PIAC has joined with other charities and non-government organisations in criticising the Commonwealth Government’s Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017.
In its submission to the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, PIAC identified serious flaws in the proposed legislation, and particularly its adverse impacts on charities, trade unions and other civil society bodies.
If passed, the Bill would impose significant restrictions on organisations where they engage in ‘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)’.
Such an expansive definition captures the vast majority of legitimate participation in important public policy debates, around issues like health, education, justice, and the environment, and particularly discussion around laws and policies that affect the most marginalised groups in society, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. To exacerbate its over-reach, the definition also applies irrespective of when this activity occurred during the election cycle.
Organisations that spend more than $100,000 on these activities – in any financial year out of the previous four – would be subject to a complete ban on foreign donations over $250 or, if they are a registered charity or trade union, a requirement to manage all such donations separately, and not use them for participation in public policy debates.
While PIAC accepts that banning foreign donations to political parties and candidates contesting an election is justified, extending this ban to other groups, including charities, is not.
Other requirements in the Bill include disclosing the organisation’s finances, including auditor’s reports, as well as the details of senior staff and/or board members. Even organisations that spend as little as $13,500 on ‘the public expression of views on an issue that is… likely to be before electors in an election’ will be captured by restrictions on foreign donations and other onerous reporting requirements.
Perhaps the most extreme aspect of the Bill is a requirement for all of these organisations (whether they spend $100,000 or just $13,500) to disclose the political party memberships of senior staff and/or board members. This is a contravention of the freedom of association, which may see affected people resign or suspend their memberships to avoid disclosure.
The net effect of all of these restrictions will be to discourage trade unions, charities and other civil society bodies from contributing to public policy debates. It would narrow the range of voices that are heard, including those that speak up for the most vulnerable in society, and stymie free, informed and robust discussion.
If passed, especially in its current form, PIAC believes that the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017 would harm Australian democracy.