Charity Sector Welcomes Gary Johns Comments on Foreign Donations Bill
29 January 2018 at 5:01 pm
The social sector has welcomed comments from Dr Gary Johns on the foreign donations bill, with the charities commissioner voicing concerns the proposed legislation will “place a further regulatory burden on charities” and inhibit their ability to advocate.
The Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform bill is part of a federal government crackdown on foreign interests influencing Australian politics, but the social sector has attacked the bill for targeting charity advocacy.
Johns, the head of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), weighed into the debate last Thursday through his fortnightly column on the ACNC website.
“The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters [sought] submissions regarding amendments to the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform bill, which will impact many registered charities,” Johns said.
“The ACNC has submitted a response in relation to the proposed amendments. It is our view that the bill, as formulated, will place a further regulatory burden on charities, and may inhibit their ability to advocate as a method of achieving its charitable purpose.”
The legislation would require charities with a “political expenditure” of $100,000 or more over the current or previous three years to be classified as “political campaigners”.
The social sector has argued the bill will impose a significant administrative burden on charities, and will limit the way that international philanthropy can be used for advocacy.
The ACNC said they were awaiting approval from the Senate to make their submission to the inquiry public.
Acting CEO of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), Joanna Pradela, said she welcomed the commissioner’s strong stance on the bill.
“The fact that the charities regulator is making public statements of concern about the government’s bill reflects the gravity of its implications. While we await the detail of the ACNC’s submission, it is a welcome intervention,” Pradela said.
“The commissioner’s comments speak directly to the concerns raised by charities – this bill, as drafted, will inhibit charities’ ability to advocate. As the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters begins its inquiry, this is a timely statement and one which will cut through to politicians considering the bill.
“Silencing communities takes Australia down a dangerous path and erodes our shared belief in a fair-go. ACFID, along with an alliance of charities, will continue to express its concerns about this bill’s debilitating effects on charities’ advocacy and the corrosive effects on our democracy.”
Edwina MacDonald, the director of policy and advocacy at the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), told Pro Bono News she also welcomed Johns’ comments.
“We agree with the commissioner that the bill will inhibit the capacity of charities and not for profits to advocate and will impose a new regulatory burden on those organisations,” MacDonald said.
“The foreign donations bill goes too far. It will limit legitimate advocacy by charities and not for profits and place a new, excessive compliance burden on charities and not for profits engaged in advocacy during elections.
“This bill will have a chilling effect on advocacy, tie up charities and not for profits in red tape, and cut off an important funding source for advocacy.”
MacDonald added that silencing charities in this way would “negatively affect the national debate”.
“[It will] exclude the important voices of organisations that work for and with the most disadvantaged and voiceless people in Australia,” she said.
“This bill needs to be taken back to the drawing board, and a new draft brought before parliament, following a comprehensive consultation process with the charities and not-for-profit sector.”
The ACNC’s comments come as activist group GetUp warned the foreign donations bill will severely curtail donations to grassroots political organisations.
GetUp’s submission to the foreign donations bill inquiry pointed out that charities classed as “political campaigners” would need to obtain a statutory declaration from donors who give more than $250 a year, to prove they are an “allowable donor”.
“Statutory declarations are typically used for court proceedings and other legal processes,” the submission said.
“For organisations and minor parties that rely on small donations, particularly online donations, expecting them to obtain a statutory declaration from hundreds or even thousands of regular small donors is absurd.
“This will have a major negative impact on the revenue of grassroots-funded civil society groups caught by the provision, as well as significantly impacting smaller political parties.”
To coincide with the inquiry into the foreign donations bill, Pro Bono Australia has launched a new short survey to better understand how charities feel they could be affected by the proposed legislation.