BY STATON WHALEY
A Turnbull government bill banning foreign political donations in an attempt to keep politics less influenced from out of country interests has caught smaller political parties as well as not-for-profit charities in its crosshairs.
The Foreign Influence Transparency Bill is the most notable of three bills which have caused recent controversy. The bills together would mean that Australian political par-ties could not accept donations from foreign entities, which would seem like a positive solution to concern about Chinese donors with links to the Chinese Communist Party. What is not often mentioned is that large charities who depend on foreign philanthropy would no longer be able to accept these donations.
These charities often work toward solving social and environmental issues with smaller political parties, who also would be adversely affected by the bill through a change in the way parties are publicly funded. The current system is a flat amount per vote for parties that receive over four percent vote. That will be changed to a reimbursement system where campaign expenditure is covered.
According to a Greens spokesman, this “disproportionately affects small parties…because they don’t incur large amounts of po-litical communication expenditure relative to large parties, who do much more TV and radio advertisements.”
Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon says “When you look at the bill closely, firstly it fails to ban all foreign donations, and secondly it really is a cover for very sizable attacks on civil society: community groups, advocacy organisations. The overreach was so enormous that it would even capture overseas funding going to some universities, aid organ-isations, and groups working on marriage equality campaigns. It is really a shocking at-tempt by the conservatives, liberals and nationals, to try to mute the voice of groups they hate to see criticise them.”
“That’s what democracy is about. Ensuring that people can get up there…and have a say in the community.”
In a press release from GetUp, a charity and advocacy group that focuses on a wide range of issues, director Paul Oosting stated “The Government needs to withdraw the bill from Parliament and redraft it from scratch, this time in consultation with legal experts and stakeholders in civil society.” Oosting further called the bill a “dangerous, un-democratic piece of legislation.”
Oosting pledged “we will continue to fight these dangerous laws, which would result in fewer people being afforded a voice in public debate, less ability for civil society to ad-vocate for the values millions of Australians care deeply about, and a greatly reduced contest of ideas.”
The Salvation Army of Australia provides 1,000 specialised social programs and activi-ties in a vast network of other social support services, community centres and churches, providing assistance to more than 200,000 Australians. The organisation has a national annual operating budget in excess of $700 million.
In a response to the Foreign Transparency Bill the Salvation Army said that “positions of The Salvation Army on moral and social issues are decided upon
at an international level, which in turn influences a local response.”
The organisation is led by the General of the Salvation Army, who is not an Australian resident or citizen, which means that employees are classified as foreign principle.
Up to 10,225 persons within The Salvation Army in Australia would be required to regis-ter with the Scheme and pay the relevant fee annually.
The Salvation Army responded, “Surely, this must not be the intent of the Parliament and needs to be addressed at this consultative stage of the draft legislation…As one of Australia’s largest social welfare organisations, it is in the national interest for The Sal-vation Army to not have any increased administrative burden…, nor for it to incur addi-tional compliance costs than is absolutely necessary.”
Matthias Cormann, Minister of Finance, says the bill “makes sure that all relevant politi-cal actors are subject to the same transparency…The bill exempts any foreign donations towards non-political expenditure…but charities cannot fund political expenditure under our bill or under Labor’s bill with foreign political donations.”
What specifically falls under “political expenditure” and how it differs from advocacy seems foggy. Cormann told City Hub “As a significant political actor, GetUp should of course be subject to the same transparency and disclosure requirements as other politi-cal actors such as political parties.”
When asked if there would be a redraft of the bill, Cormann replied “No…We will press ahead with our proposed ban on foreign political donations for any relevant political ac-tor.”
Although groups like GetUp may influence politics through advocacy, they should not be punished, or cut off for doing so. It seems as if smaller parties, including the Greens, and charities, like the Salvation Army, are caught up in the middle of this bill and will see a either decline in funding, or a rise in costs to charities in the near future.