Charities still wary of updated plan to change governance standards
29 June 2021 at 8:13 am
The government says new laws will not impose a burden on charities already obeying the law
The federal government has made changes to its controversial proposal to amend charitable governance standards, but advocates believe the plan will still have a chilling impact on the sector.
On Friday, the government laid out its plan to strengthen laws to ensure charities that engage in or use their resources to actively promote unlawful behaviour face enforcement action.
Charities have previously come out strongly against the government’s planned amendment to Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission’s (ACNC) governance standard 3, which would expand the reasons for which a charity can be deregistered beyond indictable offences to include summary offences, such as trespassing, theft, vandalism or assault.
The sector believes this proposal – which is part of a government crackdown on “activist organisations masquerading as charities” – could lead to charities being deregistered for something as simple as tweeting in support of a protest that accidentally ventures onto private land, or providing support to whistleblowers.
Advocates also fear the proposal will force charities to think about potential summary offences for every single employee and volunteer, creating a major red tape burden.
Following the strong sector backlash, the government has watered down parts of the proposal.
The new regulations say charities must take reasonable steps to ensure their resources are not used to “actively promote” unlawful conduct – rather than “promote or support” as was in the original wording.
The scope of offences that are captured in the proposal has also been narrowed, with charities no longer at risk of deregistration for administrative errors, such as failing to authorise a pamphlet in the lead up to an election.
Alice Drury, a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, told Pro Bono News that while these changes were a step in the right direction, the proposal still served to silence important advocacy by Australian charities.
“The Morrison government should be supporting charities and welcoming our advocacy, not threatening us with new rules that could shut us down for speaking out,” Drury said.
“This treatment of charities is punitive and unprecedented – no business or political party faces deregistration for minor breaches of the law. Nor are other entities preemptively punished because of what the regulator thinks they might do in the future.”
But the federal government has defended the proposal.
Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, the minister responsible for the ACNC, said on Friday that the regulations did not impose a new burden on charities that were already complying with Australian laws.
He said Australians expected that a charity’s resources were being directed towards charitable work.
“By making these regulations, the government is ensuring charities that misuse and take advantage of their status to take part in or actively promote illegal activity can be stripped of tax concessions and other benefits,” Sukkar said.
“Charities that engage in unlawful activities infringe on the rights of law-abiding Australians conducting their business and going about their everyday lives. This undermines public trust and confidence in the charities sector.”