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Charities welcome donation bill but warn advocacy is still compromised

Charities welcome the foreign political donation bill but said that they are still at risk of funding cuts for being critical of government

Charities have welcomed the passing of a bill to ban foreign political donations through the Senate, citing the prior bill would have stifled vital public advocacy.

The legislation for the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill cleared the upper house with parties making the issue a priority, paving the way for the ban to become law before the end of the year and freeing up public, political discussion.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) CEO, Kelly O’Shanassy, said: “The bill would have prevented many groups from receiving international philanthropy for important public interest work and would have had a chilling effect on charities and non-profits that hold governments to account and advocate for better polices.

“Silencing civil society would have disastrously weakened democracy in our country. [Thursday’s] bill is a significant improvement on the original proposal, addressing many of the concerns raised by charities and non-profits.”

O’Shanassy added that they particularly welcomed the change to the definition of ‘electoral matter’ as a substantial improvement on current legislation and will work to free charities from a significant red tape burden.

Government Senate Leader Mathais Cormann said changes to the electoral laws were needed in “good time” before the next federal election, as early as the first half of 2019.

“It’s a reform that seeks to ensure the electoral system in Australia is not subject to undue foreign interference,” Cormann told parliament, adding the “historic” bill would ensure all political actors were subject to disclosure and transparency requirements.

Donations of more than $100 to all “political actors”, which includes parties, individuals, candidates and significant political campaigners, from foreign governments and state-owned enterprises will be banned.

Charities will not be prevented from receiving foreign gifts but won’t be able to use foreign money for political spending. They will also not be prevented from using foreign donations to advocate for non-partisan issues.

The Human Rights Law Centre welcomed the electoral funding bill but warned that the bill “is not the end of the road on the democratic reform”.

The Centre’s Executive Director, Hugh de Krester, said: “The government must do more to address the influence large corporations have through election spending and lobbying. Further, charities across the country still face significant pressure from the threat of funding cuts in retaliation for advocacy critical of government policy.

“Charities and community groups do vital work building a better, healthier society. Our democracy is stronger when they are free to speak up.”

The Greens opposed the legislation, calling for a ban on all corporate donations. They cited that the foreign donations bill is not a real attempt at cleaning up democracy and warned that the bill may create a loophole for political parties to restructure their finances to avoid state developer donation bans, despite assurances from other MPs.

“The big money that is pouring into our parliament from vested interest is a fungating cancer on our democracy,” party leader, Richard Di Natale said.

O’Shanassy said that while the bill is an improvement, there is more work to do.

“A robust electoral finance and donations framework must do more to enhance transparency of donations to political parties and set caps on political donations and election spending.”

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