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‘Get rid of it and start again’

Charity leader says there’s a ‘simple first step’ to solving a legislative mess

John Falzon, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul National Council, has urged Parliament to act quickly to scrap an amendment to the Commonwealth Electoral Bill that he calls “simply inept.”

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The questionable amendment is Section 314 AEB(1)(a)(ii) of the Commonwealth Electoral Bill – a section the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended for deletion back in 2011.

Instead, in September 2017, the section was greatly expanded, with an amendment slipping through Parliament easily on the strength of an official explanatory memorandum that the St Vincent de Paul Society condemned as “misleading” because it “did not fully explain the implications of the change.”

The legislative change means that charities are now legally defined as a “third party” – the equivalent of an election campaigning organisation – if they engage in “public expression of views on an issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors in an election.”

This “third party” definition captures as many as 1000 Australian charities simply because they have spoken publicly about a social issue that may become an election issue in the future. They will have to estimate the costs of advocacy classed as political expenditure and report those to the government.

This “third party” definition captures as many as 1000 Australian charities simply because they have spoken publicly about a social issue that may become an election issue in the future.

Charities began to realise the far-reaching implications of the definition changes after the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Bill was introduced in December 2017, using the definitions in the expanded Section.

With “issue advocacy” now equated with political campaigning and electioneering, charities will have to shoulder the increased administration of reporting on their “political expenditure” from November 17 this year.

This is not the first time Australian charity leaders have been forced to try to protect their organisations’ work and resources from legislation that classifies their work as political campaigning.

“Charities will have to guess what issues that they have commented on that will be an election issue.” – John Falzon

In February this year, World Vision Australia’s Chief Advocate and Micah Challenge CEO Tim Costello told the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters that a proposed Foreign Donations Bill was a “very serious infringement” on “what we regard as civil society’s voice.”

Costello said the proposed foreign donations ban would be part of a “zeitgeist of silencing and gagging civil society” if “inconvenient views” were characterised as political campaigning.

He went on to tell Eternity News: “the bill posed a clear threat to religious freedom because of how broadly it expanded the definition of what was ‘political.’”

This week’s call by St Vincent de Paul’s John Falzon for Parliament to fix the problem quickly is an attempt to avoid the “massive confusion” that will come in November when charities must begin reporting.

“This amendment is simply inept. There may not even be an election called by November. Yet charities will have to guess what issues that they have commented on that will be an election issue, and hence which issue advocacy costs will be classed as being political expenditure,” Falzon said.

“There is a simple first step to solving this mess. Get rid of [this] Section … and start again.”

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