Review of foreign donations bill puts charities on alert
27 January 2021 at 4:52 pm
Civil society organisations are being urged to make a submission to a new parliamentary inquiry
Charities are determined to ensure that issue-based advocacy remains protected amid fears this may be targeted during a parliamentary review into the federal government’s foreign donations bill.
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) is examining the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill, which passed in late 2018 and broadened registration and disclosure requirements for non-party political actors.
It was eventually changed so that non-partisan issue based advocacy was not captured in the final bill, vastly simplifying the compliance on charities and other organisations speaking publicly about policy issues.
But there are now concerns these protections could be wound back.
When announcing the review, JSCEM chair Coalition Senator James McGrath noted the committee was “interested in the impacts of amendments to the original bill that are relevant to charitable issue-based advocacy”.
The JSCEM’s recent report on the 2019 federal election also recommended the expenditure threshold for political campaigners be reduced from $500,000 to $100,000 or one third of annual income.
Saffron Zomer, a representative of the Hands Off Our Charities Alliance, told Pro Bono News they did not agree with the committee’s recommendation.
“Doing so would introduce a very significant compliance burden for many organisations and the impact would be a chilling effect on public interest advocacy in the lead up to elections,” Zomer said.
“In its report, the committee provided no evidence for why the threshold should be lowered.”
Zomer said the alliance – which was a leading force in getting the bill amended in the first place – was actively fighting to ensure community voices are heard in the national political debate, including in the run-up to elections.
“A healthy democracy relies on open public debate from diverse voices. Advocacy by charities on issues as important as homelessness, health and protecting our environment, is a vital part of this debate,” she said.
“Our submission to the review will focus on ensuring that issue-based advocacy by charities is protected, not impeded, and undue costs are not imposed on charities, particularly at a time when their services are in high-demand due to COVID-19.”
The shadow assistant minister for charities, Andrew Leigh MP, and Labor Senator Don Farrell have also sent a letter to charities and their representative organisations urging them to make a submission to the review.
The letter warned of the potential impacts of lowering the expenditure threshold.
“This will capture a significant number of smaller charities, increasing administrative burdens in a sector that is already heavily regulated, and restricting the ability to accept donations from foreign sources,” the letter said.
Leigh told Pro Bono News this review showed that charities seemed to be “in the firing line of the government”.
He encouraged charities to take up the fight again on their advocacy rights by making a submission to the inquiry.
“The problem is that if they don’t, there is a risk that some of the rights of charities will be stripped away and they won’t be able to continue to advocate on things like climate change, inequality, or the need for better justice in legal systems,” Leigh said.
Pro Bono News has approached Senator McGrath for comment.
Submissions for the inquiry close 29 January.