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Charities Are Warning That The Australian Government Is Trying To Silence Them On Political Issues

Which can be just about anything, really.

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Australian charities are angry about changes that would make it difficult for them to speak publicly about issues such as homelessness, refugees, drug policy, and anything else that might be even slightly "political".

As part of its attempt to crack down on foreign influence on Australian politics, the Turnbull government introduced legislation in the last sitting week of 2017 that would require charities and other organisations that spend more than $100,000 per year on political campaigning to register as political campaigners.

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The definition of "political campaigning" is broad. It includes any public views expressed on a registered political party, candidate, or MP; public expression on an issue that is likely to be part of an election; and commissioning an opinion poll or research relating to an election, or voting intention.

Charities falling under this new class of political campaigners will need to register with the government, and ensure that funding received from foreign donors is not used as part of any campaign about an issue that might be deemed political.

Additionally, political campaigners under this new classification will need to show the government that every donation over $250 was from an allowable donor (i.e, Australian).

Under the legislation, charities have an exemption that would only require the charity's financial officer to sign an annual statement declaring it had complied with the act.

Despite this, charities are concerned that the legislation would have a serious effect on their social justice work.

St Vincent de Paul Society this week said that governments were frequently unhappy with the social justice work that charities undertake, but that doesn't mean they should be stopped.

"While governments usually approve of the direct charitable works that charities do, they are often unhappy with the campaigns for justice that naturally flow from them," St Vincent de Paul Society said in a statement earlier this week.

"Ineffective governments put onerous restrictions on charities to try and curtail this work. More competent governments, who are concerned with the welfare of their citizens, realise that justice work by charities helps society run more smoothly and governments to be more effective. This is because such governments are more sensitive to inequities and can work with charities on fairer solutions."

When introducing the legislation last year, finance minister Mathias Cormann said that the exemptions provided to charities would cut out the regulatory burden without compromising the legislation. He said it was crucial that all bodies were covered by the foreign donations ban.

"It is important that third party campaigners are covered by the measures in the bill to level the playing field. Banning foreign gifts to political parties, but allowing third parties to use foreign gifts to incur political expenditure, would have the effect of allowing foreign interests to fund political campaigning by some entities but not others," he said.

St Vincent de Paul, however, said that it would still have a "chilling effect" on some charities speaking out.

"The ultimate effect for charities will be a set of complex, cumbersome and costly administrative requirements," its statement said. "This will force many charities to divert resources away from frontline services and advocacy. For some charities, it may also have a 'chilling' effect, deterring them from speaking out about injustices in order to avoid the onerous administrative costs that such advocacy would incur."

The Australian Council of Social Service CEO Cassandra Goldie said last month that charities should still be able to undertake advocacy work, even with donations from overseas.

"International philanthropy funds health and medical research, work in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, education, protection of our environment and essential poverty alleviation," she said. “Charities assist people, they are not political parties."

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Several local and international philanthropic organisations including 350.org, Australian Conservation Foundation, WWF, Oaktree, Save the Children, and the Human Rights Law Centre have banded together to campaign against the proposed change.

Labor has flagged concerns about the proposal. Shadow minister for charities and not-for-profits, Andrew Leigh, said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that there is a difference between politics and policy.

"There are fundamental differences between the role of charities in our political and policy debates, and the roles played by political parties and their associated entities," he said.

"Our hardworking charity sector is one of the most trusted parts of our society and it needs a government that works with them, not against them."

In December, Greens senator Rachel Siewert announced that the Greens would seek to move amendments to the legislation to ensure that charities and not-for-profits can continue to receive international philanthropic donations to undertake advocacy for policy outcomes.

Submissions on the legislation are being accepted until January 25.

Josh Taylor is a Senior Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Josh Taylor at josh.taylor@buzzfeed.com.

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