Call for Charities to be Exempt From Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme
31 January 2018 at 2:56 pm
A not-for-profit peak body and the Law Council of Australia have called for charities to be exempt from a proposed Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, with fears the legislation could impose criminal penalties on non-compliant charities receiving overseas support.
Community Council for Australia (CCA) and LCA presented to a Parliamentary Joint Committee on the Foreign Influence Transparency bill on Tuesday, and expressed concern the bill would “unduly impact those that have no intention to disrupt Australian democracy”.
This legislation would establish a new registration scheme providing visibility of the nature and extent of foreign influence over the Australian political system, with entities engaged in certain activities on behalf of foreign individuals or entities having to register or face hefty penalties.
This register would encompass most charities that receive any kind of support or donation from outside Australia (with an exemption for “humanitarian aid” groups), placing further reporting, disclosure and transparency obligations on these organisations.
CCA CEO David Crosbie told the committee that it was unfair that businesses were exempted from the register but not charities.
“If commercial activities are carved out – why not charitable activities? My reading is that in practice – if an international company like a Diageo [sought] to influence our alcohol policies, that is okay – no inappropriate foreign influence there,” Crosbie said.
“But if the Gates Foundation give money to alcohol research by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education – they would have to register… [And] charities already face significant regulations and limitations on their capacity to engage in political activities.
“I should also note that the community is very concerned about the amount of money charities spend on administration. And that all governments make claims to being committed to reducing red tape. There is no way this new legislation will not impose significant new administrative costs on any charity that raises funding from anyone overseas.”
Foreign Influence Transparency Bill – big impost for #charities with grants, donations, agreements from outside Australia. @DavidCrosbie2 @ComCouncil gives evidence to Parliamentary Joint Committee. We agree with @thelawcouncil Charities should be exempt. Business is. Of course.
— Com Council for Aus (@ComCouncil) January 30, 2018
Crosbie said CCA supported LCA’s recommendation from its submission to the inquiry, that “charitable entities registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission should be exempt from the registration scheme”.
“CCA believe the carve outs in the proposed bill are inadequate to allow charities to continue to accept overseas donations and pursue their legitimate charitable purpose without having to satisfy a whole new range of reporting and compliance activities,” he said.
LCA’s submission expressed concern about the bill’s application to the community sector.
“There is the very real possibility that in its current form, the bill will have application to charitable entities that receive funding from foreign charitable foundations or philanthropists to carry out activities and purposes that have otherwise been approved as beneficial to the public by the [ACNC],” the submission said.
“It is noted that registration with the ACNC not only necessitates a range of reporting and behavioural standards, it also precludes the entity from engaging in, or promoting, activities that are unlawful or contrary to public policy, as well as promoting or opposing a political party or a candidate for political office.
“A further registration step for such charitable entities would entail an unnecessary regulatory burden [and] is excessive and unjustified.”
The full opening statement by @LCAPresident to the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security: https://t.co/YFyq3cKdby or listen to the proceedings live: https://t.co/FKCls5tZon #auspol #auslaw pic.twitter.com/wYZkUBv5kT
— Law Council (@thelawcouncil) January 30, 2018
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) joined CCA and LCA in proposing “an exemption for charitable and not-for-profit purposes” in their submission, labelling the legislation as “damaging to civil society”.
And Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) echoed CCA’s criticism that the bill unfairly targeted charities while leaving businesses unaccountable.
“ALHR is concerned that the package will severely impact on the ability of non-government associations, from major charities to small volunteer groups, to participate in political discourse, while leaving major businesses relatively untouched,” their submission said.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave a speech in December outlining the necessity of the transparency scheme.
“The principle is quite straightforward. If a person or entity engages with the Australian political landscape on behalf of a foreign state or principal then they must register accordingly,” Turnbull said.
“This will give the Australian public and decision-makers proper visibility when foreign states or individuals may be seeking to influence Australia’s political processes and public debates.
“Being registered under the scheme should not be seen as any kind of taint. And certainly not as a crime. To the contrary it is applying the basic principles of disclosure to allow the public and policymakers to assess any underlying agenda.
“But if you fail to disclose your ties to a foreign principal then you could be liable for a criminal offence. This is not about shutting down legitimate debate, but rather enabling it.”
A public hearing on the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme will continue on Wednesday, alongside a public hearing on the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform bill.