Charity Sector Draws ‘Line in the Sand’ with Foreign Interference Legislation
15 June 2018 at 12:24 pm
The Australian charity sector has “drawn a line in the sand” and demanded that any foreign interference legislation meets a number of principles to protect issues-based advocacy.
On Friday, the Hands Off Our Charities (HOOC) alliance pledged to only accept new or amended foreign interference laws that followed six principles drawn up by the sector.
The principles look to ensure that the ability of charities and not for profits to use funding for issues-based advocacy is not restricted, that there is a clear distinction between issues-based advocacy and politically partisan electioneering and that organisations do not face a greater compliance burden than they do currently.
The alliance also called for “a clear and precise regime that is unambiguous”.
These demands come in response to the Turnbull government’s package of foreign interference legislation introduced in December last year.
This package includes The Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill, The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill and The Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill.
The government said these laws would “protect the Australian way of life… [and] ensure that decisions are made based on Australia’s national interest, not anyone else’s”.
But this legislation has drawn the ire of the charity sector, who have expressed fears that the laws would curtail issue-based advocacy and place an unnecessary administrative burden on these organisations.
To coincide with the announcement of these principles, HOOC released a report which examined how the new laws would harm some of Australia’s largest charities and NFPs.
Among the organisations profiled is Oxfam, whose humanitarian work could be affected by the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill.
Oxfam chief executive Dr Helen Szoke explained how Oxfam could be forced to register as a foreign agent.
“Oxfam regularly works with foreign governments in the delivery of aid programs. We use those experiences and relationships in our communications with DFAT, and in the work we do to inform and influence Australia’s aid policy and programming,” Szoke said.
“The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill would require us to register as a foreign agent in those situations.
“Humanitarian work must be seen as independent and neutral. Being categorised as a ‘foreign agent’ could hurt our reputation with partners in Australia and overseas.”
Australian Conservation Foundation campaign director Paul Sinclair warned that the new electoral laws would also stop charities from advocating for their causes and communities.
“A healthy environment relies on a healthy democracy,” Sinclair said.
“This legislation will make it harder for charities to advocate for a safe climate, healthy rivers, and stronger laws to protect our natural world.”
The HOOC report argued that the suite of reforms would have a “chilling impact on advocacy – and hurt the core mission of charities and community groups”.
It also said it was incorrect to assume that advocacy and service delivery could be separated.
“Recent political commentary implies that there is a neat division between advocacy and service delivery for charities and non-profits,” the report said.
“But in profiling some of Australia’s most trusted charities, our findings show that charitable missions are often closely linked to advocacy roles.”
The report said these laws would force many charities to choose between service delivery and advocating on social issues, “denying the essential relationship between the two in improving our society”.
“For most charities, tackling poverty and inequality entails not only providing services to assist people at coalface of these issues, but also advocating for policy and legislative change to address the root causes,” the report said.
“Without the ability to influence policy and social attitudes, many charities would simply not be able to deliver on their mission.
“Under the proposed package of bills, the legitimate role of charities as advocates for their charitable purpose is fundamentally changed, with charities that seek policy and other reforms through a public process being recast as political entities engaged in the electoral process.”
Leading Australian human rights lawyer Julian Burnside QC called for laws silencing charities to be abandoned.
“A vital test of any democracy is the ability of the people to express views not shared by the government,” Burnside said.
“If the government stifles that ability, democracy suffers.”
Labor and the Greens have thrown their support behind the HOOC principles.
Speaking in relation to the foreign donations bill, shadow charities minister Andrew Leigh told Pro Bono News that the government had morphed the debate on foreign donations into a “war on charities and not for profits”.
“There is bipartisan support for banning foreign political donations, but banning donations to political parties should not entail cutting down free speech,” Leigh said.
“The advocacy voice of charities and not for profits is not only the voice of the various organisations – it is the voice of every Australian who donates, volunteers or is a member of a charity. When the voice of charities and not for profits are threatened, so is our democracy.
“That’s why Labor supports these principles – charities shouldn’t be caught in the crossfire of any proposed legislation.”
Greens leader Richard Di Natale said his party supported the principles.
“The Hands Off Our Charities alliance has provided a framework to ensure parliament gets the balance right in promoting and protecting public participation in our democracy while recognising concerns over improper influence from big business and foreign entities,” Di Natale said.
“There is increasing public cynicism towards politicians and political parties. If the Turnbull government attempts to use concern over foreign influence to limit the voice of community groups, charities and unions they will just escalate that cynicism.
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon added that any reforms must be consistent with freedom of speech and freedom of association.
“We believe we can get the balance right so public interest advocacy by charities and not for profits is not constrained by laws that limit donations to political parties,” Rhiannon said.
“If the Turnbull government continues to push its self-interest barrow it will just further alienate people’ from engaging in democratic processes.”