Charity Sector Speaks Out Against FITS Bill
19 June 2018 at 5:31 pm
The charity sector has voiced its concerns about the government’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) Bill at a Parliamentary Joint Committee hearing, warning of the legislation’s “unnecessary and harmful impacts” on Australian charities.
The committee held a public hearing on the FITS Bill in Canberra on Monday, with representatives from the Community Council for Australia (CCA), Oxfam Australia and Pew Charitable Trusts in attendance.
The FITS Bill would require groups – including charities – to register every time they undertake communications or lobbying activities on behalf of, or with the knowledge of, a “foreign principal”.
CCA CEO David Crosbie told the hearing that while he welcomed recent amendments made to the bill by the government, concerns remained about the legislation’s effect on the charity sector.
“While we welcome the amendments and we think they by and large reduce the requirement for most charities – that most charities don’t face the risk of having to register as a foreign agent – there are still charities in parts of the charity sector that remain concerned,” Crosbie said.
“We think some tightening of some of the definitions would help.
“But, ideally, there would be a clear statement in an explanatory memorandum or in some other area that clearly says charities engaged in their charitable purpose in Australia should not have to register on the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme register.”
Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme: CCA's supplementary submission welcomes intent of proposed changes, but uncertainty, concern remain https://t.co/rJOnGdSn1B Reducing international collaboration by charities and their engagement in public policy wouldn't serve Australia well
— Com Council for Aus (@ComCouncil) June 15, 2018
Also speaking at the hearing was Oxfam Australia’s public policy and advocacy manager Rachel Ball.
She expressed concerns that the “broad and uncertain drafting” in certain parts of the bill would burden the charity with unwarranted registration and reporting requirements.
“Registration and reporting would impose a significant administrative burden, threaten our reputation as an independent organisation, limit our ability to draw on the expertise of our partners in international offices and, ultimately, come at a cost to our advocacy,” Ball said.
“Suffice it to say that it is very common for organisations like Oxfam Australia to work closely with partners overseas, including those caught under the definition of foreign principal, in its regular activities.
“We believe that these activities would be caught by the bill but the consequent registration and reporting would not advance its purposes.”
— Oxfam Australia (@OxfamAustralia) June 18, 2018
Ball proposed a number of specific amendments to “alleviate the bill’s unnecessary and harmful impacts” on the charity sector.
“[These are] by limiting the bill’s operation to genuine instances of a principal-agent relationship; ensuring that the class of political organisations is clear and predictable and does not include advocacy organisations,” she said.
“And [also] including an exemption for charities and public interest not for profits similar to that proposed for industry associations or religious organisations.”
Ball told Pro Bono News that she was optimistic that the committee would heed the concerns of the sector.
“I’m hopeful that when it comes to the FITS Bill there will be an appetite within both government and the opposition to make the amendments that are required to ensure that charities aren’t inappropriately caught up in this bill’s registration and reporting requirements,” she said.
Ball had a back-and-forth discussion with Liberal Senator Eric Abetz during the hearing about whether charities like Oxfam would be captured under the legislation.
Abetz said he “personally [couldn’t] see” what Oxfam’s concerns were with the bill.
“The legislation doesn’t seek to provide a penalty for the activities that you are outlining,” Abetz said.
“I think you guys are completely in the clear unless you were starting to do the bidding of a foreign agent or a foreign government.”
Ball told Pro Bono News that the sector just wanted clarity around registration requirements.
“Organisations like Oxfam work with foreign partners. We don’t work for them. So if this is a bill that is specifically targeted at organisations that do the bidding of a foreign principal, then we’re not concerned about it,” she said.
“But what we would like to see is that the legislation is sufficiently clear that we can know that we’re not required to register and report in relation to our partnerships with government departments and NGOs and service providers overseas.”
She added that charitable advocacy should not be seen as a threat by government.
“[Our work] contributes to the quality of debate and decision making in Australia. That sort of work shouldn’t be seen as a threat to our security and prosperity because in fact it’s exactly the opposite,” Ball said.
“Our advocacy on those issues needs to be valued and protected by government, not viewed as a threat.”