GetUp Vows To Fights Attacks on Independence
8 December 2017 at 6:10 pm
Lobby group GetUp has said it will “vigorously fight off any attacks on its independence” in the wake of the federal government’s foreign donations bill.
On Tuesday Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Attorney General George Brandis and Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann, unveiled a package of bills they described as “the most significant reforms to Australia’s foreign interference laws in decades”.
Cormann said: “Only Australians, Australian businesses, Australian organisations should be able to influence Australian elections via political donations. Whether that is through political parties, candidates, Senate groups or indeed significant political campaigners”.
The controversial new legislation serves to ban foreign political donations to all these categories of political actors – including charities and advocacy groups – and will introduce “a new class of political actors into the Electoral Act”.
The class of political campaigner will be defined as an organisation which has incurred more than $100,000 worth of political expenditure in any of the previous four years, or which has incurred $50,000 or more in political expenditure where that respects 50 per cent or more of their annual budget.
But according to GetUp, the so-called “GetUp clause” marks an “unprecedented attack” on the organisation’s independence, which it says will force the movement to either associate with one or more political parties or radically scale back its work.
GetUp national director Paul Oosting said it was “an unprecedented case of government overreach”.
“Plain and simple, hard-right politicians are using the powers of government to gag their political enemies,” Oosting said.
“The GetUp movement is independent to our core, independence is in our DNA. We campaign on the issues our million-strong membership care about, whether politicians like it or not.”
According to GetUp, the movement has never donated, or received a donation, from any political party and already discloses “above and beyond” what is required of political parties.
GetUp said it also receives almost no foreign funding, with only 0.5 per cent of donations over the organisation’s lifetime coming from overseas.
“GetUp is made up of everyday people coming and working together to create the change they want to see, like protecting our environment and livelihoods from climate change, treating asylum seekers and refugees humanely and ensuring all Australians get a fair go in life,” Oosting said.
“This new ‘GetUp clause’ is aimed squarely at shutting down Australians from working together, independent of political parties, to make our country a better place to live.”
He said the latest move follows months of relentless attacks on GetUp from senior hard-right figures in the Turnbull government, as well as an investigation being carried out by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).
“It’s not hard to see what’s going on here. The Turnbull government has understood that the AEC’s investigation into GetUp is likely to determine that we’re 100 per cent independent of any political party. So they’re trying to change the rules,” Oosting said.
“This kind of vindictive suppression of political speech is the sort of thing you’d expect in Putin’s Russia, not Australia.
“If the Turnbull government is expecting our movement to back down, they’ve got another thing coming. We’re going to fight this tooth and nail, every step of the way.”
However Cormann told Pro Bono News he “completely rejected” the premise that the new clause was aimed at shutting down Australians from working together, independent of political parties.
“That is plain wrong,” Cormann said.
“All political actors involved in political campaigning, seeking to influence elections and relying on donations should be subject to the same transparency, disclosure and reporting requirements. And self-evidently a ban on foreign political donations would be completely ineffective if it could be circumvented by channeling donations through political campaign organisations like GetUp campaigning against or in support of political parties, candidates or on election issues.
“Australians work together in political parties too to make Australia a better place to live and the operations of those political parties, in particular the private donations they rely on for that purpose, are appropriately regulated to ensure Australians can have confidence in the integrity of our political system.
“Equally, Australians of course can work together in a non-political party political organisation like GetUp. That will continue to be the case after our reforms. But the same transparency, disclosure and reporting requirements and the same ban on foreign political donations should apply to those non-political party political organisations.”
He said no political actor was independent.
“For GetUp to suggest they’re independent defies reality. Political actors express views on parties, candidates and election issues. That is squarely what GetUp does,” Cormann said.
“Importantly, political expenditure is already clearly defined in the Electoral Act. We are not changing that definition. In the lead-up to the last election GetUp distributed more than one million how to vote cards at about 500 polling booths, they campaigned on election issues and expressed views about candidates, parties and election issues.
“They are squarely a political campaign organisation. With more than $10 million in political expenditure by GetUp, they are the biggest political campaign organisation in Australia by far outside the political parties themselves.”
Cormann dismissed suggestions the government was changing the rules in response to the AEC’s investigation.
“If that is what they say they are missing the point. By any measure GetUp is a major political actor. They rely on political donations to publicly express views on political parties, candidates and election issues. They are of course entitled to do so, they can raise appropriate political donations in Australia from Australians and Australian organisations. But they must comply with the same transparency and disclosure requirements as all other relevant political actors, such as political parties,” he said.
His comments come as the charity sector has also rallied against the proposed reforms amid fears it will hamper the ability to advocate.
Speaking on Tuesday following the announcement of the new legislation, CEO of the Australian Council for International Development Marc Purcell said the government had “confirmed charities’ worst fears”.
“It claims that the bill takes into account the realities of contemporary political campaigning, yet to us, this is a regressive step for Australia’s democracy,” Purcell said.
“The bill attempts to shut down legitimate comment on matters of public interest by restricting the funding sources available to charities.”
Purcell highlighted that charities were already prevented from being partisan under the Charities Act and were regulated by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.
“The right to advocate and campaign on issues of public concern at any time, including elections, is allowed under the act and this right has been upheld by the High Court,” he said.
“The restrictions in this bill will limit the valuable work of charities in undertaking life-saving medical research; providing access to education; amplifying the voice and rights of Indigenous Australians; and sustaining and protecting our shared natural environment.
“They also cut off a vital and complementary source of funding for Australian charities, which are generously supported by domestic giving and supplemented with international philanthropy.”
The Australian Council of Trade Unions said the move was “nothing short of an attack on freedom of speech and our democracy”.
“This is an attack on all those fighting for the rights of the most vulnerable in our society and in the world,” ACTU president Ged Kearney said.
“If passed, the Bill 2017 will stop public advocacy which holds politicians to account and ensure only the rich and powerful have the government’s ear when it comes to what is good for Australian families and communities.
“We support the bill as it relates to foreign donations to political parties. But charities and advocacy groups are not political parties. This part of the bill is an attempt by the government to gag legitimate comment on matters of public interest.”
Kearney said it was “not surprising” as she claimed the government was “struggling to convince the public about its policies”.
“[It] is in line with many previous attempts to stop dissenting voices such as gags through funding agreements and on the work done by charities in places like refugee centres in Nauru and Manus,” she said.
“We hope that other political parties will support amending the bill to ensure that it only applies to political parties and does not silence the voice of those standing up for the most vulnerable.”