Charities welcome exemption from foreign agent register

Charities welcome exemption from foreign agent register

Charities and unions will largely be exempt from the foreign agent register if recommendations from a parliamentary committee’s inquiry into foreign influence are acted on.

Hugh de Kretser, Executive Director with the Human Rights Law Centre said the exemption would mean that charities were not unfairly captured if they work with overseas organisations.

“Charities have enormous expertise to contribute to public debates. Australian charities regularly work with partners overseas, make representations to international organisations like the UN and operate in other states. We want to encourage international collaboration on problems of global significance – not stifle it.”

The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill will set up a new register for people and organisations to declare when they are operating in Australian politics on behalf of a foreign government or other group, partly inspired by the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Charities and other NGOs had expressed fears that the very broad drafting in the bill could capture many ordinary activities, forcing them into the absurd position of having to identify as agents of foreign influence.

“Charities are already well-regulated and cannot support political parties or candidates. Charities do vital work in Australia and internationally, contributing to better laws and policies and informed public debates. The requirement to register as foreign agents or face criminal penalties was unnecessary and unfair.”

The bipartisan report, released today by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) recommends that charities should have an exemption from registration requirements when making routine representations in accordance with their charitable purpose, or where the relationship with the foreign body is well known or a matter of public record.

“The Australian Government should be encouraging charities to participate in public discussion, not making it harder for them. We welcome the charity exemption but urge the government to provide greater clarity for civil society organisations that are not registered charities or unions,” said Mr de Kretser.

The FITS Bill is expected to be re-introduced to Parliament this week, alongside the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill.

Serious concerns remain with respect to the EFI Bill. Important recommendations have been made by the PJCIS in relation to EFI – including a reduction of penalties, the clarification of vague terms and expanded defences. The Human Rights Law Centre has called for the robust implementation of all of these recommendations in the reintroduced Bill.

For interviews or further information please call:

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