New Federal Government legislation which aims to prevent foreign donors from having undue influence in Australian politics will impact on charities including community housing organisations that spend $100,000 a year on political advocacy, CHIA’s Executive Director Peta Winzar has warned.

The Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill is designed to tighten laws on allowable donations to ‘registered political campaigners’ and to political entities (parties, candidates, and organisations associated with a party). Organisations, including charities, will have to register as ‘political campaigners’ if they spend more than $100,000 a year on political purposes.

‘They will also need to supply details of directors and senior staff, including their membership of registered political parties. Civil penalties can apply to someone who incurs political expenditure without being appropriately registered,’ Peta says.

Organisations will have to keep records to show whether donations of more than $250 were from ‘allowable donors’ (generally an Australian citizen or permanent resident).

The legislation’s key clause defines political purpose to mean any of the following purposes:

(a) the public expression by any means of views on a political party, a candidate in an election or a member of the House of Representatives or the Senate;

(b) the public expression by any means of views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors in an election (whether or not a writ has been issued for the election);

(c) the communicating of any electoral matter;

(d) the broadcast of political matter (other than political broadcasts covered by the Broadcasting Services Act 1992); and

(e) the carrying out of an opinion poll, or other research, relating to an election or the voting intentions of electors.

If organisations spend more than $100,000 a years on advocacy, it will have to register as a ‘political campaigner’. The immediate impact of this will be extra record-keeping and a requirement to supply an annual return, within 16 weeks of the end of the financial year, which includes:

  • Details of directors and senior staff including membership of political parties;
  • Details of grants, contracts, payments and other benefits from the commonwealth, State or territory government which require discretionary decision-making
  • An auditor’s report, and
  • A signed statement that any foreign donations have not been used for domestic political purposes.

‘The government has also indicated that it wishes to remove charitable status from organisations whose sole focus is advocacy. If a community housing organisations lost its charity status, it could potentially face a significant increase in staff and other operating costs,’ Peta says.

The charity sector, led by ACOSS, has lobbied strongly against the Bill under the ‘Hands Off Our Charities’ banner and has called for all registered charities to be exempted from the Bill’s reporting and disclosure requirements.

‘However there is a strong public policy argument in favour of seeking to limit the influence of foreign actors on Australia’s democratic system,’ Peta says.

‘This is a complex area and CHIA has adopted a balanced response in its submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral matters, arguing that the Bill needs further consideration, and that there is a strong case for exempting charities that receive no or small foreign donations.’

The committee will report to Parliament by 6 March and you can download CHIA’s letter to the committee here.