Jeff Kennett Says Foreign Donations Bill Will 'Stifle Australian Philanthropy'
14 March 2018 at 3:10 pm
Former Victorian premier and Equity Trustees’ chairman Jeff Kennett has warned that the federal government’s proposed foreign donations bill “has gone too far” and “threatens to stifle Australian philanthropy”.
The government’s Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill aims to prevent foreign interests from influencing Australian politics, by introducing registration and disclosure requirements for a broader group of non-party political actors than is currently the case.
It would require charities whose “political expenditure” in the past four years has exceeded $100,000 to be registered as a “political campaigner”, which the social sector has argued will unfairly restrict advocacy and impose unnecessary red-tape on these organisations.
Now Kennett has joined the chorus of opposition to the bill, which he warned will “stifle Australian philanthropy”.
The Equity Trustees’ chairman said while the bill “may have been developed with the best of intentions… it has gone too far”.
“Equity Trustees believes there are many cases in which the proposed law would stifle public advocacy by charities on policy issues that are legitimate and important topics for public discussion,” Kennett said.
“There are many examples of the practical impact; two of our foundations currently fund work being done to create change for young people in out of home care, another trust funds advocacy to achieve better outcomes for ageing Australians including those at risk of homelessness. We are responsible for trusts that are committed to better outcomes for Indigenous Australians – work which cannot rule out looking at policies and structures that prevent progress.
“Advocacy on behalf of vulnerable Australians is essential work for many organisations funded through our trusts.
However, the proposed legislation threatens to stifle Australian philanthropy which provides millions of dollars to the social sector complementing government funds every day to make our community better, healthier and safer.”
Kennett told Pro Bono News he was also concerned about the legislation’s added bureaucratic requirements, which he believes would put a resource strain on charities and not for profits.
“It requires a huge amount of new paperwork, filing and bureaucratic controls over the operations of trusts [and charities],” he said.
“The trustee industry [already has] a good relationship with [government regulator] APRA. There’s a lot of regulation and there’s a lot of laws to oversee our operation. The bureaucracy that is suggested in this legislation, is not only going to be terribly time-consuming, it’s going to be very expensive and that is a cost that’s going to have to be borne by each trust.
“Therefore, not only might that capital be reduced, but also the amount of money that is available for distribution. And that’s not just for advocacy, that is for specific allocations to specific organisations.
“The bureaucracy associated with this legislation… is horrendous.”
Kennett said he had written a letter to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann asking that the legislation be reviewed and amended.
“I’ve written to the finance minister – I haven’t heard back from him yet – asking him to review the intentions of this legislation, so that we can continue to operate to the wishes of those who have seen fit to leave money for distribution in this country,” he said.
“I hope [Cormann] will take on board my submission, and those by other organisations and individuals, to understand or appreciate that the scope of this bill is much wider than intended [and] would therefore make amendments to the bill before it is submitted to the Senate.”
However Kennett, a former state leader of the Liberal Party and premier of Victoria from 1992 to 1999, did not wish to outline specific amendments to legislation.
“I do [have a view], but I don’t want to outline that as yet because I hope the next step will be that me or my people will sit down with Treasury and go through it and actually meet the government’s intention,” he said.
“I’m not arguing about what they’re trying to do, that’s a decision for government, but [rather] the ramifications of this legislation which I think is loosely drafted. And I don’t think people understood what was involved.
Kennett has had a long involvement with the charity sector, and was founding chairman of beyondblue in 2000.
He said that advocacy was “very important” for charities, and urged the government to address the sector’s concerns.
“This legislation, if it remains as written, will substantially erode both intents and values, of trusts and giving,” Kennett said.
“I hope to hear from Matthias in the not too distant future, I can assure you.”
Cormann referred the bill to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters last December, and the committee will report their findings on 28 March.