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Charities Remain Concerned with Foreign Donations Bill

10 April 2018 at 5:37 pm
Luke Michael
The charity sector has welcomed recommendations on the foreign donations bill as a “step in the right direction”, but still called on the government to go “back to the drawing board” and redraft the legislation.

Luke Michael | 10 April 2018 at 5:37 pm


Charities Remain Concerned with Foreign Donations Bill
10 April 2018 at 5:37 pm

The charity sector has welcomed recommendations on the foreign donations bill as a “step in the right direction”, but still called on the government to go “back to the drawing board” and redraft the legislation.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) released its report on the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill on Monday.

The report made 15 recommendations to improve the bill, after the charity sector raised concerns that the legislation – which requires registration and disclosure requirements for a broader group of non-party political actors than is the case currently – would stifle advocacy and impose unnecessary red-tape on these organisations.

Hoping to “provide greater clarity for charities”, the report recommended amending the definition of “political expenditure” to prevent non-political issue advocacy being captured.

However Marc Purcell, the CEO of the Australian Council for International Development, said the legislation was still “flawed to its core”.

“The committee has tried to patch-up this broken bill, but it’s beyond repair and needs to be replaced,” Purcell said.

“Because the bill is flawed to its core, the committee has recommended that the government consider removing or redrafting many of its component parts.

The recommendations are positive and constructive, but they raise more questions to answer. This reinforces the calls for the bill to be withdrawn, properly consulted on and redrafted.”

Purcell thanked the committee for their extensive work on the bill, but said they did not go far enough in protecting civil society.  

“We strongly believe in greater transparency in our electoral system and the sources of funding for political activity, but we remain concerned that the committee does not clearly defend civil society’s right to use international philanthropy for advocacy for human rights protection, poverty alleviation or wildlife conservation,” he said.

“This will shut the door on key sources of funding and Australian communities will consequently bear the brunt of the withdrawal of charities’ services, support and advocacy.”

Greenpeace Australia Pacific campaigner Holly Dawson said the government needed to go back to the drawing board with the legislation.

“The government’s ham-fisted attempts to silence dissent under the guise of protecting democracy have gone too far even for Coalition committee members, and the bill must now be rewritten and opened up to full public consultation,” Dawson said.

“Even if the government agreed to all the committee’s recommendations, the new law would still stifle the important work charities do to make Australia a caring and compassionate nation and hold powerful corporations to account.”

Oxfam Australia has also called for the bill to be scrapped.

Head of public policy and advocacy Rachel Ball, said it was sometimes “easier to pull a faulty house down and rebuild it, rather than trying to do renovations”.

“Despite the recommendations made today by the Joint Standing Committee, there remains a lack of clarity around how this proposed legislation impacts on the work of Oxfam and other charities and not for profits. The devil is the detail and that is what is lacking in the committee’s recommendations,” Ball said.

“Oxfam acknowledges the attempts of the committee to address the many concerns raised by civil society, but we’re concerned it does not go far enough.”

Left-leaning lobby group GetUp and the conservative Institute of Public Affairs have been united in their opposition to the foreign donations legislation, and both reiterated that the bill should be redrafted despite welcoming the committee’s recommendations.

IPA research fellow Gideon Rozner said: “While it would be preferable to see the bill withdrawn altogether, the committee’s recommendations represent a step in the right direction. In effect, they address the worst aspect of the bill: the regulation of entities with no relationship to the political process other than mere speech.

”The IPA is inherently concerned about any proposal that seeks to ‘manage’ political debate by limiting freedom of speech.

“At the very least, the Turnbull government must implement the committee’s recommendations in full to spare civil society from this deeply flawed bill.”

GetUp national director Paul Oosting said the report was an acknowledgement by the government that the bill was “unworkable”.

“The government needs to go back to the drawing board and rewrite this bill from scratch,” Oosting said.

“It’s encouraging to see the committee endorse the many concerns raised by civil society, including the restrictive statutory declarations requirement and the unworkable definition of ‘political expenditure’ that basically captured any comment on any issue.

“But even if all the committee’s recommendations were adopted by the government, it still wouldn’t fix everything that’s wrong with the bill. Even with these changes, charities and civil society groups would still face new barriers to speaking up for the communities they represent.”

The Community Council for Australia (CCA) said charities remained concerned and confused about the bill’s impact.

“The release of the JSCEM report into political donations acknowledges the problems and is a step in the right direction, but it still does not clearly identify how a newly drafted bill will ensure charities can speak up for their causes or their communities without being labelled political actors,” CEO David Crosbie said.

“We believe if the government implement all the recommendations of this report, a revised bill may still have a chilling impact on charities across Australia.

“Many charities may still face the decision to not raise their voice on behalf of their cause or their community, or, risk being labelled a political campaigner and having to comply with a broad range of onerous obligations including documenting their advocacy activities and their income streams.”

CCA chair and chief advocate for World Vision Tim Costello, added that the report did not provide the clarity they were hoping for.

“The parliament will need to do more work to ensure [this bill achieves] their goal of enhancing rather than undermining democracy in Australia,” Costello said.

Philanthropy Australia CEO Sarah Davies also agreed that the report was a step in the right direction, but told Pro Bono News significant amendments were now needed – particularly around the definition of political expenditure.

“This definition needs considerable narrowing. And I believe that it really should only include electioneering, so that it’s [clear] it does not include non-political issue based advocacy,” Davies said.

“I think this is the hub of the issue and it would be great to see the government open consultations on developing these amendments and helping with an appropriate definition of political expenditure under this bill.”

However while Davies agreed with the sentiment that the bill should be withdrawn, she was not optimistic that the government would acquiesce to the sector’s demands.   

“If we were going to do the cleanest, neatest, simplest thing, it would be to withdraw and start again,” she said.

“But realistically how likely is that to happen? I’m not sure, in which case let’s really focus on getting the amendments right.”

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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