Labor Calls For Charities to be Exempt from Foreign Donations Bill
16 April 2018 at 4:18 pm
Labor has called for charities to be exempted from the controversial foreign donations bill, with opposition leader Bill Shorten saying he won’t support “anything that punishes the charity and not-for-profit sector”.
On Monday, Shorten said Labor would not support a bill to ban overseas political donations unless provisions to protect charities were strengthened.
“Charities and not-for-profits need donations to fund their issues-based advocacy work and should be able to participate in the policy-making process without being treated as if they have a political intent,” Shorten said.
“The Turnbull government must fix its poorly drafted and over-reaching legislation, in response to the numerous concerns raised by the bipartisan Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.”
At a press conference Shorten likened the government’s approach to taking “a sledgehammer to crack a walnut”.
His comments come a week after the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) released its report on the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill, making 15 recommendations to the bill including amending the definition of “political expenditure”.
The charity sector welcomed the report but said there was still a lack of clarity around the legislation, and called for the bill to be withdrawn and redrafted.
Speaking last week Labor expressed its support for the JSCEM report but stopped shy of signing onto the bill.
In response Greens Senator Rachel Siewert placed pressure on the ALP and crossbenchers to reject the bill outright.
Greenpeace Australia Pacific, which is part of Hands off our Charities alliance, also urged the ALP to reject the legislation.
In response to Shorten’s latest criticism of the bill, Greenpeace said it welcomed the comments and reiterated calls for Labor to send the law back to be redrafted.
“Last week’s bipartisan smackdown of the proposed legislation should be a wake up call for a government who have gone too far in trying to silence their critics,” campaigner Holly Dawson Dawson said.
“If the Labor Party is sincere in its commitment to defend the charities Australians love, then it must send this law back to be redrafted.
“If Bill Shorten supports civil society’s championing of causes such as providing food and shelter to the homeless, protecting the environment, and undertaking life-saving medical research that is exactly what he will do.”
Shorten said if the government did not fix the legislation Labor would “move its own amendments to protect the important work of the charities and not-for-profits sector”.
“Labor has always supported Australia’s charities and not-for-profits – and we always will,” he said.
In comments made on social media, shadow minister for charities and not-for-profits Dr Andrew Leigh said Labor would “continue to stand with charities against Malcolm Turnbull’s continued war on charities”.
“Labor wants to get foreign donations out of politics. In fact, we’re the only major political party that said we won’t accept foreign cash any longer,” Leigh said.
“But doing that doesn’t mean cracking down on charities’ right to advocate. They’re out there to engage in issue conversations, not to win votes.
“If the government doesn’t amend its bill, we will. We’ll make sure that we get foreign money out of politics, but that our charities are able to continue to have their voice heard in the big public debates that the nation engages in.”
But Minister for Finance Mathias Cormann told Pro Bono News Bill Shorten was “being dishonest with people on this”.
“His own bill to ban foreign political donations, which he introduced before the government, clearly bans foreign political donations to charities,” Cormann said.
“Unlike Bill Shorten’s bill, our bill as introduced, explicitly exempts foreign donations to charities for their charitable non-political expenditure from our ban on foreign political donations already.
“Bill Shorten is being shifty and using weasel words now to try and create an impression which is not real that somehow he is proposing to be more generous to charities than the government and that is just not true.”
Cormann highlighted that Labor members on JSCEM supported the fact that “for the ban on foreign political donations to be effective it should apply to all relevant political expenditure, including political expenditure incurred by charities”.
“As a government we have welcomed the JSCEM report into our bill which was supported by both Coalition and Labor members of the committee,” he said.
“The government has always made clear that we would be open to JSCEM recommendations on how our proposed bill could be further improved.
“In particular, it is a matter of public record that we are open to pursue amendments to our proposed bill to ensure compliance arrangements for all political actors, including relevant charities, are as efficient as possible.
“We are giving due consideration to all the recommendations of the committee and will act on those as appropriate.”
Krystian Seibert, industry fellow at the Centre for Social Impact Swinburne, told Pro Bono News the definition of “political expenditure” in the bill was “unworkable”.
“It could capture a whole range of charity advocacy activities. But because the definition is so vague, it would also be very hard for charities to know exactly what is captured and what isn’t,” Seibert said.
“The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended that the definition be amended so that it only covers ‘expenditure undertaken to influence voters to take specific action as voters, so as not to capture non-political issue advocacy‘.
“One way to give effect to this recommendation, is for the bill to make clear that charities can use donations for advocacy work provided they do not tell voters how to vote – and that such activities don’t make charities subject to the new compliance framework the bill introduces, including the ban on foreign donations.
“But the definition also needs more clarity so other organisations which aren’t charities can be certain what it covers and what it doesn’t.”