Fears Foreign Donations Bill Could Still Stifle Charitable Advocacy
16 October 2018 at 4:37 pm
It is feared an amended foreign donations bill will still threaten charitable advocacy despite new recommendations designed to protect the sector.
A parliamentary joint standing committee report on the amended Electoral Funding and Reform Bill made 12 further suggestions to improve the bill and address the concerns of charities.
The recommendations include making the proposed transparency register easily searchable for the public, removing the need for organisations to disclose the political affiliation of senior staff, and introducing a $100 minimum threshold so “bucket donations” to charities are not captured.
Committee chair Senator James McGrath said protection against foreign interference could not be done by stifling debate or vital charitable efforts.
“We have heard from a broad cross-section of societal organisations and have made recommendations which we believe will strengthen our democracy without silencing these crucial voices,” McGrath said.
“This bill is not about unnecessary red-tape, but rather about who can influence Australia’s elections and the manner in which they can do so and the meaning of the bill must be made clear to all.”
But the Greens remain opposed to the bill, and Greens Senator Larissa Waters said despite some improvements it would still discourage charities and other civil society groups from engaging in advocacy.
In a dissenting report, Waters said the existing regulatory framework under the Charities Act was sufficient and there was no need to add another layer of regulation for the sector.
She said the bill would create a confusing, burdensome and restrictive environment for charities.
“The definition of ‘electoral matter’ in the revised bill fails to draw a clear line between issues-based advocacy and implicit comment on a political entity,” Waters said.
“They will self-censor as they lack the resources to seek legal guidance.”
The foreign donations bill was originally amended in September, after the charity sector raised concerns the legislation – which broadened registration and disclosure requirements for non-party political actors – would stifle advocacy and impose unnecessary red-tape.
The amendments were labelled a win for the charity sector after attempts were made to ensure non-partisan issue based advocacy was not be captured.
Community Council of Australia (CCA) CEO David Crosbie told Pro Bono News the joint standing committee’s latest recommendations further improved the bill and addressed some of the sector’s lingering concerns.
But noting the dissenting report from the Greens, he warned any lack of clarity in the final bill would make charities nervous that some of their activities could be seen as political in nature.
“For CCA, our position in relation to this bill is about ensuring very clear explanatory materials that protect issue-based advocacy and ensure non-partisan activities in support of a charitable purpose are not captured,” Crosbie said.