FITS Exemption ‘A Victory for Common Sense’
25 June 2018 at 5:21 pm
The charity sector is cheering a “victory for common sense” after a last-minute exemption in the foreign influence bill.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security released its bipartisan advisory report on Monday, exempting charities, arts organisations and industrial associations from registration requirements for the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) Bill.
The reprieve comes a week after the charity sector voiced its concern at a Parliamentary Joint Committee hearing, warning of the legislation’s “unnecessary and harmful impacts” on Australian charities.
Marc Purcell, CEO of Australian Council for International Development, which forms part of the Hands Off Our Charities alliance, said it was “a victory for common sense”.
“This exemption will ensure that charitable work is not unfairly targeted. We welcome the committee’s collaboration in recognising our concerns,” Purcell said.
The bill, designed to strengthen transparency of foreign influence in Australia’s political and government decision making, forms part of the government’s package of foreign interference legislation introduced in December last year.
Under the original FITS Bill, charities and other groups had to register each time they undertook communications or lobbying activities on behalf of, or with the knowledge of, a “foreign principal”.
Pew Charitable Trusts Australia director Dr Barry Traill said such measures would have posed a “grave threat” to their charitable work.
“Labelling independent charities and the people we work with as ‘acting on behalf of foreign principals’ makes no sense and serves no public interest objective,” Traill said.
350.org Australia called the latest decision a “win for the environment, compassion and good sense”.
“In its previous form, charities like 350.org Australia, PEW Environment Group, Caritas, World Vision, Amnesty and Environment Justice Australia would have suffered as collateral damage in the federal government’s bid to stop foreign agents’ influence on Australian politics,” 350.org Australia CEO Blair Palese said.
“This bipartisan recommendation will mean charities are free of what would have been severe restrictions on their day-to-day work.”
David Crosbie told Pro Bono News it was a “very important win for the charities sector”.
“Given that the vast majority of charities already make their international collaborations well known and given that every charity above $250,000 has to provide their financial accounts to the ACNC on the public record (audited for any charity above $1 million in turnover), I would think there are very few charities that would ever have to register as foreign agents if the PJCIS Committee recommendations are adopted,” Crosbie said.
Overall the committee’s final report made 52 recommendations, including that the bill be passed.
Committee chair, Andrew Hastie, said the bill’s creation of a registration scheme to provide visibility of covert or obscured foreign influence was given “careful consideration” by the committee.
Labor has urged the government to adopt all of the committee’s recommendations.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said it was clear the scheme was never meant to “capture innocent charities, arts organisations or unions who were simply doing their job”.
The government is expected to adopt the recommendations in putting the bill through this week.
Meanwhile the sector is focusing its attention on the related Espionage Bill which it claims is being “rushed through Parliament”.