By Glen Klatovsky, Deputy CEO, Australia

Proposed law reform to ban foreign political donations – the Electoral Funding and  Disclosure Reform Bill – has been roundly condemned for bundling the charity sector in the same category as overseas political agents and lobbyists seeking to influence Australian elections.   

The big question is whether silencing and hampering Australian charities was always the intended effect of the draft reform, or whether charities were merely the unfortunate victims of poorly worded and ill-considered legislation.

The Minister for Finance, Mathias Cormann, has now clarified that position, confirming that the Government was explicitly targeting Australian charities.

Speaking in response to a Joint Select Committee on Electoral Matters report on the legislation, Senator Cormann said:  “The Government particularly welcomes the cross-party support for the Government’s core proposition that for the ban on foreign political donations to be effective it should apply to all relevant political expenditure, including political expenditure incurred by charities.

“Indeed, it has always been the Government’s view that to exclude charities from any ban on foreign political donations would make such a ban entirely ineffective as it would create a significant loophole.”

Community concerns over the bill have been expressed since it was initially drafted.  From the perspective of a broad coalition of Australian not-for-profit and charity groups,  the bill is one of the worst ever presented to an Australian Parliament, and should be thrown out.

This might seem a big call, but this bungled attempt to stop foreign influence on Australian politics puts in jeopardy the work of hundreds of Australian charities.

Attempting to redraft this Bill would at best deliver a patched up mess, and at worst, ensnare Australian charities in a mire of red tape and hamper the vital work they do for our community.

The Bill is so bad that after consideration of its potential impact and listening to the complaints of the community, the JSCEM declared that the bill should be dramatically rewritten to avoid confusion between charities and political agents. It listed 15 recommendations that would have to be adopted before it could support in principle passage of the bill.     

The first two recommendations of the Committee’s majority report identifies how poorly drafted the Bill is with the failure to clearly define political activity or expenditure. That is a pretty fundamental problem. The second recommendation identifies the need to ensure the legislation does not capture “non-political issue advocacy”.

The Hands off our Charities alliance was created because of the attacks on charities by this government and this Bill demonstrates the intent of the government. The fact the JSCEM identified the current draft captures ‘non-political issue advocacy’ indicates the chilling impact this ideological attack has had on Australian charities.

The people of Australia want reform of political donations. This government has attempted to drag in Australian charities despite the complete lack of any evidence of a problem.

Senator Cormann’s comment last night is another clear example of the government’s intent: to silence the Australia community.