Several charities in Australia have warned that the red tape burden being placed on them by the new proposed foreign donation laws may thwart their advocacy efforts.
The government’s proposed bill which seeks to ban foreign donations and address foreign interference in Australian politics covers “political campaigners” as well, a category that includes charities who conduct advocacy.
A coalition of affected charities, organised by the Australian Council for International Development , are intending to start a campaign against the bill which was introduced to parliament in December.
According to one of the charities, St Vincent de Paul the electoral funding and disclosure reform bill requires all groups who have spent $100,000 or more on issues involving political activities in the last four years to register as a “political campaigner”.
Political expenditure refers to anything related to issues presented before electors in an election.
Several New Regulations For Foreign Donations
Under the new rules, all costs related to advocacy by charities on issues such as homelessness, low wages, the age pension, refugees and the environment would get categorized as political expenditure, which will force them to register.
A deemed “political campaigner” is required by the law to keep records for ensuring donors over $250 are “allowable donors” (Australian citizens or residents ) and not foreign entities.
Donations coming in from non-citizens or non-residents, would need to be directed to special accounts which keeps the revenue separate from other sources and would also need to ensure that it is not spent on political expenditure.
Any breach of these rules can result in fines of over $50,000.
St Vincent de Paul noted that the ultimately, the new rules will result in “a set of complex, cumbersome and costly administrative requirements,” which will force charities to divert resources away from advocacy. The charity also warned of a “chilling effect” from it as it may dissuade charities from speaking out.
Other requirements include nominating a financial controller who is held liable for the charities’ disclosures, and disclosing the political affiliations of senior staff.
Saffron Zomer, a spokeswoman for the Australian Conservation Foundation, observed that the law “poses a significant threat to all charities in issues-based advocacy”.
According to Zomer the legislation was conflating advocacy activities of “independent non-partisan civil society groups” with the electioneering of political parties.
Charities say that they are under already under heavy regulation by the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission.
Legitimate Causes Will Suffer
Paul Sheridan, a spokesman for the Pew Charitable Trusts, pointed out that under the new rules Pew would be unable to use international donations to support the travel of groups of Indigenous Australians to Canberra and Perth for advocating Indigenous causes to federal and state parliament.
Sheridan warned that the changes were “very far-reaching”.
Sheridan said that several charities were affected including, Results International, an anti-poverty charity that receives 85% of its funding from international sources. He pointed out that the new rules will harm their efforts to advocate for better funding for Aids screening and tuberculosis immunisation in Australia and the South Pacific.
He cited another example of the World Wildlife Fund which would be unable to advocate for environmental cases since much of their funding is from international donors
While the Greens support a ban on foreign donations in-principle but they have opposed the changes that affect civil society groups. Labor has also urged for the ban to apply to only the donations made to political parties and related entities but not third-party campaign groups.