'Chilling effect': Charities slam foreign donations ban

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses the media during a joint press conference with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Attorney-General George Brandis, at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday 5 December 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses the media during a joint press conference with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Attorney-General George Brandis, at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday 5 December 2017. fedpol Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Household-name charities receiving overseas funding would be prevented from advocating for social and environmental causes if their activity is deemed political, under a Turnbull government plan.

The government on Tuesday announced a foreign influence and interference package to "strengthen our democracy and ... ensure that decisions are made based on Australia's national interest, not anyone else's."

The measures include a bill to ban foreign political donations to all political campaigners, including interest and advocacy groups that "spend millions of dollars each year to influence voters".

The government will also seek to introduce a new class known as "political campaigners" into the Electoral Act. Such organisations would be forced to comply with the same disclosure and reporting requirements as a political party.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said the changes would not prevent charities in Australia from receiving and using foreign donations for non-political activities.

The Australian Electoral Commission defines political expenditure as involving money spent on expressing views on a political party, candidate, MP or election issue.

It also includes the printing and distribution of certain material and conducting opinion polling or other research relating to a federal election or the voting intention of electors.

Communities Council for Australia chief executive David Crosbie said similar laws introduced in Britain had a "chilling effect" on the charity sector.

The council's board includes the chief executives of World Vision, White Ribbon Australia, Save the Children, the RSPCA, the Smith Family and Wesley Mission. Some of the organisations receive overseas funding.

"All of a sudden any charity advocating for its cause, whether it be education, health, housing, the arts, welfare - is going to be deemed a political actor if they spend any significant resources on that," he said.

Global Health Alliance executive director Misha Coleman said research for cures and treatment for diseases such as HIV and malaria was largely funded by European and American sources, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"It's a subjective decision as to what constitutes raising awareness of [diseases] versus what is political campaigning," Ms Coleman said.

Philanthropy Australia chief executive Sarah Davies said registered charities should be exempt from the foreign donations ban.

"Trusts and foundations based overseas often take a global approach to achieving change and tackling social and environmental issues, and this may involve funding advocacy by charities in Australia," she said.

Political campaigners would be defined as an organisation that has incurred more than $100,000 worth of political expenditure in any of the previous four years, or which has incurred $50,000 or more in political expenditure where that represents at least half their annual budget.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said GetUp! was plainly "a political campaigning organisation", which had a political expenditure of more than $10 million in the lead up to the last federal election.

Get Up! campaigning helped defeat conservatives such as the Tasmanian Liberal Andrew Nikolic in the 2016 election, and the group is planning a 10-fold increase in its electoral reach in a bid to unseat more conservatives at the next election.

The group says just 0.5 per cent of its donations have come from overseas, and it voluntarily discloses more financial information than is required by law.

GetUp! national director Paul Oosting said the government's legislation attacks those who speak out against its policies and "does nothing to address the influence big business has on our politicians".

"The rivers of gold flowing from corporate donors like Adani, Exxon and Chevron stay open and industry bodies like the Minerals Council of Australia can continue to campaign unimpeded," he said.

"In stark contrast, the government is trying to weaken organisations that represent and support everyday people."

The Greens have pledged to move amendments to ensure charities and not-for-profit groups "can continue to advocate for policy outcomes, including those that receive international philanthropic donations".

This story 'Chilling effect': Charities slam foreign donations ban first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.