Noisy Charities 'At Risk' When Lobbying Government
4 August 2003 at 1:08 pm
Debate about whether the Federal Government is planning to gag charities by taking away tax exemptions from any organisations that tried to influence government policy caused a flurry of discussion last week. But are the politicians ultimately scaring the charities in a point scoring game? Or is there a legitimate concern?
Australian Democrats Senator John Cherry claims proposed legislation would see charities that lobbied the government losing their tax deductibility status.
The implication is that the Federal Government plans to make tax incentives for charities conditional on these groups staying silent on Government policy.
Treasurer, Peter Costello was quick to reject these claims saying legitimate charities which lobbied the government could keep their tax exemptions.
Costello says that what this law says is if you legitimately help the poor or the sick, or education or hospitals, then you are tax deductible and what’s more, you can engage in lobbying, as long as it’s ancillary or incidental, and as long as its not your sole purpose.
Mr Costello says the proposed legislation has been put out for public discussion 11 months ago. It’s intention is to replicate what was the old common law.
He says nothing has changed from the position that Aacharity is somebody who engages in helping the poor or the sick and in the course of that they’re entitled to criticise the Government as they currently are. Lobby groups had never been entitled to the same tax concessions as charities.
Peter Costello’s office says the change would stop some lobby groups from registering as charities in order to receive the tax concessions.
The Democrats however claim this proposal is a long-term Government view of trying to muzzle any person who criticises Government policy.
Senator Cherry says the plan would hurt groups like the RSPCA, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence and the Australian Cancer Fund.
The chief executive of Catholic Health Australia, Francis Sullivan, expressed his concerns in a number of media interviews saying charities had a responsibility to speak up for people in need.
Sullivan says the job of charities is to provide services and to speak up for people who haven’t got a voice for themselves, and if charities can’t have that role, then low income people and people who need a just outcome are in trouble.
He says while it may not be the Treasurer’s intention to ‘gag’ charities but his concern was with the Taxation Office which historically had a history of ‘cherry picking’.
Sullivan says another aspect of the proposed changes involved the ability of a modern charitable organisation to move surplus from one business entity such as a private hospital and shift those funds to a member organisation to assist with its other welfare services.
Catholic Health says there are too many questions and not enough certainty in the Costello proposal.
The Treasurer says discussion have been going on with Board of Taxation and the Catholic Church on these issues and he would endeavour to ensure that catholic Health was brought into the consultation loop.
Jesuit Social Services Policy Director, Father Peter Norden says this draft legislation is contained in the Charities Bill 2003 and is part of the Government’s response to the Report of the Inquiry into the Definition of Charities and Related Organisations.
Norden says the draft legislation suggests that “attempting to change the law or government policy” is a “disqualifying purpose” or an unlawful activity for a charity and Costello will need to think again.
Norden says this attempt to silence the churches and the non-government sector was tried on by the Kennett Government here in Victoria during the 1990’s but they soon found out that it simply could not be implemented.
He says that on that occasion, the gag was concealed in confidentiality clauses and intellectual property clauses in government contracts and we simply refused to sign. When Jesuit Social Services moved to engage our peak bodies of Catholic Social Services and VCOSS, the Kennett advisers backed right off.
He says Government policy advisers simply have to learn that it is a central mission of charities such as ours not only to do good but to ensure that harmful legislation and regulations are changed to protect the vulnerable members of our community.
Treasurer, Costello says there is no deadline for discussion or urgency on the proposed changes.
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