Electoral law changes having a profound effect on charities

27 February 2018

Electoral law changes introduced by this Government will have far reaching consequences for the charity and community sectors despite reassurances by the Government.

Yesterday in the Parliament the Prime Minister implied that because last financial year only seven charities were required to report political expenditure that the effect of the new laws on charities would be minimal.

He did not mention that in September 2017 legislation was passed that altered a phrase in the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 pertaining to annual returns relating to political expenditure. That change will take effect from March 14, 2018.

The phrase:

“the public expression of views on an issue in an election by any means”

is to be replaced from March 14, 2018 by

“the public expression of views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors in an election (whether or not a writ has been issued for the election) by any means.”

Even without passing the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill 2017, this enhanced definition greatly increases the number of charities required to report as third parties in an election.

This new wording captures not only issues that are before electors in an election, but any issues that are likely to be before electors at any time.

It removes the link between the public expression of views and an actual election.

The Act does not stop community organisations from making political comment, but it states that if such comment is made and the expenditure associated with the public expression exceeds $13,500 in a year, then the community organisation must submit a Third Party Return of Political Expenditure.

As the law stands, from March 14, the St Vincent de Paul Society, along with numerous other charities and community groups (perhaps up to 1,000), will be required to submit a Third Party Return of Political Expenditure because of the expanded definition of what constitutes political expenditure.

If the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill 2017 is passed, the Society will have to comply with the much more onerous reporting conditions associated with being a “political campaigner”.

Neither action would safeguard the integrity of the Australian electoral system but only add increased administrative burden and cost, both to community groups and the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

Mr Frank Brassil, spokesperson for the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council said, “I urge the Government to drop the ill-conceived Electoral Funding and Disclosure Bill and strike out from the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 the new definition of political expenditure that sweeps up so many charities and community groups.”

Further Background notes

In 2011, the AEC advised the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters on problems associated with the expression “the public expression of views on an issue in an election.” They stated in part:

“The difficulties with this provision place the AEC in the position of needing to determine the subjective intent of the expenditure in each case and undertaking a detailed analysis on a case-by-case basis which could conceivably involve extensive resources including the need to obtain legal advice on almost every new third party expenditure to assess whether there is a disclosure obligation unless voluntary compliance is achieved.”

Consequently, the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended:

“removing the reference to ‘issues in an election’ from the definition of political expenditure, by deleting section 314AEB(1)(a)(ii) of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918.”

However, in September 2017, the section was not deleted but greatly expanded.

The administrative ambiguity remains and now the number of community organisations who need to report is expanded exponentially.

 

MEDIA CONTACT: Len Baglow 0400 845 492 or media@svdp.org.au