This piece was originally published on The Fifth Estate

By Blair Palese

Australia’s democracy is currently under threat in ways never before seen in our history.

Under the guise of protecting the country from foreign “tampering”, Malcolm Turnbull’s government has proposed a bill that would decimate the work of the tens of thousands of charities in Australia and strip us of our voice in political debate.

The bill, along with a range of other measures – including appointing a notorious critic of charities as head of the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission (ACNC) – adds up to a clear effort to silence criticism and stop advocacy work on issues from climate change, human rights and refugees to health, education, water and environmental protection.

This bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform), is a shocking piece of legislation that would affect charities across the board, from big name operations such as World Vision, The Red Cross and Amnesty International, to smaller groups such as The submission period for the bill has just been extended and hearings have taken place in a number of cities with a large number of charities contributing.

This issue is dividing Australian politics. Labor leader Bill Shorten on Sunday declared the suite of legislation would “punish Australian charities” and that the Australian Labor Party would not support laws to silence them. He said the ALP ’s policy of banning foreign donations to political parties was about removing foreign influence in the political process, and achieving that aim was possible without muzzling charities and not-for-profits.

The changes proposed by the foreign donations bill would limit not just foreign donations to charities but all donations, tie them up in red tape with impossibly stringent reporting regulations, increase auditing and put restrictions on charities’ right to advocate on the very issues we were established to address.

Clearly this bill is a ham-fisted attempt by the government to silence debate and take focus away from its own vulnerabilities around foreign donations and influence. With some 80 per cent of Australians donating about $12.5 billion to charities nationally, restricting charities will not only impact the charities themselves but the majority of Australians that support their work.

As we have recently seen through the Sam Dastyari scandal, foreign donations are hardly new to our political parties. Yet rather than crack down on foreign donations to parties and politicians, Malcolm Turnbull is going after Australian civil society.

Charities play a vital, yet very different, role to political parties. We are tightly regulated and operate under the ACNC. But poor wording of the proposed foreign donations bill means that most charities would be treated, first and foremost, as political.

Organisations working on an issue that “might be before voters at an election” – even before an election is called as this legislation proposes – are deemed political actors. This would include almost all charities in Australia, including those that work on bread and butter issues like health, welfare, aid and the environment – issues that are core to most Australians.

If a charity is considered “political”, as most would be, it would trigger even more restrictions and red tape, including disclosing – amazingly – who employees of charities associate with. And the penalties for a charity’s failure to comply are an out-of-proportion 10 years in prison for financial controllers and more than $100,000 in fines.

This is a draconian bill more suited to the old Eastern Bloc than contemporary Australia.

Attacks on charities is not new territory for conservative governments, but the lengths the Coalition is going to are an all-time low. The deeply unpopular foreign donations bill begs the question: what’s driving this? Australians trust charities – almost to an inverse degree to how much they distrust politicians. As a nation we are far more concerned about the unregulated world of foreign donations, industry lobbyists and other shady government activities – and rightly so.

This latest crusade is a clear attempt to silence critics and distract from the government’s poor track record on tackling corruption. The appointment of Gary Johns to oversee the ACNC – a man who once claimed Aboriginal women on welfare were being used as “cash cows” by having children for government payouts – shows the level of contempt the government has for the sector.

Charities are often the last line of defence for the disenfranchised – those at the coal face of ecological disaster, those without political power such as refugees – so restricting charities means also restricting the programs they deliver.

These bills and other proposed changes amount to all out attack on charities. They come in conjunction with much harsher laws for those arrested at peaceful protests in a number of states. Three Hunter Valley residents peacefully protesting a coal mine expansion currently face seven years in prison under these reactionary laws. The courts are yet to hand down their ruling in these cases.

The Foreign Donation Bill and other efforts by the government to silence debate will impact all Australians who deserve the right to have their voices heard through the charities they support.

A strong charity sector is a sign of a healthy and open society and those in power should do all they can to support and uphold this sector rather than stripping us of the important role we play in our democracy.

For information, see Hands Off our Charities and to make a submission, see Australia’s website.

Blair Palese is chief executive of Australia.