Finally, after years of inquiries, setbacks, prevarication and debate, Australia has a statutory definition of "charity".
Late last week Federal Parliament passed the Charities Bill (2013), formalising it as an Act and confirming its place in Australian law.
The bill clarifies what is and isn't a charity under to a single statute - something many charities and not-for-profits have long argued for.
Previously Australia's definition of charity relied on interpretations of a 400-year-old English document - the 1601 Statute of Elizabeth - to provide that definition.
Up until now, no organisation in Australia could be a charity unless it was able to show that its activities came under the headings contained in the Statute of Elizabeth - headings that have been interpreted by four hundred years of case law, but of which many are now hopelessly out of date.
While supporting the underprivileged and the sick, supporting education and providing other relief are included in the Statute as charitable activities, other more outdated provisions include:
- "Providing dowries for the Marriages of poor Maides"
- "The relief or redemption of Prisoners or Captives of the Turk"
- "The repaire of bridges, portes, havens, causewaies, churches, sea-bankes and highwaies".
The new Charities Act (2013) hasn't made any huge leaps. It's an attempt to set down the law of charities as it's evolved over time rather than starting from scratch.
It means there are still many things that should come under the definition of charity, but don't.
That said, the definition of charity is a step forward. And importantly it sets down in law that advocacy for a good cause is permissible - and that when determining whether something is against public policy and thus impermissible, "public policy" does not mean "government policy".
The Federal Government deserves the thanks of the not-for-profit sector for moving even this far. But this isn't the end of the story.
The Federal Government has confirmed a delay in the introduction of the statutory definition of charity until January 1, 2014.
And given the upcoming Federal election, the Coalition's position on the Act (as a possible future government) is vital. Unfortunately, that stance is not positive.
In speaking against the Charities Bill in Federal Parliament, Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services Kevin Andrews said a Coalition Government would endeavour to repeal the new definition if it took power, a move which would see a return to the Statute of Elizabeth as Australia's definition of charity.
This makes it even more important for the sector to come together and determine where we want to go from here.
Denis Moriarty | 03 9320 6800 | firstname.lastname@example.org