Liberal senator speaks out against government crackdown on charities
19 July 2021 at 5:07 pm
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has echoed concerns from the charity sector
A conservative Liberal senator has expressed concerns over the federal government’s plan to amend charitable governance standards, warning that more information is needed to prove the proposal is necessary and constitutional.
In a letter written to Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar on behalf of the Senate Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said the government has provided insufficient detail around how the changes will affect the sector.
She said the government must also explain how the plan is compliant with the implied freedom of political communication in the constitution.
The committee’s role is to assess laws against a set of scrutiny principles, such as compliance with statutory requirements and protection of individual rights and liberties.
The government’s proposal focuses on amending the 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 charity sector has been up in arms about the plan – which is part of a government crackdown on “activist organisations masquerading as charities” – arguing that it could see charities shut down for speaking out and would impose a significant administrative burden.
Sector leaders argue it 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.
Fierravanti-Wells has now echoed some of these concerns, noting it was “unclear what the full scope of the offences” being captured by the proposal were.
“It is unclear why the specific offences are not set out on the face of the instrument, or whether there are any limitations on, or guidance in relation to, the exercise of this discretion,” Fierravanti-Wells said.
She also expressed concerns around plans to give the ACNC commissioner power to revoke an organisation’s charitable status if they reasonably believed it was “more likely than not that the entity will not comply with a governance standard”.
This means it is not necessary for a charity to be charged with or found guilty of an offence for the commissioner to take enforcement action.
“The [committee’s] concerns are particularly amplified noting that the discretionary powers to be exercised by the commissioner may relate to the determination of whether a criminal law has been breached,” Fierravanti-Wells said.
Given the proposal’s potential limits on political protest, she asked the government to explain by 28 July how the proposal is compliant with the implied freedom of political communication.
Reverend Tim Costello AO, the chair of the Community Council for Australia, welcomed the letter and said it was proof the proposal should be scrapped.
“It is heartening to see that this important committee shares the concerns of charities from across the sector, which have formed a broad alliance to condemn these egregious regulations,” Costello said.
“The committee’s intervention is a clear signal that these laws are unprecedented and an unjustified regulatory overreach.”
Charities are encouraged to take part in a Pro Bono News survey examining the impacts of the government’s proposed changes on the sector. Take the survey here.