New Charity Sector Push To Withdraw Foreign Interference Bills
22 March 2018 at 8:37 am
There has been a renewed push to withdraw the federal government’s package of foreign interference bills, with an open letter set to be presented to Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten at an event in parliament next week.
The Hands Off Our Charities campaign was launched in November last year, with the alliance of 25 major Australian charities warning that the government’s foreign interference legislation threatened to lessen the impact of philanthropy and silence charities.
One bill from this legislation package, the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill, was referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on 6 December.
With the committee set to report their findings on the bill on 28 March, the Hands Off Our Charities Alliance will be presenting an open letter to Turnbull and Shorten at an event in Parliament next Wednesday to coincide with the report’s release.
Australian Council for International Development CEO Marc Purcell, told Pro Bono News the response to the Hands Off Our Charities campaign had been “extraordinary”.
“The community response to this [foreign donations] bill has been extraordinary and shows the strength of opposition to these damaging proposals,” Purcell said.
“The [joint standing] committee has received over 200 submissions. Community groups, businesses, philanthropists, charities and academics have queued up to tell the committee that this legislation is confusing, badly drafted, potentially unconstitutional and damaging for Australians and their democracy.”
The Turnbull government announced the package of foreign interference legislation in December last year, to “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 a new class of “political campaigner” – which includes charities and advocacy groups.
'We are charities, not political parties.'
— ACFID (@ACFID) March 19, 2018
Addressed to all members of Parliament, the alliance’s open letter said the foreign interference legislation did not meet its intended aim.
“The stated intention of the bill is to stop foreign interference in the Australian electoral process and on national security. But it has quickly become apparent to charities, community groups and other not for profits that the bills propose grave and far-reaching changes that extend well beyond their publicly stated purposes,” it said.
“If enacted, the proposed legislation will tear at the fabric of our democracy, unpicking the freedoms that have made our national conversation so rich. We are united in opposition to the proposed bills.
“The proposed bills conflate advocacy for good policy with political campaigning for elections. They impose severe criminal penalties on expression and access to information that is central to public debate and accountability in a democratic society. The changes will stop charities, community organisations and not for profits from speaking out about issues that are of great importance to the Australian community.”
The letter called on politicians to redraft the bills, and suggested preparing a Regulation Impact Statement to analyse the legislation package.
“We are calling for the federal government, and all of our parliamentarians, to pause, consult with those affected by these bills and to redraft them. If left unchanged they will undermine the voice of the Australian community and threaten our democracy,” the letter said.
“A simple, vital, step the government should take is to follow its own guidelines and prepare a Regulation Impact Statement, given that these bills will have a huge impact on businesses, community organisations and individual Australians.
“We will continue to address issues raised by the bills and bring to the notice of parliamentarians the harmful effects of this legislation on the participation of Australians in their democracy.”
Australian Conservation Foundation CEO Kelly O’Shanassy, told Pro Bono News that charities would continue to oppose the government’s “draconian agenda”.
“The Turnbull government’s proposals are an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and political freedoms, which will harm our democracy and silence charity voices that are advocating for the public good,” O’Shanassy said.
“Charities are coming to Canberra again because the Turnbull government isn’t listening to us, and the millions of Australians we represent, about the problems with their bills. As long as the Turnbull government pursues this draconian agenda we will continue to stand up for democracy.”
Dr Barry Traill, the director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Outback to Oceans Program Australia added: “Unfortunately the bills are flawed and threaten non-partisan commentary and advocacy by charities, other not-for-profit organisations, and indeed will block and constrain public commentary by any business or other entity in Australia.
“For example charities that are classified as ‘political campaigners’ will face significant blocks and constraints on their access to international philanthropy. They will no longer be able to use any international funding for issues-based advocacy – including public health promotion, input to government inquiries or raising awareness of environmental problems,” Traill said.
“The combined charity sector is asking that the bills be withdrawn for re-drafting and proper public consultation.”
Purcell said he hoped the report from the joint standing committee would reflect the staunch opposition expressed by the charity sector through their submissions.
“The committee has had to deal with the mess the government created when it didn’t do any consultation on the bill and rushed it into Parliament. To their credit, the committee has extended their inquiry and taken a lot of evidence,” he said.
“But that evidence has been almost universally critical. We will be looking to members of the committee to reflect what they’ve heard.”
But Purcell noted that the report and the letter did not mark the end of the alliance’s campaign.
“The letter we are delivering and the committee’s report next week is not the end of the line. We will continue to raise our concerns and seek for the bills to be withdrawn, comprehensively consulted on and redrafted,” he said.
“This has a long way left to run.”
The Hands Off Our Charities campaign has invited civil society organisations from across Australia to sign the open letter, to stand with the alliance in opposition to the bills.