St Vincent de Paul Warns Foreign Donations Bill Will Mute the Voice of Charities
Thursday, 11th January 2018 at 2:08 pm
The federal government’s proposed foreign donations bill will burden charities with “complex, cumbersome and costly administrative requirements” that will severely curtail frontline services and advocacy, the St Vincent de Paul Society has warned.
In a briefing paper released on Wednesday, the charity condemned the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill 2017, which would require most major charities to register as “political campaigners”.
Charities affected would be those that during the current or any of the previous three years had “political expenditure” of $100,000 or more – with political expenditure broadly defined as: “The public expression of any views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors in an election (whether or not a writ has been issued for the election)”.
“Hence, whenever a charity comments on issues such as homelessness, low levels of allowances and pensions, low wages, refugees and asylum seekers, electricity costs and a host of other subjects, the costs associated with making these comments would be deemed political expenditure,” the briefing paper said.
Major charities would then have to prove that every donation of $250 or more was not from a foreign citizen before it could be accepted into the organisation’s general revenue.
St Vincent De Paul said while most charities receive the vast majority of donations from “allowable donors”, a small number are likely to come from non-citizens or overseas residents.
This would result in specific accounts being created for these donations which must be kept separate from other general revenue accounts.
“No funds from these separate accounts could be used for the broadly defined political expenditure,” the briefing paper said.
“Even if no such donations are received, charities who are registered as political campaigners will still need to show that all donations of $250 or more were from allowable donors. There is also the possibility of fines of over $50,000 for charities who breach the legislation.
“Thus, the ultimate effect for charities will be a set of complex, cumbersome and costly administrative requirements. This will force many charities to divert resources away from frontline services and advocacy. For some charities, it may also have a ‘chilling’ effect, deterring them from speaking out about injustices in order to avoid the onerous administrative costs that such advocacy would incur.”
Vinnies new briefing paper condemns Electoral Funding & Disclosure Reform Bill. https://t.co/6It5rz4gFK A threat to charities and democracy itself.
— @VinniesAustralia (@VinniesAust) January 10, 2018
Dr John Falzon, the CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council, said this bill aimed to “mute the voice of charities”.
“The administrative rules associated with this bill are burdensome and unnecessary. It is surprising to see this push coming from a government that has, in the past, expressed a desire to reduce red tape,” Falzon said.
“The ostensible reason for introducing this bill is to deal with the threat of foreign powers interfering with our elections. There is no evidence that our major charities are a vehicle for foreign powers.
“Rather, this bill is aimed at muting the voice of charities and others who have been critical of the government. It is dangerous legislation that is not only a threat to charities, but to democracy itself. The St Vincent de Paul Society, as it continues to speak out on behalf of the vulnerable and excluded in our community, will strongly oppose this bill.”
St Vincent de Paul Society is part of a coalition of 25 major Australian charities that united in November last year to oppose the bill, with the Hands Off Our Charities campaign.
The coalition said in a statement at the time that there was a “categorical difference” between donations to political parties and philanthropy for charitable purposes.
“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,” the statement said.
Pro Bono Australia’s Civil Voices report released in December also found that Australian charities were “on a path of quiet advocacy”, for fear of risking their financial security or attracting political retribution.
Public submissions to a committee inquiry into the foreign donations bill will be open until 25 January 2018.