Denise Roche: Charities as advocates - discussion needed

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

The Herald's editorial about the deregistration of Family First as a charity seems confused.

Registration with the Department of Internal Affairs does not confer tax deductibility - that is determined, quite properly, by Inland Revenue.

What it does is confer obligations in reporting to the charities department of the Department of Internal Affairs and enables the public to find out about the charity and how it spends its money.

The problem with the charities legislation is it uses a 400-year-old definition of charity. It is overdue for overhaul, something countries, such as Australia, have already undertaken.

The Charities Act defines charitable purpose as: "In this act, unless the context otherwise requires, charitable purpose includes every charitable purpose, whether it relates to the relief of poverty, the advancement of education or religion, or any other matter beneficial to the community."

This definition should be updated and made relevant to New Zealanders through the parliamentary process, not by the bureaucracy or the courts.

Charities achieve their mission in many ways. These can include direct service provision, collaborations with other organisations, personal and political advocacy, and we should not be frightened of that.

Few would deny the tremendous gains that have been made to improve the lives of people with disabilities that allow them to take part, enjoy and contribute to society.

Yet much of this advancement came from direct advocacy by disabled people themselves.

As able bodied citizens, we have been forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that our actions and prejudices prevented fellow citizens from living full lives.

But under a banner of "nothing about us without us", these citizens have wrested their independence from a charity model that would have kept them dependent forever.

Over time that advocacy saw the provision of carparks, buses that kneel, accessible toilets and buildings, and much more. There is much still to be done in this area, as my colleague Mojo Mathers can tell us, but the lesson is that people did not get services and rights by politely waiting for Lady Bountiful.

While I do not necessarily support all of the aims or activities of the charities denied registration, I do support a democratic discussion on charitable purposes.

The Charities Commission, (which was in charge of registering and monitoring charities prior to its integration into the Department of Internal Affairs, last year) held meetings to test what Kiwis think about our definition of charitable purpose.

My bill proposes that we make this an open well-resourced discussion in which all points of view are heard in a forum where groups are debating the shape of our charity law, not battling for their own registration.

In my maiden speech to the house I made clear my displeasure that the National Council of Women had been denied charitable status.

The NCW is a proud part of our history as a nation; a body whose advocacy created the opportunity for every woman in the Parliament.

As a mother of a talented 14-year-old daughter, I believe the opportunities created by NCW are part of the fabric of New Zealand's society. NCW won its registration through the courts, but I don't want to see an endless stream of charities clogging our courts.

The law needs fixing and it is Parliament's job to do it - that's what my bill is about.

Denise Roche is a Green Party MP.

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