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Donation laws will hamstring community advocacy

Donation laws will hamstring community advocacy

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Red tape around proposed new donation disclosure laws will stifle the ability of community legal services and charities to help their clients, say legal advocacy organisations.

Sue Woodward, Acting CEO of Justice Connect says the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017 is so broad that any organisation that carries out research or advocacy work in areas such as health, education or social welfare is likely to be caught up in its onerous compliance regime.

The legislation is ostensibly intended to reduce foreign influence on Australian politics, but any organisation involved in advocacy work will be subject to its compliance requirements.

It will catch any organisation that spends more than $13,500 a year on “political expenditure” – defined as “the public expression by any means 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)”.

“It’s hard to think of something that wouldn’t fall within that definition,” Ms Woodward says.

Justice Connect has received many inquiries from small volunteer run organisations concerned how the regime is going to affect them, Ms Woodward says.

“If an organisation worked on some research about people sleeping rough, for example, that was picked up by someone from a political party concerned about the homelessness issue in the lead up to an election the organisation didn’t even know was on the horizon when they were doing the research, they’d be caught up.”

Organisations caught by the regime will have to register, put in monitoring systems, appoint a financial controller, make annual returns and monitor any donations over $250 to work out whether they are allowable.

There are severe penalties, including up to 10 years jail for the financial controller, for non-compliance.

“As a registered charity we already do a lot of reporting, and any money we have to spend on additional red tape means less resources to help our clients,” Ms Woodward says.

The commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) Gary Johns has also spoken out in a column on the ACNC website against the legislation, saying it will place an extra regulatory burden on charities, and “may inhibit their ability to advocate as a method of achieving its charitable purpose”.

The executive director of the Human Rights Legal Centre, Hugh De Kretser, says the compliance regime in the bill is so bad it will mean many charities will simply choose not to speak out in public about their work. “This will harm Australian democracy.”

Mr De Kretser points out that the bill only applies to “public activities”, exempting organisations involved in private advocacy with MPs. “A perverse outcome if the legislation is passed in its current form may be that it drives advocacy out of the public realm into less transparent private advocacy,” he said.

The HLRC has said it may mount a constitutional challenge to the legislation if the bill is passed.

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) has also said the way the bill is drafted was "extremely concerning" and could effectively silence contributions to the public debate.

Submissions regarding the Bill closed last week, but Ms Woodward said those concerned about its impact could still write to their MP or senator.

More information on how the Bill may affect organisations can be found here.


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