Civil and human rights

Electoral funding bill - reform or suppression of civil society voices

NSWCCL recently joined with other CCLs to oppose the deeply disturbing Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill 2017.

This Bill will not deliver the reform to electoral funding that is urgently needed in Australia. It will however, deliver a devastating blow to civil society’s capacity to participate in political advocacy and to the broad freedom of political communication.  

In addition, it proposes a clumsy, heavy handed, costly and overly burdensome approach to regulation of the charity and political advocacy sectors. 

The stated objective

The Bill is part of the Government’s highly controversial package of proposed ‘national security and foreign intervention laws’ which the Prime Minister says are in response to ‘grave warnings’ about ‘unprecedented threats’ on this front.

The CCLs support the much needed reform of election funding at the national level. We accept that foreign funding of political parties and related entities (and politicians) should not be allowed to distort our democratic electoral process. We strongly agree that the integrity of our electoral system is fundamental to both our democracy and national sovereignty and to the restoration of public confidence in our political process.

Foreign donations and influence are, however, not the most significant factors undermining the integrity and fairness of the electoral process in Australia  and public confidence in the political system.  

Moreover, if foreign intervention damaging to Australia’s interests and democracy is the target, it is puzzling that the Bill excludes foreign or global private corporations which exercise considerable influence over political parties, government policy and even electoral outcomes.

The CCLs doubt that the Bill will achieve its claimed objective of protecting against foreign intervention in the electoral process.  

The hidden objectives

The CCLs main concern is that the ‘foreign intervention’ agenda is being used as cover to advance the Government’s long term attempt to deter major charities from public - and inextricably political - advocacy relating to their core constituency and to damage GetUp as an effective independent, progressive political advocacy body.  

The blatant attack on GetUp is achieved by amending the definition of an 'associated entity' so as to capture it - and other independent civil society organisations involved in political advocacy.    

This is done by conflating support for a  policy with support for a political party also supporting that policy.  

The Bill overrides the critical difference between an independent political advocacy organisation and a political party and its “associated entities”. The independent political entity takes advocacy positions on the basis of support for or opposition to policy matters - not on the basis of support for or opposition to political parties.

Based on recent history of GetUp’s progressive campaigning this proposal would almost certainly define GetUp  as an ‘associated entity’ of the ALP (presuming the ALP maintains progressive policies..) and the Greens.  As many point out- a rather bizarre outcome!

This would, as clearly intended, destroy GetUp’s  reputation as an ‘independent’ progressive  advocacy body.  It is its independence from the major parties which is the basis for much of its support.

The CCLs consider this an outrageous manipulation of the law. If enacted, this proposal will do immense damage to the vibrancy of legitimate political debate in Australia.  We note that if we met the expenditure threshold, this definition would capture all of the civil liberties organisations in Australia- notwithstanding our vehement non- partisan position re political parties. 

Charities

The most serious onslaught on large charities and environment/conservation bodies rests on the extraordinarily broad and contorted definitions of ‘political activity’, ‘political purpose’ and ‘political campaigner’ in the Bill.   The intersection of these expansive definitions will force most major charities to be registered as ‘political campaigners’.                

Having forced them into an inappropriate political category, the Bill will impose cumbersome, unclear and costly administrative, recording and reporting arrangements in relation to foreign donations -which in most instances are marginal to their overall donations. 

Charities defined as ‘third party entities’ will not be able to use foreign donations for ‘political’ work . This is not a marginal impact  because, as defined, that prohibits them from using these funds for much of their core charity work.

Charities defined as ‘political campaigners’ will be banned from accepting foreign donations over $250. For those charities involved in advocacy work of global significance (eg. World Wildlife or Results International) this will have a devastating effect.   Overall, no public good will be achieved by this.

Because it defines political activity and purpose so broadly, the Bill will create uncertainty and deep unease in the charity sector as to how its critical advocacy and education work will be defined. 

The CCLs reject the underpinning assumption of these definitional manoeuvres by the Government. The CCLs consider that charities are entitled to participate in political debate flowing from their core work. We reject the narrow view that the role of charities is simply to attend to the immediate needs of those they seek to help.

The outraged response of the CEO of St Vincent’s de Paul Society to this Bill is justified:

The ostensible reason for introducing this Bill is to deal with the threat of foreign powers interfering with our elections. There is no evidence that our major charities are a vehicle for foreign powers.”

“Rather, this Bill is aimed at muting the voice of charities and others who have been critical of the government. It is dangerous legislation that is not only a threat to charities, but to democracy itself.   (St Vincent de Paul website)

 

Next steps 

The Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters is reviewing the Bill and will report to Parliament by the end of March. The furore around the Bill has been huge - there are currently 148 submissions to the Committee and although I have not read them all, it is pretty certain that most will be opposed to the Bill's attack on charities and bodies such as GetUp.

The Government may have enough sense to reassess the outrageous and unwarranted proposals in the Bill.

The Leader of the Opposition has recently indicated that Labor will not support aspects of the Bill that stifle charities. We await detail but hope that this is opposition to more than one aspect of the constraints on charities and that it incorporates the attack on independent political advocacy bodies. The Greens have indicated strong opposition to the Bill.

The Government has indicated that the bills in its national security and foreign intervention package will be considered by Parliament in May. This Bill and the Espionage and Foreign Intervention Bill are the most controversial.

The CCLs will consider the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committees on these Bills when they become public and will continue to lobby the Opposition and members of Parliament to remove the many  proposals which will be toxic for civil society political discourse and to find a less clumsy and burdensome way of disclosing or preventing foreign donations influencing the Australian electoral process. 

On this front,  the CCLs will continue to argue that the most effective way to achieve much needed reform of electoral funding and protection of the integrity of the electoral process is to:

  • impose real-time, full disclosure of donations to political parties, associated entities, MPs and parliamentary candidates
  • a lowering of the current donation disclosure threshold from $13500 to $2000 or thereabouts
  • and urgently set up a widely based National Integrity Anti-Corruption Body.

 

Dr Lesley Lynch 

NSWCCL Vice President 

 

For more detailed information and our specific recommendations read the Joint CCLs' submission on the Bill. 

Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill 2017

 

 

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Religious Freedom Review

NSWCCL Submission: Religious Freedom Review

There are four areas in which rights might be better dealt with in Australian law: freedom of speech, (for and against religions), freedom to practise, freedom from discrimination and protection against hate speech and incitement to violence.

This submission is in the way of a statement of the NSWCCL’s general views on the issue and 
areas we think are in need of attention:

  • Human rights and Australia’s obligations: International law
  • Australian Law—a summary.
  • Four areas in which rights might be better dealt with in Australian law
  • The relation between freedom of religion and other rights.
  • The functions of a bill of rights.
  • Relevant sections of Australian bills of rights.
  • Balancing principles.
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Review of Guardianship Act 1987

New South Wales Law Reform Commission: Review of Guardianship Act 1987

 

We acknowledge that persons without decision-making abilities, or a limitation thereof, are
vulnerable members of society, and such persons should be supported to make decisions
concerning crucial aspects of their lives in order to be afforded an opportunity to live as
comfortably and freely as others. Hence, insofar as the draft proposals of the New South
Wales Law Reform Commission (‘NSWLRC’) on its review of the Guardianship Act 1987
(NSW) promote these individuals’ civil liberties in both the public and private domains, we
support the proposed changes to the current arrangements existing under the Guardianship
Act 1987 (NSW).


Overall, we strongly endorse the NSWLRC’s draft proposals because we believe that the new
framework, as contemplated by the Assisted Decision-Making Act, better protects and
promotes the civil liberties of persons affected than the schemes supported by the
Guardianship Act 1987 (NSW). As a result, this submission will be limited to only those
aspects of the NSWLRC’s draft proposals which could be improved to better protect civil
liberties of the persons affected.

 

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NSWCCL Submission: The Role and Function of the Legislation Review Committee

The Legislation Review Committee (LRC) was created as an alternative to the adoption of a
Bill of Rights for New South Wales. It has not functioned well, and is no substitute for such a
bill.

 

 

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Policy statement (2017) - voluntary assisted dying

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties has long supported the legalisation of Voluntary Assisted Dying measures.  While noting that, compared with existing VAD legislation in other jurisdictions, it is very conservative, the NSWCCL will actively campaign for the passage of the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill currently before the NSW Parliament.

Stephen Blanks comments that what is not before the public is advanced legislation in NSW and it will come to the table 15 November or sometime later next month. We have a motion which is very timely and in reflection in our long support the bill before the NSW parliament.

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Policy statement (2017) - national integrity (anti-corruption) commission

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties, alarmed at the corrosive effect of pervasive and serious corruption within, and related to, Government and public administration at the national level, strongly supports the urgent need for a national anti-corruption body.

This body should have a broad ambit across public administration (core public service bodies and public sector corporations), public sector contractors and parliament and politicians.

While such a body must have effective power to address current corruption, there must also be effective constraints and transparent oversight to ensure that the balance between the protection of individual rights and the fight against serious corruption is as well balanced as can be devised.

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Policy statement (2017) - national human rights charter

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties reaffirms its long standing active support for a national human rights charter.

The recurrent resistance of Australia’s politicians to a number of widely supported attempts to introduce a national human rights bill/charter over the last 44 years has left Australia as the only liberal democracy without either constitutional or statutory broad protection for fundamental human rights.

This has been a significant factor in allowing the proliferation of national laws which seriously and unwarrantedly breach human rights and liberties. The extreme manifestations of this trend in the areas of counter-terrorism and refugee law and policy in recent years necessitates a renewed community effort.

The NSWCCL will again give priority to joining other progressive bodies to campaign for an Australian Human Rights Bill in the context of the next federal election.

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Policy statement (2017) - marriage equality

The NSW Council for Civil Liberties, consistent with its long-standing support for GLBT rights, strongly supports marriage equality and urges the Australian Government and/or the National Parliament to amend the Marriage Act 1961 to achieve this equality. 

The current same sex marriage statistical survey is an inappropriate, seriously flawed and undemocratic exercise intent on delaying Parliament addressing the issue and generating divisive and harmful debate. Nonetheless, NSWCCL strongly urges the community to register a “Yes” vote so that Government has no excuse to further delay legislative action on this matter.

Regardless of the outcome of the flawed survey, NSWCCL urges the Australian Government and/or Parliament to address the issue in this parliamentary term and introduce and pass a marriage equality amendment consistent with clear majority support within the Australian community.

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Policy statement (2017) - defense of the union movement

NSWCCL affirms the role of unions as an essential part of the Australian democracy in the defense of workers’ rights and affirms their right to support other organizations whose activities accord with their own.

 

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National human rights bill resurfaces in Australian Parliament!

Australians might be surprised to know there is a new Bill proposing an Australian Bill of Rights before the Australian Parliament.

There has not been much stomach for active campaigning in support of a national Bill of Rights in Australia since the bitter and crushing disappointment of the Rudd Government’s failure in 2010 to act on the recommendation of the National Human Rights Consultation Committee (the Brennan Report) for a federal human rights act.  This surprising and weak betrayal of community expectations, following a year of extensive consultation and clear public support for a human rights act - and the subsequent loss of the 2013 election to the Abbott Government – put a long term dampener on the enthusiasm of all but the most determined of campaigners. 

Australia remains alone among western democratic states in not having a human rights act or charter.

In recent years the Australian Parliament has enacted numerous new laws - and the Australian Government has enacted numerous new policies and programs - which unwarrantedly infringe individual liberties and rights and are in clear breach of our international human rights obligations.

Without the protections afforded by a Bill of Rights, strong and persistent opposition to these laws from many sections of the community has been powerless to stop their passage. Professor Gillian Triggs, the recently retired President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, repeatedly warned of the dangerous consequences for the rights and liberties of Australians of this situation – and was outrageously vilified by the Government and sections of the media for so doing.

So it is with tentative optimism that NSWCCL applauds the introduction of the Australian Bill of Rights Bill 2017 into the Federal Parliament by the independent MP Andrew Wilkie -  with the support of independent MP  Cathy McGowan.   

It is a wide ranging Bill which Wilkie says is closely modelled on an earlier private member’s Bill introduced in 2001 by Dr Theophanous which did not get past a first reading. (2R speech 14/8/17)

 

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