Instead of suppressing their voices, the Australian Government should encourage charities to speak up and contribute to public debate, the Human Rights Law Centre told a Parliamentary Committee examining the bill on foreign donations and elections.
Hugh de Kretser, Executive Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the proposed legislation would significantly harm the ability of charities and other not-for-profits to speak out about the work they do.
“Charities have enormous expertise to contribute to public debates. Whether it’s running a homeless shelter or a community health service – charities are uniquely placed to understand how government policies impact on the people and communities they serve. The Government should be encouraging charities to participate in public discussions, not making it harder for them,” said Mr de Kretser.
Under the bill, organisations that spend more than $13,500 in a year on a “political purpose” will be required to undertake a range of complex, cumbersome and costly compliance requirements including registration, appointing a financial controller and disclosing a range of information including the political party membership of their board and senior staff.
“Political purpose” is defined so broadly it appears to cover the public expression of views on any issue of public significance. The compliance obligations apply regardless of whether or not the organisation receives international funding and there are severe penalties, including up to 10 years jail for the financial controller, for non-compliance.
On top of this, the bill prohibits these organisations generally from receiving any international funding and specifically prohibits charities and unions from using international funding for public advocacy.
“The compliance regime in the bill is so bad it will mean many charities will simply choose not to speak out in public about their work. This will harm Australian democracy,” said Mr de Kretser.
“Charities are already well-regulated by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and are already prohibited from supporting political parties or candidates. By law, they can only advocate for their charitable purpose which must be for public benefit,” added Mr de Kretser.
“Philanthropy, whether from Australia or overseas, has long provided crucial resources to Australian charities who have made Australia a better and fairer place to live. Many charities, like ours, receive international philanthropy to support their work. This bill would cut off vital funds and divert other scarce resources away from public benefit activities to unnecessary compliance. Charities should not be subject to these requirements,” said Mr de Kretser.
“One irony is that the bill generally only applies to public activities. A perverse outcome if the legislation is passed in its current form may be that it drives advocacy out of the public realm into less transparent private advocacy with MPs and others,” said Mr de Kretser.
“There are serious risks that the proposed legislation will be invalid because it breaches the freedom of political communication in Australia’s Constitution."
“We support the intent behind this bill to stop foreign interference in Australian elections. The way the bill seeks to do this is completely misguided and will be bad for Australian democracy,” said Mr de Kretser.
“Sadly, this legislation follows a line of attacks on charities speaking up in public about the work they do, whether it’s helping the homeless or defending the environment. It’s consistent with a broader, undemocratic trend of this Government trying to suppress the voices of charities. All governments find criticism inconvenient or uncomfortable, but that’s part and parcel of a good democracy,” added Mr de Kretser.
The HRLC’s submission on the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017 can be found here.
Following the submission, the HRLC addressed concerns raised by the Bill - download letter here.
For interviews or further information please call:
Michelle Bennett, Director of Communications, Human Rights Law Centre, 0419 100 519
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