Charity sector faces new advocacy threat
16 August 2021 at 4:42 pm
Sector leaders say the government is trying to make charities less visible during election periods
Charities are deeply concerned by a new government proposal that would force more community groups to register as political campaigners, amid fears this will restrict charitable advocacy at election times.
The Morrison government has introduced a new bill to lower the expenditure threshold for political campaigners from $500,000 to $100,000 during the financial year, or for any of the three previous years.
This means any organisation spending more than this amount seeking to influence voters in an election will be subject to extra reporting requirements and restrictions.
Assistant Minister for Electoral Matters Ben Morton said this would enhance public confidence in Australia’s political processes by making these groups more transparent, in line with political parties and candidates.
He said these amendments did not “represent a significant change” for organisations that meet the updated thresholds, noting many already need to submit a return to the Australian Electoral Commission as a third party campaigner.
But charity sector leaders argue the new requirements would be onerous and stifle the voices of community groups.
Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie told Pro Bono News charities were very different from political parties and should not be treated as such.
He said the threat of being labelled a political campaigner would restrict charitable advocacy at election times.
“Charities advocate on their issues only and do not seek political power,” Crosbie said.
“The level of reporting and transparency required of those who would represent us needs to be a much higher bar than individual charities advocating on their public benefit charitable purpose.
“Even though some political parties may think it is in their political interests if charities are less visible during election periods, the reality is that silencing charitable voices also silences voices from the community, and that is never good for democracy or for Australia.”
A push to lower the expenditure threshold for political campaigners to $100,000 is not a new phenomenon.
The federal government included it in its controversial foreign donations bill introduced in late 2017, which was met with significant sector backlash.
Following recommendations from the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM), the bill was amended in 2018 and the threshold was increased to $500,000.
But in December last year, the JSCEM released a report examining the 2019 federal election and called for the threshold to be lowered to $100,000.
The Australian Conservation Foundation’s (ACF) democracy campaigner, Jolene Elberth, noted that charities have made it clear during committee reviews that lowering the threshold would hurt the sector.
“The existing ‘political campaigner’ threshold was determined after extensive consultation with civil society only a couple of years ago,” Elberth said.
“The committee that recommended lowering the threshold provided only two paragraphs of reasoning for this proposed change and did not give any evidence or reference submissions it had received.
“This is not evidence-based policy making.”
Elberth said while this change seemed small, it would have the effect of silencing community voices.
She said elections were crucial times for charities to highlight policy reforms in the public interest and elevate important issues.
“The government should encourage many diverse voices during election campaigns, not seek to silence them, as these bills would do,” she said.
“Protecting the community’s right to advocate is critical to maintaining a healthy democracy where all voices can be heard, not just those backed by powerful vested interests.”
While the ALP’s position on the legislation is currently unclear, the Greens has already voiced its opposition to the changes.
Greens deputy leader Senator Larissa Waters said: “This is another dangerous attack on civil society groups and an attempt to limit their advocacy by adding additional financial and disclosure burdens.”
You can take a look at the bill here.