Originally published in The Australian Financial Review on October 1, 2018

by Richard Denniss, Chief Economist at The Australia Institute.

[Published in the Australian Financial Review 02.10.18]

Was the campaign by the banks to prevent a royal commission into their behaviour “political” in nature? Was the campaign by the Catholic Church to oppose same-sex marriage “political” in nature? And was the campaign by the mining industry to repeal the mining tax “political”?

While the ability to influence legislation is a KPI for most business peak bodies, when environment groups or charities express a view about public policy they are increasingly told to stay out of politics. Indeed, the Coalition government held an entire inquiry into the tax deductibility of environmental organisations that had the temerity to advocate for stronger environmental protection laws.

Minister for Resources Matt Canavan said at the time: “We’ve got about 100 or 150 organisations that are engaged in activity which seem to have their purpose at stopping industrial development. Not just mining. Some of those developments include tourism developments or agricultural developments. But engaging in what I would view as the political debate, not the environmental debate.”

It’s not clear what Minister Canavan’s view of the eagerness of the mining industry, the banking industry or the Catholic Church to participate in “political debate” is, but it is clear that his government is proposing to legislate more red tape to further constrain the activities of charities and environmental groups that speak up. For example, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill, if passed by the Senate, would further limit the ability of charities to raise money for their advocacy and speak clearly during election campaigns.

The fact that charities receive tax-deductible donations is often used by conservatives to argue that they should stay out of public debate, but of course when BHP pays its membership fees to the Minerals Council of Australia and The Business Council of Australia, those membership fees are a tax-deductible expense. And there is absolutely no doubt that the Minerals Council of Australia and the Business Council of Australia see themselves as having an active role in endorsing policy positions and political parties.

But consistency and principle play little role in modern Australian politics where powerful interest groups have replaced powerful ideas. Take, for example, the Coalition’s alleged pursuit of deregulation. While Coalition MPs have given many fine speeches on the need to remove red tape, Hansard also shows that whenever the opportunity to use regulation as a weapon against unions, NGOs or charities presents itself the Coalition is an enthusiastic regulator.

The murky side of transparency

Similarly, while the Liberal Party often bemoans the rise of political correctness and emphasises the importance of free speech, in practice the Liberals, at both the state and federal government levels, have curbed the freedom of many organisations to speak freely via changes to electoral laws, charity laws and even contractual clauses in grant agreements with NGOs.

And then there is public sector efficiency. Despite the fact that Coalition MPs like to talk about doing more with less, the Morrison government is proposing to duplicate the reporting obligations of a wide range of charities which, in turn, means duplicating the number of public servants required to process and monitor those reporting obligations. The Electoral Funding and Disclosure Bill would oblige charities that already have extensive reporting obligations to the Australian Charities and Not for Profit Commission (ACNC) to provide similar information to the Australian Electoral Commission. Groups have raised concerns about the waste and duplication of the new Disclosure Bill, with the Community Council of Australia’s submission stating that “Unlike most players competing to influence national policies, charities face restrictions on their activities enforced by the ACNC which has significant powers … CCA believe any public reporting of electoral expenditure would be better reported by charities through the ACNC.”

And finally there is the issue of states’ rights. The Coalition has proposed provisions within the new Disclosure Bill that would override state government restrictions such as the NSW and Queensland bans on political donations from property developers. In the words of Professor Graeme Orr from the University of Queensland, sections of the new federal bill would “limit existing and future state and territory laws”. Professor Orr argues that “this will reduce transparency, which is ironic because the whole point of this bill is it was supposed to be about increasing transparency”.

It’s intriguing that many of the groups and politicians who objected most loudly to a royal commission into the banks are just as opposed to the need for a federal corruption watchdog. There is no doubt that Australia needs to improve the accountability and transparency of its political class, but there is also no doubt that the Disclosure Bill currently before the Parliament will tilt the political playing field even further in favour of powerful industry groups while undermining existing state government restrictions on property developers.

Rather than silence voices it would make more sense to create a new watchdog to give voice to criticism.

Richard Denniss is the chief economist for The Australia Institute @RDNS_TAI

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