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Charities shocked and angry as deal done on political campaigners bill

2 December 2021 at 8:28 am
Wendy Williams
“This change represents an attack on charities, our democracy and the right to advocate for positive change.” 

Wendy Williams | 2 December 2021 at 8:28 am


Charities shocked and angry as deal done on political campaigners bill
2 December 2021 at 8:28 am

“This change represents an attack on charities, our democracy and the right to advocate for positive change.” 

Charities claim the government has “guillotined debate” after the controversial political campaigner bill passed the upper house on Wednesday with backing from Labor, which lent its support in exchange for the government agreeing to take its voter ID bill off the table.

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021 lowers the threshold for entities such as charities to disclose political spending and will force charities to reveal their donors with retrospective effect.

Critics believe it will place an unnecessary burden on charities that engage in issues-based advocacy at election times and make it harder for Australians to participate in national debates on important issues.

Labor did negotiate a number of last-minute amendments with the government including to reduce the electoral expenditure threshold to $250,000 – rather than the $100,000 threshold proposed by the government – and to change the name of “political campaigner” to “significant third party”.

However the Hands Off Our Charities coalition says the changes do not fix the most significant problems, and fail to deal with any of the issues in the amendments the government introduced last Monday.

They remain concerned that the threshold will act as a spending cap on charities, and say the requirement to register as a significant third party will discourage charities from advocating in future elections “by applying a new, legally vague and very broad definition of ‘electoral expenditure’ to this new category”.

Australian Democracy Network executive director Saffron Zomer said it was bad law making and fundamentally unfair. 

“The rushed, eleventh-hour publication of the proposed amendments and the failure to send this bill to a committee, where it could be properly and appropriately scrutinised, is a blow to good governance,” Zomer said.

“It is beyond disappointing that our government would spend its time on stifling civic participation when it could be focused on important reforms that would really make democracy work better for all, such as political donation caps and a strong federal ICAC.  

“It is also very disappointing to see the Australian Labor Party, with its proud history of standing up for charities, support these regressive changes. The charity sector is in shock.”

Many in the sector are particularly frustrated as they believe the Senate crossbench would have helped Labor block both the voter ID and political campaigner bills.

Independent Senator Rex Patrick said in a tweet that Labor had “sold out the charities sector”.

Ben Oquist, executive director of the Australia Institute, said the deal between the government and the opposition to pass the bill was a “terrible democratic outcome”.

“In a bad day for Australian democracy, this deal to pass legislation will only serve to strangle charities with red tape,” Oquist said.

“This legislation represents a huge attack on charities, a sector that makes a $129 billion per year contribution to the economy, including the direct employment of over 800,000 people.”

He labelled it a “bad process, and a bad outcome,” arguing there had been no notice, little public explanation and no sector consultation.

“Today we are seeing the biggest attack on the Australian charity sector the public has never heard of,” he said.

“This change represents an attack on charities, our democracy and the right to advocate for positive change.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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