Charities' advocacy under threat: report

Posted on 03 Jul 2024

By Greg Thom, journalist, Institute of Community Directors Australia

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Proposed federal government electoral reforms could disproportionately affect the ability of charities to advocate on important causes during election campaigns, according to a new report.

Regulating Charities in Australian Elections, a report published by the Stronger Charities Alliance (SCA), found that charities have accounted for less than one per cent of electoral spending since 2006.

However, proposed changes contained in a bill to amend the Electoral Act could place a disproportionately large administrative burden on charities, leading to an increase in self-censorship during public debates.

The long-awaited but yet to be released changes by the Albanese government are designed to amend the way spending and donations are managed in the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

The research analysed spending patterns in Commonwealth, state and territory elections in what the SCA said was the first ever comprehensive assessment of how charities are regulated in Australian elections.

SCA spokesman Ray Yoshida said charities were a crucial voice in election debates, providing unique policy and community perspectives, yet the amount the sector had spent on communications and advertising over the past two decades had been dwarfed by other groups.

“A healthy electoral system is one where no single type of interest group dominates,” said Mr Yoshida.

“Charities contribute to this by being an alternative source of information for voters, but this is all at risk if new laws treat charities the same as political parties.”

A key plank of the Albanese government's electoral reforms relates to treatment of third parties – groups that campaign during elections but don’t field candidates, such as trade unions, business lobby groups, charities and not-for-profits.

Ray Yoshida
Stronger Charities Alliance spokesman Ray Yoshida.

SCA said charities differed from other third parties because they are legally prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates in elections and instead must engage in issues-based advocacy, which is closely monitored by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).

The alliance said charities have advocated for improved transparency in elections but are concerned that if the new rules don’t account for the unique way in which the sector operates, the changes could result in fewer community organisations participating in public debate during election campaigns.

“Charities want to be part of improving the integrity of the electoral system,” said Mr Yoshida.

“They can’t do this if they’re being drowned in red tape and shut out from election debates.”

Charity advocacy electoral spending graphic
“This report is a clarion call to ensure upcoming electoral law reforms allow charities and community groups to have a voice in our elections.”
Stronger Charities Alliance spokesman Ray Yoshida.

The report contains six recommendations:

  • Reforms should protect the involvement of charities in federal elections, given how under-represented their voices have been historically
  • The definition of electoral expenditure that applies to ‘third parties’ should not be changed, or if it is changed, it should not be broadened. The definition that applies to ‘significant third parties’ should be reverted to be the same as the definition for third parties
  • The threshold for achieving third party status should be independent of the disclosure threshold, and instead should be triggered when an entity reaches $20,000 in electoral expenditure
  • Third parties should not be subject to real-time spending disclosure but should instead have to submit a return within six weeks of an election. Significant third parties should disclose monthly in the lead-up to an election, and once in the final few days before the election

  • If donation caps are implemented, charities registered under the ACNC should be exempt, as recommended by Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM)

  • If spending caps are implemented, they should apply to all entities, including third parties and charities that are third parties.

Mr Yoshida said charities were different from political parties.

“We don’t make laws, we can’t form government, and we’re legally bound to pursue the public interest. New election rules need to recognise this.”

The alliance said if Canberra took a one-size-fits-all approach to electoral reform, voters would end up hearing more from political parties and powerful interests and less from the charity voices they trust.

“This report is a clarion call to ensure upcoming electoral law reforms allow charities and community groups to have a voice in our elections,” said Mr Yoshida.

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