31 January 2018
The aim of the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill 2017 (the Bill), according to the explanatory memorandum, is to help maintain the integrity, real and perceived, of Australia’s electoral system by making provisions for new political actors. However, this Bill will adversely affect major charities and other community not for profit (NFP) organisations, who have always endeavoured to influence the political process in favour of the most vulnerable. While it will not stop the St Vincent de Paul Society from speaking out on matters of justice, it will make it more difficult to do so because of the burdensome and unrealistic reporting conditions contained in the Bill.
Charities in Australia are not new political actors. Their important role in the political process has long been recognised. In 2001, the Report of the Inquiry into the Definition of Charities and Related Organisations, when commenting on political activity of charities, noted that:
Their (charities) independence from government or any particular political grouping is an important feature of their ability to serve their beneficiaries and to contribute more broadly to the public good. Independence allows charities to identify groups needing support and to make decisions about the best way to provide assistance to them ‘without fear or favour’.
There are already sensible rules governing the activities of charities in the political space, such as not endorsing particular candidates or parties. The new rules in this Bill, under the guise of protecting from foreign influence, only add an unnecessary administrative burden to charities. Most major Australian charities receive either very little or no donations from overseas donors. However all major charities, if they regularly comment on issues of concern to their beneficiaries, will be required to register as a ‘political campaigner’ and consequently prove that all donations over $250 were not from a person or entity that has been deemed a non-allowable donor.
Organisations, such as the St Vincent de Paul Society, that campaign on issues of poverty are nearly always critical of certain policies of the government of the day. This is because our front-line charity work makes us sensitive to issues of justice that need to be addressed. As such, there is always a temptation for governments to curtail the voice of charities. We believe that this is one of the disguised agendas at play in this Bill. In this submission, we will urge the Parliament to reject this Bill in its entirety as being ill-conceived and a threat to robust and informed debate, a cornerstone of our electoral system.