I wish to alert you to the far-reaching consequences of planned changes to our national electoral laws for average Australians like me and for the essential work of charities that act on my behalf.
The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017 currently before the Australian Parliament is going to make it harder, if not impossible, for the least powerful members of Australian society to be heard.
The federal government has publicly declared the planned changes are intended to remove foreign funding of Australian elections, but I am now aware that they go way beyond such reform.
This Bill goes to the extreme of constraining the fundamentals of civil society and democracy by smothering the voices of charities and not-for-profit organisations, and severely restricting their ability to advocate for First Australians, the poor, the homeless and the ill.
The Bill would also heavily constrain or ban charities from receiving international philanthropic donations, which are necessary to support and advance a wide range of activities that funding from our governments and donations from Australians cannot achieve on its own.
International philanthropy, such as from the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation among many others, is contributing significantly to better public health, breakthrough medical research, improving access to education, supporting the rights of Indigenous Australians and the protection of our shared environment.
I was shocked to realise that this Bill would result in participation in political discourse – my participation in ordinary community debate – being regarded as partisan actions to influence the outcome of an election.
Under the guise of resisting foreign influence, this Bill suggests that all advocacy is partisan electioneering, that politics itself is a subversive and dangerous activity when it involves community groups, and that the intense scrutiny and public exposure of everyone involved in seeking change is required.
This Bill also includes onerous fines and in some cases, prison terms, for a charity and its staff for even minor administrative oversights.
For example, the inadvertent receipt of a donation of over $250 from ‘non-allowable’ donors, or deposit of such a donation into the wrong bank account, could expose a charity’s financial controller to up to 10 years imprisonment, or significant financial penalties, or both.
The activities of charities are already strictly regulated by the Charities Act 2013 and the existing Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 and are overseen by the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission (ACNC).
Restricting advocacy by charities not only sends a deeply troubling message that government is seeking to avoid accountability, it also would have a chilling effect on informed public debates that are necessary for our democracy.
The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is conducting an inquiry into this new legislation that will gag charities as they advocate for Australians in need and is due to report to Parliament soon. For the good of Australia, I implore you to work to have the Bill withdrawn so that it may be redrafted to remove these perhaps unintended consequences for charities and not-for-profit organisations.