ABC NEWS RADIO
THURSDAY, 2 DECEMBER 2021
SUBJECT: The Morrison Government continuing to attack Australia’s charities.
GLEN BARTHOLOMEW, HOST: Andrew Leigh, a Labor MP, has been very vocal in speaking out against this bill and he joins us now. Good afternoon.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT MINISTER FOR TREASURY AND CHARITIES: Good afternoon, Glen. Great to be with you.
BARTHOLOMEW: To be clear, remind us why you and the Labor Party had opposed the government's original political campaigners bill and what would it mean for charities and single issue groups?
LEIGH: If Labor done nothing yesterday, then we would now have voter ID requirements at elections and the threshold for disclosing as a political campaigner would have been brought right down to $100,000-
BARTHOLOMEW: Explain to people just what this political campaigners bill involves?
LEIGH: Sure. So third party entities are required to register as political campaigners if they have electoral expenditure above a certain threshold. That's currently half a million dollars. The government wanted to bring it down to $100,000, and Labor took the view that it was better to have it brought down to $250,000 rather than just have the government’s changes go through unamended. We've been fighting strongly for charities over the last eight years, fighting against a war on charities on all fronts. We had a good win last week, defeating the government’s attempt to make it easier to deregister charities for events like simply trespassing or blocking a footpath. On this one, we would have liked to seen the government defeated with its attempt to put more paperwork burden onto charities. But when we couldn't defeat it, we took the approach of trying to at least reduce its worst aspects on charities.
BARTHOLOMEW: You say because you couldn't defeat it, you say it was clear that there was not enough crossbench support to defeat the government or refer the legislation to an inquiry. Which crossbenchers were supporting it?
LEIGH: Look, I don't want to go into particular-
BARTHOLOMEW: Well, the numbers do matter on that argument, do they not?
LEIGH: No, they do. They do. But I want to maintain the confidentiality of those conversations. But just make very clear to your listeners that if Labor hadn't acted, this bill would have passed unamended.
BARTHOLOMEW: The chair of the Community Council for Australia Tim Costello - he’s been vocal as well, opposing this bill - says despite Labor claiming that crossbencher Sterling Griff was voting for it, he told him he was not. Did you get these numbers wrong?
LEIGH: No, we didn't. We're absolutely confident of the numbers. And let's be clear, if there had been public statements by a raft of crossbenchers saying that the political campaigners bill should have been voted down, we could have had that confidence. Labor made those public statements months ago. We were very clear throughout this process-
BARTHOLOMEW: Labor secured a number of amendments. What did they achieve?
LEIGH: They changed the threshold – it’s not down to $100,000, but down to $250,000, which means that two thirds of the entities that would have had to put in additional electoral returns now no longer need to do it. Of course, if we win office under an Albanese Labor government, we'd review those thresholds. We don't think they're right, and we would have preferred that this attack on charities from the Morrison Government hadn't gone through-
BARTHOLOMEW: So it still applies retrospectively, that these organisations that do trigger this requirement now have to go back and account for any political activity under this new definition?
LEIGH: It does. And look, that's again one of the concerns that we had about this bill, Glen. We would really have liked to have seen this bill defeated and I would love to be working with charities to make life easier for them and for the people they serve. I've been working with charities, talking about their priorities on reducing reporting duplication. There's this ludicrous situation right now where if you're fundraising you have to register in just about every state and territory. We ought to be able to fix that, but that hasn't been a priority for the Morrison Government.
BARTHOLOMEW: So do you concede that many organisations like the Australian Conservation Foundation and others advocating for some kind of political change will still be captured by this law?
LEIGH: Absolutely, and the Australian Conservation Foundation for example in the most recent year spent $472,000 in campaigning, so they were below the threshold, but of course would be above the $250,000 threshold-
BARTHOLOMEW: So have you sold out those organisations?
LEIGH: Not in the least. We were standing shoulder to shoulder with them-
BARTHOLOMEW: Until you weren’t.
LEIGH: We were always opposing the government's attempts to make this change. When it was clear that we wouldn't be able to block it, we got the best outcome possible for charities. Labor has always been standing with charities. We've done that through attacks on charitable advocacy on environmental charities, on anti-poverty charities, on legal aid charities. Now this is a government that wants charities to be seen, but not heard. Wants them to run soup kitchens, but not talk about poverty. To plant trees, but not talk about climate change. And that's unhealthy for the political debate-
BARTHOLOMEW: It’s said that there was a trade-off here, that you voted through the charity laws in the bid to get the coalition to drop its controversial voter ID legislation. The Financial Review reports the government had already all but given up on passing the voter ID bill, because of the threat by some of its own members to not support any government legislation until the PM acted against state vaccine mandates. There's no sign of that. So why did you have to act to stop something that looked unlikely to pass anyway?
LEIGH: I think that's an overconfident reading of where the numbers were on voter ID. I think it was absolutely the right decision of Labor to stop those voter ID laws, which would have been absolutely draconian in their impact, particularly on Indigenous communities, on homeless people, on younger people who don't carry ID with them. They would have made the next election a complete shemozzle as people queued for hours with electoral officials struggling to do the ID checks.
BARTHOLOMEW: But there were even concerns within the government being expressed about it. So I'm not sure whether the confidence is misplaced on both sides perhaps. Either way, the executive director of The Australia Institute Ben Oquist says the deal to pass this bill with amendments is a terrible democratic outcome. He says it was a bad process and a bad outcome done with no notice, little public explanation, and no sector consultation. Is that a pretty fair description?
LEIGH: Look, it's a fair description of the way in which the government approaches charities. I would have liked to see this defeated. Next option would have been it would have been good to send it off to a Senate committee for exactly the sort of scrutiny that Mr Oquist talks about and which he has written very articulately about-
BARTHOLOMEW: Did you consult the sector before changing your position on it, though?
LEIGH: We've been in constant contact with the sector, always trying to get the very best outcome for them. You know, I've had the privilege of having the charities portfolio for Labor since 2013, so I've got strong relationships across the sector. I don't think anyone in the charity sector doubts that I've got their back and that I will do all I can to ensure we get the very best outcome for charities-
BARTHOLOMEW: Some of them told me today that they thought it was a shocking outcome.
LEIGH: It is shocking when you've got a government which is constantly looking to undermine charities. It's challenging when you’ve got a government that's had three open letters written against it from charities, urging them to stop the constant attacks. It's challenging when you've got a very conservative Senate, where the government only needs a few extra votes in order to get bills through. But we delivered for charities yesterday the very best outcome that was possible. Labor will continue to do that every chance we get.
BARTHOLOMEW: I'm not sure they all see it that way. Will you commit to overturning this if you win government?
LEIGH: Again, that's going to depend on what the numbers are in the Senate. But certainly we'll commit to reviewing the thresholds. We didn't like the changes that were made. We didn't think that the changes that were made were necessary. The big commitment that I’ll make to charities is that if there's an Albanese Labor Government elected and I'm the Assistant Minister for Charities, that I'll be working with them to try and find out what are their priorities, how do we work with charities to build the strength of the voluntary sector. Nick Terrell and I wrote a book last year called Reconnected, about the need for Australia’s charitable groups to have a stronger voice. We need a greater culture of volunteering. We need to have a government that enables and empowers charities, and that's what Labor wants to achieve.
BARTHOLOMEW: Andrew Leigh, thanks for joining us.
LEIGH: Thank you, Glen.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.