Corroding Democracy: 4 Ways the Voice of Charities Could be Stifled Under New Legislation

Gareth Beyers

25 Jan, 2018

New legislation, with the pretext of stopping foreign donations to political parties and improving Australia’s democracy, has become a vehicle for silencing parts of our civil society. It is set to stifle the voice of Australia’s charities and the communities they work with. If passed, the ability of charities to contribute to public debate will suffer, corroding Australia’s democracy. Here’s how.

Blurring the lines between Charities’ Advocacy and Party Politics

Charities spend money to help inform public policy by shedding light on the issues they work on. It’s called advocacy. In doing so, charities form part of a healthy democracy and give voice to the marginalised.

Importantly, this work must be in support of their charitable purpose. For example, life-saving societies speak-up for regulations which prevent drownings and medical researchers advocate for improving patient treatment. Under this new Bill, that work will be rebranded. Instead of advocacy being cast as a unique contribution to achieving a public benefit, this work will be deemed to be “political”.

The legislation will require charities to disclose “political expenditure” on a “political purpose”, and if they meet a certain threshold, classified as a “political campaigner”. It equates charities with political parties. In effect, it no longer characterises charities’ advocacy as a reflection of the experiences of the people they support, but as a one-sided view, shaped by party-political leanings. It undermines its legitimacy and reputation damage to charities could ensue.

Questioning the legitimacy of advocacy

Just 8 years ago, the High Court upheld the right of charities to advocate and campaign on issues of public concern. The Charities Act of 2013 cemented that right. This Bill introduces confusion and calls that legal right into question.

Under the Charities Act, charities are prohibited from having a ‘political purpose’. But confusingly, the ‘political purpose’ rebrand of charitable advocacy in the new Bill seems to contradict this prohibition. Under the new classifications, this Bill could legislate charities into losing their charitable status. Many will have to ask, is advocacy a risk worth taking?

Smothered by red tape

The Bill expands the definition of ‘political expenditure’ to almost any costs associated with a public expression of charities’ views, at any time. This will all need to be monitored. Charities will also need to verify every $250 donation to determine if it is permissible. Donors will also have to gain an onerous statutory declaration to certify that they are an allowable donor.

This administration could drag resources away from other services and will erect barriers for donors, undermining charities’ financial stability. Facing this, and rather than risk heavy penalties such as imprisonment for any misstep against the new regulatory requirements, it is realistic to expect that some will cease their advocacy.

Removing sources of funding

International philanthropy to Australian charities often includes funding for an element of advocacy. For example, philanthropy to develop better medication for preventable diseases (like polio) may include raising the awareness of the research or treatment with politicians or the public. Despite being entirely legitimate, international philanthropy for advocacy is banned under this Bill. To avoid reclassification, charities receiving international philanthropy are likely to ‘self-censor’ from advocacy work. Once again, free, informed and public discussion will be thwarted.

Published in December, the Civil Voices report found that charities were ‘self-censoring’ in fear of political retribution. Under this Bill, that trend will no doubt escalate. 

Silencing communities takes Australia down a dangerous path and erodes Australia’s shared belief in a fair-go. ACFID, along with an alliance of charities, will continue to express its concerns about this Bill’s debilitating effects on charities’ advocacy and the corrosive effects on our democracy.

Contact Gareth Beyers for more information; read an explainer of the Bill from Not-for-Profit Law and express the Bill’s effects on your organisation by filling out ProBono’s survey on the legislation.

  • Gareth Beyers
    Gareth Beyers

    Gareth Beyers is the Government Relations advisor to the Australian Council for International Development.

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