The Australian Government must encourage public debate, not restrict the right of charities to speak up

The Australian Government must encourage public debate, not restrict the right of charities to speak up

The Australian Government must ensure that amendments to foreign donation laws do not unintentionally silence legitimate democratic debate and discussion, the Human Rights Law Centre told the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. The Committee is conducting a review of political donations as part of its broader inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 election.

Emily Howie, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said there is a real risk that the Committee’s proposed prohibition on international donations to third parties would stifle charities’ participation in public debate.

“Being able to vibrantly debate matters of public interest is crucial to a good democracy. We appreciate the need to address the complex issue of foreign influence in Australian politics. But the real issue here is that in its attempt to improve the transparency of Australian elections, the Government may cast the net too wide and hamper the activities of local charities who are working for social good,” said Ms Howie.

In an earlier report, the Government members of the Committee recommended a prohibition on donations from foreign citizens and foreign entities to Australian registered political parties, associated entities and third parties. The ban on third parties could prohibit international donations towards Australian charities and not-for-profit groups whose work is not currently considered political and regulated under the Electoral Act.

“A foreign donation ban on charities is clearly a step in the wrong direction. Autocratic governments around the world are stifling criticism in exactly this way. Australia should not follow that trend,” said Ms Howie.

Charities provide a valuable contribution to public discussion in a way that informs both voters and policymakers.

“One of the things that makes our democracy great is having an informed public debate with a range of voices. Charities working for public benefit are and should be a key voice in these debates. The Government should be safeguarding their free speech, not stifling it,” said Ms Howie.

Download the Human Rights Law Centre’s submission here.

Download Defending Democracy - a report that highlights the urgent need to safeguard independent civil society voices.

For further information or interview please call:

Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519