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Government Called on to Stop the War On Charities

27 November 2017 at 4:18 pm
Wendy Williams
A coalition of 25 major Australian charities has united to oppose moves by the federal government to “silence Australians”, prompting Labor to call for a stop on the war on charities.

Wendy Williams | 27 November 2017 at 4:18 pm


Government Called on to Stop the War On Charities
27 November 2017 at 4:18 pm

A coalition of 25 major Australian charities has united to oppose moves by the federal government to “silence Australians”, prompting Labor to call for a stop on the war on charities.

In a joint statement issued on Monday, coinciding with the launch of the Hands Off Our Charities campaign, the coalition expressed “serious concerns” about the implications of the government’s proposed bill on foreign donations to political parties.

The coalition, which includes Oxfam, Philanthropy Australia, and the Australian Council for International Development, said the move threatened to undermine the benefits many Australians received from philanthropy and would “silence their voices”.

“Among a range of worrying impacts, the proposed legislation would limit funding for life-saving medical research; access to education; the voice and rights of Indigenous Australians; and the ability to sustain and protect our shared natural environment,” the statement said.

“Unless common sense prevails, legislation targeting foreign donations to political parties will ban charities that receive international philanthropy from being able to advocate for Australians; for those in need in our region; and on global issues which Australians care about.”

New polling, commissioned by ACFID, showed the public was standing behind charities, with 76 per cent of respondents agreeing that charities should have a public voice on the issues they have been established to address.

A majority (55 per cent) said that imposing restrictions on the ability of charities to advocate would result in a silencing of Australians and undermining democratic principles.

The survey, which was carried out by Essential Polling with a representative sample size of 1,025, also showed Australians across the political spectrum tended to oppose the proposed ban on overseas donations to charities being used for political advocacy.

When asked whether charities that accept overseas donations should be allowed to publicly advocate on issues during or near elections, a total of 44 per cent agreed they should compared to 29 per cent who disagreed, with 50 per cent of Labor voters and 47 per cent of Coalition voters in agreement.

Philanthropy Australia CEO Sarah Davies told Pro Bono News the public recognised the important role of advocacy by charities.

“Philanthropy Australia wants to see more and better philanthropy in Australia, which is why we’re very concerned about the proposed ban on overseas donations funding advocacy activities by charities,” Davies said.

“The newly released polling shows that the public strongly values and recognises the important role of advocacy by charities, and that they don’t support cutting off charities from seeking funding from international philanthropy for these activities.”

She said while there seemed to be community consensus around banning overseas donations to political parties, charities played a very different role in democracy and were not permitted to engage in partisan advocacy.

“Therefore, we can’t just lump charities and political parties together – what we need is for registered charities to be exempted from the proposed overseas donation ban,” Davies said.

The statement from the coalition said there was a “categorical difference” between donations to political parties and philanthropy for charitable purposes.

“It would damage the functioning of our democracy if there is failure to recognise this,” the statement said.

“Together, this coalition of charities call on the parliament to exempt registered charities from this legislation; to preserve international philanthropy for Australia, and; to protect charities’ ability to stand up for the interests of communities and the issues they care about.”

Davies said: “We hope that the Australian Parliament will heed this call and we are ready to work with all political parties and independents to achieve this sensible outcome.”

Following the launch of the campaign the shadow minister for charities and not for profits Andrew Leigh issued a statement outlining the ALP’s opposition to the government’s “attacks” on charities, saying it was “time to stop the war on charities”.

“From its inception in 2011 until the middle of last year, the Coalition tried to abolish the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission, a body recommended by more than a dozen independent inquiries, and supported by the vast majority of the sector,” Leigh said.

“Since coming to office, the Coalition has had no fewer than five ministers responsible for the charities commission. The latest hapless minister, Michael Sukkar, refused to meet with respected charities commission head Susan Pascoe and her fellow commissioners, then announced that Ms Pascoe would not be reappointed. Months on, we are still awaiting her replacement.

“As Senator Louise Pratt has pointed out, the Turnbull government forces social services charities to sign ‘gag clauses’ to prevent them speaking out on policy issues. Legal and environmental charities are being pressed to stay out of the public debate.

“The latest attack sees the Coalition attempting to extend the ban on overseas donations to political parties to also cover charities. As Labor members of the Joint Electoral Matters Committee noted in March, Labor does not support such a move.”

It comes after Attorney General George Brandis, outlined the first set of reforms the government intended to implement in the sector earlier this month.

Speaking in Question Time, Brandis said “the threat of covert foreign interference is a problem of the highest order and it is getting worse”.

He said before the end of the year, the government would introduce a “comprehensive suite of reforms” including legislation to ban foreign political donations.

“We believe that only Australian individuals and organisations should be able to participate in Australian elections and the government is taking deliberate steps towards banning foreign donations having developed legislation that we will introduce into the Parliament in the spring session,” Brandis said.

The comments have increased fears among the social sector that the proposed foreign donations bill could shut the door on overseas philanthropy.

The latest statement from the coalition stressed that international philanthropy supported Australian giving.

“International philanthropy to Australia boosts the impact of domestic giving in alleviating hardship, gives voice to those who may otherwise be ignored, and contributes to a brighter future for many Australians,” the statement said.

“This is a time in which we should be working together to maximise international philanthropy in Australia, not restrict or ban it.”

The coalition of charities said advocacy was “vital” for addressing the causes of social and environmental challenges.

“Advocacy by charities is often the only way people can be heard and hold politicians to account for decisions that impact their live,” they said.

“It is a legitimate and legal activity, crucial in tackling the causes of social and environmental challenges, rather than just their symptoms. Advocacy has made Australia a better and fairer place to live.”

To read the statement and see a full list of signatories see here.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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