Coalition continues attack on charities - Speech, House of Representatives


Since this bill is about political campaigners, I want to use this opportunity to speak about a political campaigner in the ACT who recently passed. Jilpia Nappaljari Jones died on 28 October 2021. She was a great Canberran and a great political campaigner. Jilpia was a Walmajarri native title owner from the Great Sandy Desert who was part of the stolen generations. She was taken from her family at the age of five and raised by foster parents in Queensland. She trained as a nurse and in 1971 helped to form the first Aboriginal community controlled health service in Australia, which is now known as the Aboriginal Medical Service Redfern. She worked with Fred Hollows, Gordon Briscoe and the team at the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program. She studied at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London. At the age of 50 she embarked on a new path, enrolling at the Australian National University. She graduated eight years later with majors in political science and history. In that year, 2003, she was made a Member of the Order of Australia and received an Australian Centenary Medal. She went on to work for AIATSIS, researching First Nations health, and made a gigantic contribution to the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people throughout the continent.

Jilpia was a political campaigner. She worked on the political campaign of my friend Chris Burke as well as being a strong supporter of the Labor Party here in the ACT. One of the Labor Party activists, Leah Dwyer, said that Jilpia always insisted that she call young party members—migaloos—'Bub', as we were, in Leah's words, ‘all part of her family, at the same table and in the same fight for equality and justice’. Jilpia went through extraordinary hardship in her own life but turned that into energy to campaign for a more just Australia. I acknowledge her here in the parliament and recognise the immense loss that her partner, John Thompson, must be feeling.

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021 lowers the electoral campaign expenditure threshold for individuals required to register as 'political campaigners'. Right now, there are two categories: individuals or entities with electoral expenditure of at least half a million dollars a year, or in any one of the three previous financial years, or entities for whom electoral expenditure constitutes at least two-thirds of annual income. They have to register as political campaigners and they are responsible for more onerous reporting requirement, as they should be. They also cannot receive foreign donations. Organisations which are currently registered as political campaigners include the ACTU, GetUp, the Minerals Council, the Minderoo Foundation, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Advance Australia, the CFMMEU, the AEU, the ANMF and the ASU.

And then there is a category of entities which are registered as 'third parties'. Third parties are those who have a lower electoral spend. They include charities such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Bob Brown Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the RSPCA, the St Vincent de Paul Society, the SDA, the United Workers Union, the CEPU and the NUW.

What this bill would do is reduce the income threshold for a political campaigner from $500,000 to $100,000 and reduce the electoral expenditure threshold from two-thirds of annual income to one-third of annual income. That's a massive impact on charities who are currently within that range of electoral expenditure of between $100,000 and $500,000. It brings them into a regime which requires significantly more paperwork. For a government that's constantly talking about removing the red tape burden, this is imposing a significant red tape burden on civil society groups and advocates.

Neither the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters nor the government has provided any compelling reason for reducing the thresholds which were put into place to take into account the level of advocacy provided by civil society groups and in recognition that advocacy is different from the kind of partisan political activity that the Liberal Party, the Labor Party, the National Party and the Greens party engage in. There is a rightful role for charities to be part of the democratic conversation, and the democratic conversation is better for the involvement of charities in it.

When the government last tried this on, last attempted to massively increase the reporting burden on charities that want to be part of the public conversation, that brought charities together. It didn't bring charities together in favour of the government; it brought charities together against the government. That is the Morrison government—uniting charities against it. Since the government came into office in 2013, there have been multiple open letters from the sector to successive prime ministers, calling on the government to back down on their attacks on charities. The Hands Off Our Charities alliance, formed in 2018, is a coalition of 44 charities and not-for-profits spanning education, human rights, animal welfare, the environment, health, climate change, disability rights and philanthropy. Its members include Anglicare Australia, Amnesty International, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Australian Council of Social Service, the Climate Council, Community Legal Centres Australia, the Human Rights Law Centre, Oxfam Australia, Pew Charitable Trusts, UnitingCare Australia, and Save the Children. What does Hands Off Our Charities have to say about this proposal? They say:

HOOC members are extremely concerned by this recommendation as many of the aspects of the EFDR Act, including the threshold for becoming a political campaigner, were very thoroughly consulted and considered prior to its enactment.

That's talking about the way in which the thresholds are currently set. Further:

Lowering the threshold for becoming a political campaigner would introduce a very significant compliance burden for many third parties and … would have a chilling effect on public interest advocacy in the lead up to elections.

Overwhelmingly, evidence in this area of law has been for more transparency of political parties, including reforms to introduce real time disclosure of political donations and to lower the donations disclosure threshold. Nevertheless, the Government has resisted these reforms on the grounds that it is a too high and unnecessary administrative burden for political parties. It is disappointing that the Committee is willing to ask third parties to take a substantial administrative burden for little extra transparency, while not offering support to key transparency reforms overwhelmingly supported by the Australian public.

That is the Hands Off Our Charities alliance speaking on behalf of 44 charities and not-for-profits right across the ideological spectrum.

This is yet another attack from the Morrison government on charities. We saw the period from 2011 until 2016 in which the formal position of the coalition was to get rid of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission—a one-stop-shop body set up after multiple independent reports called for the creation of a one-stop-shop body for charities. It is akin to the role that ASIC plays in a corporate context, but, from the coalition's campaign against the charities commission, we see the way in which they have such disregard for charities. They've gone through some six different ministers responsible for the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, and they only finally backed down on trying to kill the charities commission when they realised they couldn't get their repeal bill through the Senate.

What did they do then? In the hours after the marriage equality vote passing, when the nation was rightly focused on that important bill, the government announced that the person who would head the charities commission would be none other than Gary Johns, an appointment which is akin to putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank or Bronwyn Bishop in charge of politicians' entitlements. We've seen under Gary Johns a divisive approach taken to charities. He's somebody who in the past had attacked respected charities such as Recognise and Beyond Blue; who had referred to Indigenous women as ‘cash cows’; who had said that there was a great deal of what he called 'impure altruism' in the charities business; and who was best known not as a collaborator with charities but as a critic of charities.

The fact is that the Liberals don't want an independent charity sector. They don't want independent voices contributing to the public conversation. We've seen that time and again, with attempts to gag social service charities, to get environmental charities out of the public debate and to say to legal aid bodies that they should not have a say on issues of law reform. The coalition's view on charities is that it's alright for social services charities to run a soup kitchen but they shouldn't talk about inequality. They think it's alright for environmental charities to plant trees but they shouldn't talk about climate change. They think it's alright for legal aid workers to help an individual defendant in court but they shouldn't talk about the root causes of the rise in Indigenous incarceration. The coalition have a view that charities should be seen and not heard. That's why we have this continued spate of attacks on charities.

We're seeing it again at the moment, with an attempt to increase the powers of the charities commissioner to deregister charities for summary offences, which could include something in the order of trespassing or blocking a footpath. We've had religious charities speaking out about this, including Catholic charities, who sometimes organise Palm Sunday rallies for refugees, an activity which, if someone blocked a footpath, could see the responsible charity deregistered.

Now we have the extraordinary spectacle of Minister Sukkar not withdrawing his attempted regulation but propagating a new regulation. So he now believes that the power for charities to be deregistered if they engage in trespassing or blocking a footpath should remain but that it should no longer be possible to deregister them for causing emotional harm. I will leave it to Minister Sukkar to explain why the category of a charity that causes emotional harm is the sole category that he's decided to withdraw. But that change in no way addresses the concerns raised by the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation, whose bipartisan report has made clear that the government's regulation should be disallowed. I credit Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and her coalition colleagues, who have gone against Minister Sukkar and said that this regulation should be disallowed by the Senate, and I commend the work that those senators have done—along with my colleague Kim Carr, the deputy chair of that committee—to carefully scrutinise the government's proposals to make it easier for charities to be deregistered.

The simplest thing right now would be for Minister Sukkar to back down; to recognise that his own party room colleagues have said that his attempt to make it easier for Gary Johns to deregister a charity should be rejected; and not to play political games with One Nation with this new change, which doesn't go to any of the substantive concerns that charities and his own coalition colleagues have raised. Minister Sukkar is engaged in another fight against charities. Charities have had nothing but war waged upon them under the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. It's been more than eight years of war being waged on charities. Labor will do things differently. Labor will ensure we work with charities, not against them, respecting charities and respecting the valuable role that they play in public advocacy and in strengthening Australia's democracy.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.