Charities in Australia will be silenced from speaking publicly on issues in an election, under law reforms announced by the Australian Government, the Human Rights Law Centre says. The Prime Minister, the Attorney-General and the Special Minister of State last week outlined plans to ban international donations to charities that engage publicly in election issues.
Emily Howie, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, said that the Bill goes too far and will dissuade charities from speaking out on the issues that they were formed to address.
“The government’s proposed funding ban will stymie free, informed and robust public discussion. Charities have enormous expertise to contribute, drawn from the work they do, whether it’s running a homeless shelter or protecting the environment. When you sideline charities from public discussion, you silence the voices of the most marginalised people, undermine good policy making and, ultimately, diminish our democracy,” said Ms Howie.
The proposed Bill demonstrates the alarming extent to which Government action is undermining healthy public discussion debate in Australia.
“The new law could have absurd consequences: silencing health charities from speaking out on vaccination or preventing green groups from defending the environment. There is a clear rationale for banning international donations to political parties, but no case has been made that the same is necessary for charities. The Parliament should exempt registered charities from this legislation and protect charities’ ability to stand up for the interests of the communities they serve and the issues those communities care about,” said Ms Howie.
“Unfortunately, this announcement is consistent with a broader, undemocratic trend of government attempting to silence the not-for-profit sector, through gags in funding agreements and threats to hamstring advocacy groups’ ability to fundraise. All governments find criticism of them inconvenient or uncomfortable, but that’s part and parcel of a good democracy,” said Ms Howie.
Recent polling shows that Australians overwhelmingly (76%) support charities having a public voice on issues they were established to address and a majority (55%) believe that imposing restrictions on the ability of charities to advocate would result in a silencing of Australians and undermining of our democratic principles.
“Philanthropy, whether from Australia or overseas, has long provided crucial resources to Australian charities who have made Australia a better and fairer place to live. Instead of stifling the good work of charities, the government should be facilitating great and more robust public discussions,” said Ms Howie.
Details of the Bill
The proposed Bill will create a new class of “political campaigner” in the Electoral Act, which will apply to organisations that incur more than $100,000 worth of “political expenditure” in any of the previous four years or $50,000 or more in political expenditure where that represents 50% or more of their annual budget. “Political expenditure” is very broadly defined in the Electoral Act to include “the public expression of views on an issue in an election by any means”.
Government set to silence charities from participating in election debates (Human Rights Law Centre)
‘Chilling effect’: Charities slam foreign donations ban (Brisbane Times)
Smothering charities: the plot to keep critics quiet next election (Sydney Morning Herald)