The head of Australia's charities watchdog has hit back at calls to change laws to allow donations raised by comedian Celeste Barber to go to parties other than the Rural Fire Service, saying a better understanding of the system was needed, not new rules.
Australian Charities and Not-for-profits commissioner Dr Gary Johns on Thursday told a Senate inquiry into the 2019-20 bushfires the outpouring of generosity during the fire season had exposed key misunderstandings about how charities actually worked.
Barber, who raised more than $51 million through a Facebook campaign, has urged the NSW Parliament to pass new laws that would allow the donations to be shared with bushfire-affected communities.
When her appeal raised more money than she expected, Barber told donors some of the money could potentially go to other charities or fire services interstate.
But in May, the NSW Supreme Court ruled the entire fund had to go to the NSW Rural Fire Service, as strict laws governing donations prevented the money from being sent elsewhere.
However Dr Johns said there was "no democracy once the donor dollar has gone into the trust fund".
"I don't think we need new rules, we need better explanations as to how things actually work," Dr Johns said.
"We know that some celebrities during the bushfires were out raising funds for charities and a lot of money poured into particular trusts. No donor can say I want the money spent in a particular way. Once the money enters the trust it has to be spent according to that trust."
Dr Johns urged people to read the fine print before donating to a particular cause.
"It's a very important thing that people understand it's the vehicle that their dollar will enter that will determine how the money is spent, not how the donor thinks it might be spent," he said.
"If the donor looks at an image on the television screen or a knock on the door and gives, it's really important that our celebrities or anyone raising money makes it clear this money will be given to charity X or Y and the money can only be used according to the legal documents."
Dr Johns also warned people against giving money to unregistered charities.
"We for instance noted a couple of individuals on websites who we think may have raised over $1 million each - I can't regulate them. No one can regulate them. So I wanted to make that case to the public that if they give money to a charity on my register, we're far more likely to have the reassurance of a regulator standing in the background," he said.
Dr Johns noted Australians had become more likely to do their homework before giving to charity during the bushfire season.
"Last year for instance we had around 1 million searches of the charity register and in the first three months of this year we had 2 million searches of the charity register and the monthly charity register searches now is over 300,000, it used to run at just over 200,000," he said.