Trust all a bit of a MYSTery
'Transparency and accountability in the charities sector require urgent attention.'
TOMORROW night it's ''Back to Blacktown''. The Whitlam Institute is hosting the 40-year anniversary of the speech that changed a nation as Labor Party luminaries such as Bob Hawke and John Faulkner gather with party faithful and pop icons Tim Freedman and ''Little Patty'' Amphlett to celebrate.
It was on November 13, 1972, that Gough Whitlam delivered his famous ''It's Time'' speech at the same venue, Bowman Hall in Blacktown, setting in motion a campaign that swept Labor back into power after 23 years in the political desert.
The architect of that campaign, and the creator of the ''It's Time'' slogan, was former shearer Mick Young.
Young passed away in 1996 but his legacy had been borne by the Mick Young Scholarship Trust.
Ironically, the trust has just been wound up. Beset by infighting on its board and having become increasingly unviable financially, its trustees voted on November 1 to close and transfer the remaining funds to an organisation set up by TAFE directors. As a result, several scholarships to Aboriginal educational institutions have been suspended.
Without detracting from the fine work the scholarship trust did for the disadvantaged, the final years of the trust are instructive in two things.
First, transparency and accountability in the charities sector require urgent attention. At the heart of the acrimony at the MYST are claims of expenses rorting and questions over the transfer of money to Melbourne charity Western Chances, whose patron is Terry Bracks, the wife of former Victorian premier Steve.
Second, charities can be a first-rate avenue for business to win political goodwill. In the words of one observer, the MYST functions have been fertile territory for the Labor practice of ''good-bloking'' - schmoozing that is between party figures and business.
At the fund-raiser in 2009 somebody paid $17,000 for the pleasure of having dinner with Wayne Swan.
These charity auctions happen on both sides of the political divide. ''Good-bloking'' indeed is an art-form, fund-raising being as much about access and charm as the chequebook. In this case though, charity, politics and big business sit a little uneasily together. Chairman of the MYST since 2009 is Ray Wilson, a partner of Plenary Group, perhaps the country's most successful firm in winning government privatisation deals in recent years.
In Victoria, Plenary has picked up some $410 million of grants from the state government and Melbourne City Council - and PPP (public-private partnership) funding to develop the Melbourne Convention Centre and South Wharf hotel development nearby, besides two hospitals and a research centre.
In the Treasurer's home state of Queensland it won the $1 billion Gold Coast Rapid Transit System mandate. Its federal contracts include two defence facilities. All up $10 billion in projects won in 10 years.
Plenary can hardly be begrudged its flair in good-bloking. It's good business.
It still remains shy of the success, for instance, of Macquarie Bank in winning state mandates, particularly in NSW.
This is not to say that Wilson has preferred his own interests or Plenary's interests to those of the trust.
The issue, from a government point of view, is one of perception. And from a charity perspective it is disclosure. In 2009, Ray Wilson was appointed chair of the Mick Young Scholarship Trust and Mick Young's daughter, Janine Young, was appointed fund-raising manager. The appointment was opposed by two trustees, John Young and Greg Dodds.
Janine Young had been the subject of scrutiny in this newspaper over expenses claims which were not accompanied by supporting documentation.
In October 2009, the NSW Office of Liquor and Gaming did an investigation of the MYST and found a number of breaches, including no register of receipt books, a failure to maintain proper records and receipts which had not been written up for income received.
Relations between the barrister John Young and chairman Ray Wilson deteriorated as Young took the trust management to task over lack of accountability.
In December 2009 a joint fund-raiser was held in Melbourne with Western Chances charity. This was the MYST's big entrance into Melbourne. The trust struck a commitment to provide Western Chances with $100,000 a year for three years.
Western Chances would deploy the money for scholarships in Victoria, and the money duly found its way to the western suburbs of Melbourne.
At the dinner at the Plenary Room at Melbourne Convention Centre some $200,000 was raised - including the $17,000 for lunch with Wayne Swan.
In 2010 the Trust transferred Western Chances $100,000. Another $80,000 was transferred in proceeds form the dinner.
As the trust had become financially unviable, the third scheduled payment of $100,000 was not transferred to Western Chances in 2012 by mutual agreement.
The level of disclosure from Western Chances is better than the Mick Young Scholarship Trust, which doesn't even publish its financial statements on its website. But it is still not sufficient in detail of income and specific expenditures.
''It is not our policy or practice to make public the details of our grants from our sponsors, philanthropic trust and/or donations of any individuals as many are very private about their contributions,'' said a spokesperson for the charity last week.
For the MYST, the next major trust event was Mick's Big Night Out dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sydney in February 2011.
Guest of honour was Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Penny Wong, Wayne Swan and a slew of party heavyweights were there. But this time only $160,000 was raised.
A taskforce was established in July to create a new government regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission, whose role is to preserve and enhance public confidence in the not-for-profit sector. It's not before time. Charities, particularly, should be beyond reproach.