charitable work, and you are going to put that person in charge of the charities regulator?

“The only reason you would do that is that you are trying to close down the voice of charities.”

And herein lies the heart of the issue. There has been strong feeling amongst nonprofits, that the Liberal government brought with it an era of prohibitive and problematic management of the sector, that it aimed to silence the sector on any concerns that opposed government, and that Gary’s appointment was the beginning of restrictions on NFPs that would threaten free speech, undermine the right to protest, restrict the means to lobby government for change, and cause unmanageable levels of administrative burden.

This lead to the establishment of the Hands Off Our Charities alliance, a group of over 100 nonprofit member organisations who came together in 2017 in response to a number of government bills that would have silenced charities on issues of national importance.

And what does Gary have to say?

“There are two reasons [I am leaving]”, Gary told Pro Bono News.

“One, I have done the job. I had literally a five year plan… and I’ve done it. So there is no point remaining in a position when you feel as though you have given it all you can.

“The second reason is that I want my voice back. I will be going back into the public arena as of 1 August and getting back my pen if you like, re-entering public debate in areas I have had a passion about for many years.

“I am especially proud of our major achievements – bolstering the integrity of the Charity Register and transforming its data and search features, and developing a new program to strengthen good governance through free online courses for those who run and lead charities, set to be launched soon.”

And what’s next for the ACNC?

“The government will run an open and transparent process to identify the best qualified candidate to work with the sector in building a reconnected Australia,” says Andrew Leigh.

“The Albanese government will engage with the sector with respect and creativity, and work to fix fundraising, increase charitable giving and build a stronger charitable sector to support vulnerable Australians. We recognise that it accounts for 10% of employment and a significant amount of GDP, and that charitable advocacy plays a vital role in our democracy.”

As the end of July draws near, the nonprofit sector awaits the announcement of Gary John’s successor and hopes for a future where NFPs are supported, not restrained, by those who lead us.

To read more about Andrew Leigh’s position on Gary Johns, the Liberal government, and their relationship with the charity sector, click here

To read more about Gary John’s resignation, including more quotes from him, David Crosbie, and Ray Yoshida, coordinator of the Hands Off Our Charities alliance, click here

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