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Proposed Foreign Donations Ban Confirms Charities’ ‘Worst Fears’

6 December 2017 at 2:02 pm
Luke Michael
The federal government has finalised its foreign influence and interference legislation, which “confirmed charities’ worst fears” that those receiving overseas funding would be banned from political advocacy, sparking a fierce backlash from the sector.   

Luke Michael | 6 December 2017 at 2:02 pm


Proposed Foreign Donations Ban Confirms Charities’ ‘Worst Fears’
6 December 2017 at 2:02 pm

The federal government has finalised its foreign influence and interference legislation, which “confirmed charities’ worst fears” that those receiving overseas funding would be banned from political advocacy, sparking a fierce backlash from the sector.   

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, along with Attorney-General George Brandis and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the package on Tuesday, which they said “will protect the Australian way of life… [and] ensure that decisions are made based on Australia’s national interest, not anyone else’s”.

The legislation bans donations from foreign bank accounts, non-citizens and foreign entities not only for political parties, but also for those classed as “political campaigners” – including charities and advocacy groups.

Charities have led a push to protect their right to advocate – most recently with their Hands Off Our Charities campaign – and voices in the sector have again spoken out against the proposed reforms.

The CEO of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), Marc Purcell said: “The government has 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. The bill attempts to shut down legitimate comment on matters of public interest by restricting the funding sources available to charities.

“Australian charities are already prevented from being partisan under the Charities Act and are well regulated by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC),” Purcell said.

“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.

“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.”

Emily Howie, director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the bill would unfairly dissuade charities from speaking out on the issues they were formed to address.

“The government’s proposed funding ban will stymie free, informed and robust public discussion. Charities have enormous expertise to contribute, drawn from the work they do, whether it’s running a homeless shelter or protecting the environment. When you sideline charities from public discussion, you silence the voices of the most marginalised people, undermine good policy making and, ultimately, diminish our democracy,” Howie said.

“There is a clear rationale for banning international donations to political parties, but no case has been made that the same is necessary for charities. The parliament should exempt registered charities from this legislation and protect charities’ ability to stand up for the interests of the communities they serve and the issues those communities care about.”

Cormann confirmed at a press conference that charities would be affected by the legislation, but noted it would not prevent charities from receiving foreign donations as long as it was for non-political purposes.

“Contrary to what has been asserted by some, this does not prevent charities from receiving and using foreign donations for non-political activities in Australia,” Cormann said.

“Similarly, it does not prevent charities from engaging in political activities in Australia, as long as the political expenditure incurred to fund that political activity is raised from Australians, Australian businesses and Australian organisations.”

The Greens have said they will move amendments to ensure all charities and not for profits in Australia can continue to advocate for policy outcomes, including those that receive foreign donations.  

“There are many charities and not for profits that rely on international philanthropy to work on important issues such as saving the Great Barrier Reef, finding new treatments for incurable diseases and fighting AIDS and malaria in developing countries. The government’s proposed changes seek to stop charities from doing their good work on humanitarian causes and protecting our environment,” Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said.

“The far-right of the Liberal party and their mates in the Minerals Council of Australia are ganging up on our charities, trying to limit the ability of community organisations to conduct important advocacy work.

“Fortunately, the ALP and the crossbench supported my motion [on Tuesday] that noted the important role of charities and attempts by the government to stifle them. I trust they will support the Australian Greens amendments to protect charities.”    

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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