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Religious Freedom under threat as government targets charities

Leaders of Christian charities have warned that the government’s proposed Foreign Donations Bill is a threat to religious freedom that could divert resources away from frontline services and deter charities from speaking out about injustice.

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The proposed bill is aimed at limiting foreign donations to Australian organisations. It is part of a range of legislative changes that the government has proposed with the aim of cracking down on foreign interference in Australian politics, that are currently being considered by a Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

Tim Costello, Chief Advocate of World Vision Australia and newly announced CEO of Micah Challenge, told Eternity that the bill posed a clear threat to religious freedom because of how broadly it expanded the definition of what was ‘political’.

“I’m going to be speaking up on the issues that cause people to be hungry, naked and imprisoned. The government wants to call that ‘political’. I call it prophetic.” – Tim Costello

“Matthew 25 makes it clear that what will be asked of me on judgment day is what I have done for the hungry, the naked, the prisoner. So I’m going to be speaking up on the issues that cause people to be hungry, naked and imprisoned. The government wants to call that ‘political’. I call it prophetic. That’s why this bill is a threat to religious freedom.”

When Costello addressed the Joint Committee on Wednesday, he likened the bill to attempts to stifle dissent in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Costello described the proposed ban as a “very serious infringement” on “what we regard as civil society’s voice,” saying it would be part of a “zeitgeist of silencing and gagging civil society” if “inconvenient views” were characterised as political campaigning.

Under the bill, charities would be required to register as a ‘political campaigner’ if they spent $100,000 or more on ‘political expenditure’ during the current year or any of the previous three years. The bill defines ‘political expenditure’ very broadly, and includes “the public expression of any 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)”.

“The ultimate effect for charities will be a set of complex, cumbersome and costly administrative requirements.” – St Vincent de Paul briefing note

The St Vincent de Paul Society’s briefing note on the bill explains that it means, “whenever a charity comments on issues such as homelessness, low levels of allowances and pensions, low wages, refugees and asylum seekers, electricity costs and a host of other subjects, the costs associated with making these comments would be deemed political expenditure.”

The briefing note warned, “The ultimate effect for charities will be a set of complex, cumbersome and costly administrative requirements. This will force many charities to divert resources away from frontline services and advocacy.

“For some charities, it may also have a ‘chilling’ effect, deterring them from speaking out about injustices in order to avoid the onerous administrative costs that such advocacy would incur.”

 

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