Christian charity organisation Anglicare is warning that the government's new foreign donations legislation is a direct threat to democracy that will silence those without the money to pay for lobby groups.
Legislation was introduced by the government into parliament at the end of 2017 as part of its crackdown on foreign influence in Australian politics. It required that charities spending more than $100,000 in the previous four financial years on policy advocacy to register as a "political campaigner", and ensure that any international donation over $250 was not spent on political campaigning.
Charities are warning that the effect of these proposed restrictions would mean that rather than separating out donations, and ensuring they comply, most charities would simply cease advocating publicly on the issues that matter to them.
"If we are going to stop charities talking about the way they see the world, then that is an absolute and direct threat to democracy," Anglicare Australia's executive director Kasy Chambers told BuzzFeed News.
Chambers said charities were often able to shed light on issues that governments might have missed. Anglicare often provides information to the public about rental affordability and jobs data, and both would potentially be considered political campaigning under the proposed legislation.
"[People] are generally coming to us in times of crisis," Chambers said. "It puts us in a really unique position to bundle all that experience together, and take it to leaders, take it to the public to say, 'This means there's a housing crisis', or 'This means we need to do something about older people who are coming to aged care without an adequate pension'."
If charities just stuck to their knitting, to paraphrase home affairs minister Peter Dutton, then change would not be achieved, Chambers argues.
"If all we did was to keep it to charitable acts, well, we wouldn't have ever changed anything."
Red Cross Australia CEO Judy Slatyer told BuzzFeed News in a statement that charities should be free to advocate on behalf of people who are powerless or vulnerable.
"We need a regulatory environment that respects and encourages charities’ participation in public policy as the free exchange of opinions, information and ideas is vital in an open democratic society," Slatyer said.
The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) this week conceded the reason it donated to Australian political parties was to "provide additional opportunities for the MCA to meet with members of parliament".
Chambers said that under the proposed legislation, such organisations would still gain access to lobbying opportunities, but that it would be much harder for those without the money to make donations to have a seat at the table.
"Those [MCA] voices will be right there in front of the public, but the people whose voices will be silenced are the ones who can't afford to pay for advocacy, but are coming through the charities," she said.
Human Rights Law Centre executive director Hugh de Kretser told BuzzFeed News that the public advocacy component of the legislation may lead to organisations keeping their lobbying to the government private.
"The irony is that the legislation generally only applies to public activities," he said. "One perverse outcome if the legislation is passed in its current form may be that it drives advocacy out of the public realm into less transparent private advocacy with MPs and others."
The new compliance measures were "complicated and silly," Chambers said, saying the work required to ensure all donations over $250, including anonymous ones, came from Australian citizens would be "a real headache".
De Kretser said that the requirements were complex, cumbersome, broad and vague. One requirement, for example, would require senior staff and board members of charitable organisations to disclose if they are members of political parties.
The government has argued that exemptions to some reporting requirements make it easier for charities to continue their advocacy work, but de Kretser said that the legislation still carries big fines and potential jail time for those found to be in breach.
"Much of this compliance burden applies regardless of whether or not the charity receives international philanthropy, and there are severe penalties for non-compliance," he said.
De Kretser argued that charities were already well regulated and prohibited from supporting political parties and candidates.
"By law, they can only advocate for their charitable purpose, which must be for public benefit," he said. "This legislation stems from an ideological opposition to charities speaking up in public about the work they do, whether it’s helping the homeless or defending the environment."
A High Court challenge looms
The ability for charities to speak up on political issues has been brought before the High Court before, with the 2010 Aid/Watch ruling finding that the organisation was not disqualified from its charitable status despite part of its purpose being to campaign about foreign aid.
De Kretser indicated the legislation could be challenged as a restriction on freedom of political communication.
"There [are] serious doubts about the legality of the proposed legislation," he said."[It] would discourage and suppress public comment. Given the lack of justification offered for the legislation applying to charities, we think there [are] serious risks that the legislation would be invalid if it was passed in its current form."