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