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Laws governing political charities need to be changed: ACNC

The laws that govern politically-focused charities should be amended to allow the ACNC to more effectively act if policies are breached

Laws governing politically focused charities should be changed to allow for improved regulations or organisations will continue to stray, the charity regulator has warned.

Dr Gary Johns, Commissioner for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), said the regulator’s capacity to govern politically-focused groups is significantly restricted by existing laws and in order to stop organisations from straying into government debate, the laws will need to be overhauled.

Johns warned, however, that the tightening of these laws is not in his domain.

“I can’t be in the advocacy game,” he told The Australian. “What I will say is that if governments don’t like the present regime, which is built around a purpose test, then they have to do something else. And that’s probably an activities test.”

This comes as Labor and the Greens rejected submissions into new legislation for foreign donation spending, with Coalition-backed concerns over how charities operate and navigate political discussion both within and outside of Australia.

Greens Senator, Larissa Waters, said this legislation was a “dirty deal” that would only serve to keep money flowing back to the government and warned that it is a “fig leaf of a bill that’s actually just designed to keep attacking the charity sector”.

Johns said that if governments want charities to refrain from participating in political discussion it will have to rethink the governing laws. He added it was not the ACNC’s debate and responsibility lay with the government to change things.

Although the ACNC has been monitoring the ongoing political activities in the sector, Johns said it has been forced to operate within laws that make it difficult to strip an organisation of charity status due to the issue of identifying the motives.

“Political activity has to be a purpose that is politically aligned to a party or candidate. How do you prove that’s your purpose?”

The ACNC recently launched an investigation into the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria after its Executive Director, Stephen Elder, campaigned for political parties during the Batman by-election.

The regulator was scrutinised in the media for its handling of the investigation, despite it being in line with codes of conduct. Johns had to clarify the ACNC is a regulator that works independently of government direction.

“The ACNC is not directed by government to investigate charities, or to reach specific outcomes following an investigation.”

This comes amid pressure within the Coalition government to strip the charity status from organisations like Greenpeace, and the Australian Conservation Foundation in the lead-up to the federal election in May.

The government is still considering a review into the ACNC legislation, which examined the regulatory framework, red tape, powers and amendments.

Johns welcomed the 30 recommendations, particularly those that restricted the ACNC from being transparent with its investigations.

“The ACNC’s inability to make any comment in respect of whether it is (or is not) undertaking an investigation in respect of a complaint against a registered entity is harmful to the perception of the ACNC as an effective regulator,” Johns said.

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