Govt tries to gag public-interest advocates, again

The Coalition has been waging war against those who've dared to question it since 2013.

Its latest gagging grenade has been lobbed under the cover of foreign donations reform, bizarrely egged on by the largely foreign owned mining industry.

On election Tony Abbott tried to abolish the newly-legislated Charities Act which enshrined in law the right for charities to engage in political advocacy. There's not much point in (for example) trying to house the homeless without also trying to remove the causes of homelessness.

The Act set up an Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission as a one-stop shop for keeping tabs on and assisting charities, as recommended by the Productivity Commission. Abbott lost that battle after the charities themselves appealed to cross benches.

Then he tried to strip environment groups of their charitable status. His environment minister Greg Hunt set up an inquiry that recommended they lose the right to tax deductible donations unless they spent 25 per cent of their income on "environmental remediation work". Organisations such as the Australian Conservation Foundation would have to clean up the environment in addition to doing what's most effective: lobbying to prevent it being damaged in the first place. Groups like Lock the Gate would have to plant trees as well as campaign against coal seam gas mining.

In December a fierce critic of many of the activities of charities, Gary Johns, became the new head of the Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission - replacing the highly respected company director Susan Pascoe. Senior bureaucrats had urged Malcolm Turnbull's charities minister Michael Sukkar to re-appoint Pascoe who had done her job well.

Johns had previously called on the Coalition to abolish the Charities Act. It must "makes it clear to the High Court that advocacy is not a charitable purpose," he said in 2014. It should deny charity status to the "enemies of progress". His book, The Charity Ball, argues that too many charities in Australia do little or no charity work.

Now there's the Foreign Influence Transparency Bill and the benignly named Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill.

Turnbull wants to prevent charities that engage in public debate from receiving donations from foreign governments and foreign state-owned enterprises.

He wants to force any group that spends $100,000 or more on political activities in the four years before an election to register as a "political campaigner". Political activities are defined as "the public expression of any views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors". There are stiff fines if they don't comply.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann told the Senate in December that while political campaigning was a positive indicator of the strength of Australian civil society, it is important "that these actors are subject to the public accountability of more traditional actors, such as registered political parties or candidates".

Charity boardrooms are already urging less advocacy, worried about their funding, and the implications of going on a political campaigner register.

Cormann, Turnbull and Sukkar have achieved something rare. They've united Getup and the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs, both of whom oppose the moves saying they will stifle political debate.

A donor to a "political campaigner" of gifts totalling more than $13,500 in any financial year (or as little as $4.80 a week) will be required to lodge a return to the Electoral Commission.

Institute research fellow Gideon Rozner: "It would effectively give the electoral commission authority over a whole range of community organisations with no relationship to the political process other than commenting on public policy issues," he told Pro Bono News. "It would impose a pointless and unnecessary red tape burden on charities, community groups, service clubs, religious organisations and other civic groups."

Getup's national director, Paul Oosting told members in a letter that the requirement would "decimate a lean, grassroots organisation that relies on tens of thousands of online donations".

Anglicare's Kasy Chambers goes further, telling me: "The Anglican Church, as you know, has a strong vision and tradition about calling out unjust structures and opposing violence. If a minister does a sermon on that does that make that Church or the priest a political actor? Does that mean every gift or donation over a certain amount that goes in the plate to that parish or church must be traced back?"

"This is not about our voices being shut down. It's the fact that we are a conduit for people who don't have the money to buy influence."

Gary Johns, the Coalition's pick as the new head of the Charities Commission happens to agree. He wrote on the ACNC website: "The ACNC has submitted a response in relation to the proposed amendments. It is our view that the [Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform] bill as formulated, will place a further regulatory burden on charities, and may inhibit their ability to advocate as a method of achieving its charitable purpose."

One of the clearest voices articulating that charities should be exempt, is that of David Crosbie, head of the Community Council of Australia. He told a parliamentary inquiry the proposed changes were unfair because it exempted businesses but not charities.

"If commercial activities are carved out – why not charitable activities? My reading is that in practice – if an international company like a Diageo [sought] to influence our alcohol policies, that is okay – no inappropriate foreign influence there," Crosbie said.

"But if the Gates Foundation give money to alcohol research by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education – they would have to register… [And] charities already face significant regulations and limitations on their capacity to engage in political activities."

Many in the third sector accept that Australia has been, and will be increasingly subject to foreign intervention - some of which will be covet, unfriendly and hostile. But the proposed amendments go too far.

Not-for-profits and those they serve already feel muzzled. A recent survey by Pro Bono Australia found that two-thirds of all Australian charities find it harder to be heard by the federal government compared to just five years ago.

First published in The Canberra Times, February 5, 2018

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