In the final Parliamentary sitting week of 2017, the Federal Government introduced a series of Bills in response to concerns about the negative impact of foreign donations on Australia’s democracy. Some of the proposed changes, however, go far beyond the government’s stated intent in relation to foreign donations and have the potential to stifle social advocacy and democratic debate. This briefing focuses on one of the three Bills that was introduced and its implications for public advocacy by charities on matters of social importance. This Bill is currently the subject of an inquiry by the Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

Why will this Bill affect most major charities in Australia?

Under this Bill, most major charities would be required to register as a “political campaigner.”

This is because an organisation is required to register as a political campaigner if during the current or any of the previous three years their “political expenditure” was $100,000 or more.

Political expenditure is then defined very broadly and includes:

The public expression of any 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).

Hence, whenever a charity comments on issues such as homelessness, low levels of allowances and pensions, low wages, refugees and asylum seekers, electricity costs and a host of other subjects, the costs associated with making these comments would be deemed political expenditure.

For example, while the St Vincent de Paul Society has a relatively high profile on social justice issues, the cost of the Society’s advocacy is relatively modest. However, the cost is more than $100,000. This means that if the Bill is passed into law, the Society will be required to register as a “political campaigner.”

How will charities be affected if they are required to register as a “political campaigner?”

Charities will be required to keep records to show whether donations of more than $250 were from what the Bill calls “allowable donors’ or from “non-allowable donors”. This will add significantly to the administrative costs (needless red tape) of charities.

The definition of “allowable” is quite complex. Generally, for an individual this means that they are either an elector, an Australian citizen, or an Australian permanent resident (unless the Minister decides that the resident is not an allowable donor). (287 AA)

For most charities the vast majority of donations come from what would be deemed allowable donors. However, a very small number of donations are likely to come from non-citizens or residents of other countries who are appreciative of the work done for them or their families. Specific accounts would need to be set up for this small number of donors and kept separate from other general revenue accounts. No funds from these separate accounts could be used for the broadly defined political expenditure. Even if no such donations are received, charities who are registered as political campaigners will still need to show that all donations of $250 or more were from allowable donors. There is also the possibility of fines of over $50,000 for charities who breach the legislation.

Thus, the ultimate effect for charities will be a set of complex, cumbersome and costly administrative requirements. This will force many charities to divert resources away from frontline services and advocacy. For some charities, it may also have a “chilling” effect, deterring them from speaking out about injustices in order to avoid the onerous administrative costs that such advocacy would incur.

Why is it important that charities campaign for justice for the most vulnerable?

Members of charities see firsthand the distress and suffering caused to people by injustice. Often this suffering and distress is hidden in society and without the voice of charities speaking out, it can too easily be ignored. Charities have an obligation to shine a light on injustice and to work with those they serve to remove obstacles that create an unfair society.

Tackling social injustices like poverty is not only about providing services to alleviate the symptoms of social problems, but is also about advocating for changes to address the root causes.

While governments usually approve of the direct charitable works that charities do, they are often unhappy with the campaigns for justice that naturally flow from them. Ineffective governments put onerous restrictions on charities to try and curtail this work. More competent governments, who are concerned with the welfare of their citizens, realise that justice work by charities helps society run more smoothly and governments to be more effective. This is because such governments are more sensitive to inequities and can work with charities on fairer solutions.

More broadly, the ability of charities to speak out on injustices is important to hold governments to account and to maintain a vibrant and inclusive democracy. Stifling the voice and independence of charities ultimately damages the health of our democracy and civil society, erodes systems of accountability and undermines informed public debate.

Will the Society stop campaigning for justice for the most vulnerable because of this Bill?

No. Since the beginning of the Society, it has been understood that charity and advocacy for a more just society go together. In addition, the Society intends to oppose this Bill strongly. As the CEO of the National Council of the St Vincent de Paul Society has said previously, “an independent and vibrant community sector is essential to a healthy civil society – giving voice to those who fall through the cracks, holding governments to account, and providing impetus to social change.” This Bill, if passed into law, will not stop the Society from speaking out about social injustices; it will, however, make it more difficult for the Society to speak out, because of the necessity to spend time on meaningless administrative tasks.

We encourage you to speak to your local member of Parliament and let them know that you do not want the voices of charities to be muffled.