It is the biggest attack on the Australian charity sector you have never heard of.

On the eve of an election, with no notice, no public explanation, not even a media release, the Morrison Government has rushed retrospective amendments into the Parliament that would squash charities’ right to advocate, stomping on our democracy.

Instead of new policies to convince the electorate to vote for them, the Government is attempting to tilt the playing field in their favour for the coming election by restricting the freedom of charities to advocate.

The amendments contained in the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill have faced no Senate inquiry. Meanwhile, of course, the Government refuses to bring in important democratic legislation that has been years in the making – which, this week, led to the humiliating spectacle of a Government MP crossing the floor, backing in Independent MP Helen Haines’ move to bring on debate for a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, to investigate corruption at the highest levels.

It has been 1080 days since Australians were promised a Commonwealth Integrity Commission, and still nothing has been introduced. Now, in an outstanding eight-day sprint at the end of parliamentary session, the Government is attempting to ram a charities crushing bill through with almost no public debate.

The irony of legislation that is supposedly aimed at increasing transparency having no transparency itself seems completely lost on the Government.

A Commonwealth Integrity Commission is not the only piece of legislation left to languish by this Government. Laws expanding protections for whistle-blowers and a private member’s bill that would finally restore the rights of territories to legislate for voluntary assisted dying, also continue to wither on the vine. Yet a bill that stymies the advocacy of charities is deemed important enough for Government to rush through.

The Government’s amendments have received almost no public attention, except from the charities they threaten. The changes to our Electoral Act are complex and detailed, but their ultimate effect will be to silence charities’ advocacy and trap them in red tape.

Under the law as it stands, organisations with over $500,000 of “electoral expenditure” in any of the last three years must register as “political campaigners”, as must smaller organisations that spend two-thirds of revenue on electoral expenditure. Once registered, these organisations must disclose details of their finances and donors, and are restricted in what international philanthropy they can receive.

But now the Government proposes changes to dramatically expand the definition of “political campaigner”, lowering the threshold to $100,000 of electoral expenditure in a year, or one-third of revenue. The law would be retrospective, meaning that organisations that spent less than $500,000 on electoral expenditure in previous years would be captured – even though they followed the law at the time.

As if it were not difficult enough to get your head around the planned changes, the Government surprised everyone this week by releasing new amendments to its own amending bill. The changes would expand “electoral matter” to include any spending “in relation to an election” by a political campaigner.

Introducing a vague, broad category risks miring charities in red tape. The Australian Electoral Commission’s instructions to charities already require a great deal of nuance to explain what does and does not qualify as “electoral matter”; expanding that to anything “in relation to an election” serves up a lawyers’ picnic of semantics and fine distinctions.

Lumping everything together as “electoral matter” conflates issues-based advocacy and partisan advertising. There is a big difference between an environmental charity running ads calling for Australia to adopt a genuine net-zero emissions target and a political party running ads for a particular candidate.

Last-minute changes hardly engender confidence that the Government has thought through the consequences of their legislation, which has serious economic and democratic implications.

While the contribution Australia’s charities make to our community, environment and the lives of vulnerable people is obvious, their economic contribution is not well appreciated. In 2017, Deloitte Economics estimated the economic contribution of Australia’s charities at $129 billion a year, including the direct employment of 840,500 full-time equivalent workers. This is nineteen times more employees than coal mining in Australia.

These amendments threaten the legitimacy and ability to fundraise, of a sector roughly as large and economically important as the retail sector – but the Government would never dare rush legislation that attacked the retail industry, or change it last minute without consultation.

Charities are rightly concerned about the effect these retrospective legal changes would have on their reputations and fundraising efforts. Unfortunately, politics has become a dirty word. Engaging with politics is seen as tainting the person or organisation that does it. The “political campaigner” label is particularly dangerous because it writes off the entire organisation. Many larger charities that spend the vast bulk of their donations on direct service provision will get tarnished because they also – quite rightly – engage with the political process to address structural problems.

It is for these reasons that over 80 charities called on the Government to scrap their bill – and that was before the latest round of vague, rushed amendments.

These changes represent a concerted attack on charities, our democracy, and the right to advocate for positive change. What will come of the laws now depends on the Senate, and particularly three crossbenchers who have committed to send the bill to committee: Jacqui Lambie, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff.  How they vote will decide if charities get to contribute fully to the public debate at next year’s election, or if millions in donations will be wasted on bureaucracy and administration.

Originally published in The Canberra Times on November 27, 2021

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