Government signals harsher penalties against charities supporting unlawful behaviour
15 December 2020 at 8:34 am
The assistant minister for charities says the new governance standard will be introduced via the charities commission
The government is moving to add trespassing, unlawful entry, malicious damage or vandalism, and threatening violence to what is currently considered unlawful charity activity, in a bid to crack down on “activist organisations masquerading as charities”.
On Sunday, Assistant Minister for Charities Zed Seselja said that while charities are prohibited from engaging in conduct that may be dealt with either as an indictable offence under Australian law, or by way of a civil penalty of 60 penalty units, many other unlawful areas were not covered.
“The Morrison government is taking the very reasonable step to strengthen the existing regulation,” Seselja said.
He said that the government “strongly supports” the right to peaceful, lawful protest, but that some organisations were using their charitable status to commit unlawful acts.
Under the new regulations, offences including trespass, unlawful entry, malicious damage or vandalism, or threatening violence will be made unlawful. Charities will also be prohibited from using their resources to promote or support others in such unlawful activities.
It’s not the first time this debate has been raised. Back in November, the animal rights group Aussie Farms had its charity status revoked following an investigation by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.
The group attracted widespread criticism after it staged several animal welfare protests across the country and published an online map and directory of slaughterhouses and farms across Australia.
At the time, Federal Minister for Agriculture David Littleproud said he had written to the charities commissioner asking him to review Aussie Farms’ charitable status, and welcomed the decision to strip them of their charity status as a “a win for common sense”.
On Sunday, he voiced his support for the new standards.
“Extreme activist groups who target law-abiding Australian farmers will no longer be able to claim tax-free status for their fundraising efforts, with a broader range of prohibited conduct to be considered against their charitable status,” Littleproud said.
Seselja said the new standards will be given effect through amendments to the Governance Standards contained in the 2013 Charities Act.
Pro Bono News contacted the ACNC for comment, but a spokesperson said they were unable to provide further details on the matter.
“No one believes charities should be allowed to break the law”
David Crosbie, the CEO of the Community Council for Australia, told Pro Bono News that he didn’t think anyone believed charities should be entitled to consistently break the law.
He also said that charities acting in a way where illegal activity was part of their core activities was already prevented in the 2013 Charities Act, and that charities shouldn’t feel threatened by the new regulations.
“I think most charities are going to feel fine about their capacity to advocate and protest and engage in peaceful activity to achieve their purpose,” Crosbie said.
But he did say that if charities were to engage in advocacy activities, it was important to document the purpose of their activity.
“[Charities need to make] it very clear that what they’re engaging in is peaceful protest, exercising their right to say they’re unhappy with a particular situation or policy or action and to protest peacefully around that,” he said.
Treasury will be seeking submissions from the public on the amendments in early 2021.
Pro Bono News contacted Minister Seselja’s office for comment, but did not receive a response before deadline.