Late last year there was a big debate about foreign donations. The Turnbull government used this moment to propose changes to the Electoral Act they claimed were to stop overseas powers from influencing our politics.
But the details of the changes paint a very different picture.
The amendments would redefine much of public advocacy by our charities as “political campaigning”, with the effect of silencing charities and the voice of the community.
This legislation, likely to be considered in Parliament this month, would:
Here’s a shocking example. The amendments would make one person within an organisation “financial controller”. If that person inadvertently received a donation of over $250 from a “non-allowable” donor, or deposited it into the wrong bank account, they could face 10 years imprisonment or significant financial penalties.
On top of this, the legislation would constrain or even ban charities from receiving international philanthropic donations.
This would be devastating for charities that currently receive overseas support, including organisations that advocate for better public health, access to education and the voice and rights of Indigenous Australians.
These changes are totally unnecessary because charities are already regulated by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. They already have to comply with strict rules about being non-partisan.
Sadly, the likely outcome of these changes would be a diminished community voice in public debate. Last year the landmark Civil Voices report found many Australian charities were already “self-silencing” for fear of financial risk or political retribution.
The Turnbull government could have taken a different approach. At a time when surveys show decreased trust in public institutions, particularly government, we should be encouraging more community involvement in the national debate.
Instead this draconian law, with its effect of silencing small charities and community groups, is the opposite of what governments should be doing to regain trust.
More than 25 major charities and non-profits have formed the Hands Off Our Charities coalition to block the proposed changes, including St. Vincent de Paul, Red Cross Australia, Anglicare Australia, Amnesty International, WWF, ACF, the Human Rights Law Centre and Environment Victoria.
This isn’t the first government attempt to silence environment charities.
A motion to strip eco-charities of the same rights as other charities was endorsed by the Federal Liberal party in June 2014. Minister Richard Colbeck had been pushing to remove environmental groups’ exemption from competition law regarding secondary boycotts, and the ‘Re:think’ tax discussion paper called for a review of the not for profit sector’s tax deductibility.
In 2015, the Abbott government initiated a Parliamentary Inquiry into the Register of Environment Organisations. This is the Register that grants tax-deductible status to over 500 environment groups around Australia.
You can read our submission to that inquiry here.
In 2017, a Treasury discussion paper requiring environment charities to spend 50 percent of funds on ‘remediation’, such as weeding and planting trees, instead of advocating to stop environmental destruction in the first place.
Each time, community opposition has stopped these attempts to silence charities.
 https://probonoaustralia.com.au/news/2017/12/advocacy-threat-nfps-engage-self-silencing/ (See also the Conclusion of the report, page 53)