Electoral Commission ruling an advocacy blow for Queensland charities
4 March 2020 at 5:29 pm
The decision only adds to the advocacy issues facing the state’s NFP sector
Queensland charities receiving donations from property developers may lose their right to advocate under a recent ruling set to be challenged in the Supreme Court.
Changes to the Electoral Act in 2018 made it illegal for property developers to donate to political parties or candidates.
The Electoral Commission of Queensland (ECQ) recently advised the Property Council that property developers should not donate to any organisation involved in political campaigning.
This prompted Brisbane think tank the Australian Institute for Progress (AIP) to seek clarification from the ECQ on whether they could receive donations.
The commission said any organisation involved in political advocacy in Queensland would be unable to have property developers pay to go to their functions, or donate money.
This has led the AIP to contest the ruling in the Supreme Court.
AIP executive director Graham Young told Pro Bono News this ruling threatened the advocacy of charities and not for profits, many of whom received donations from philanthropic property developers.
He said any community group or charity that accepted donations from a property developer would either have to return the donation, or forgo their advocacy rights.
“It seems to me there’s a lot of organisations like us who are unaware that they’re potentially in breach of the legislation,” Young said.
“And there’s a lot of property developers doing good out there who, if this ruling is upheld, won’t be able to do it.”
Young said it was ridiculous that charities or community groups could be charged with a criminal offence simply for having a property developer pay to attend a fundraiser or seminar.
He said this was why AIP was contesting the ruling.
“It never crossed our mind really, that we’d be caught by legislation which is designed to stop corruption, and stop developers bribing members of parliament,” he said.
“What we’re trying to do is ensure that people in the not-for-profit and community sector understand that there could be an issue here. If we win in court, then it goes away, if we don’t, it doesn’t.”
The other issue for organisations is that the legislation is retrospective. This means a donor might give money to an organisation, and months later if the group decides to advocate, the donation suddenly becomes illegal.
Young said he was confident that AIP would be successful in court. The think tank has hired Peter Dunning QC to represent them, who has twice successfully represented the state of Queensland on this legislation.
This case only adds to the advocacy issues facing Queensland’s charity sector.
Legal experts warned in January that a Queensland government bill limiting political donations and election spending would stifle charitable advocacy.
The proposed laws would limit third parties, such as charities, from receiving $4,000 per election term in donations – less than $20 a week – for election-related advocacy.
Queensland Parliament’s Economics and Governance Committee recommended the bill be passed, but said the government should consider amending the bill to address the charity sector’s concerns, such as by increasing the threshold for third party registration.