How we fixed a bad law that tried to silence us all.
I just want to say thank you.
Today we can celebrate our right to speak out for our living world. Moments ago, the amended foreign donations bill (or the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill) passed through the Parliament.
If you're one of the thousands of people who donated, signed petitions, or emailed or called a decision maker about this bill, thank you so much for standing up for our right to speak out.
This is a victory for our democracy. Australians expect charities like ACF to be able to speak up on the issues they care about.
I feel like this message won’t go anywhere near expressing just how amazing an outcome this is.
Somehow, together, we managed to push this from a bill that would have more or less shut down some advocacy organisations – including well known charities – to a bill we can say we support. This really is incredible.
To fully appreciate this win, let me take you back to November 2017…
At this point, ACF and other charities like us had weathered several years of attacks on the legitimacy of advocacy. There are so many ways that advocacy makes Australia a better place for all. We knew another attack was on the way, but what was to come was completely unexpected.
The “three bills” package was introduced into Parliament minutes after the marriage equality bill passed. And to be honest with you, we were shocked.
Framed by the government as a package of “national security” measures which would “update” our espionage laws and get foreign money out of politics, the bills added a wide range of new offences and masses of red tape which would have significantly impacted ACF’s advocacy work to protect nature – and raise the money to do it.
When I asked our in-house lawyer Elizabeth what she thought of the proposal, she replied “This just can’t happen. We have to stop it”.
Unfortunately for us, the political climate was also extremely challenging at the time. Both parties had reasons to want the bills passed, and it looked like advocacy organisations might wind up as collateral damage.
It was really scary.
It was clear we needed to change the politics, and we couldn’t do that alone. So we brought together the Hands Off Our Charities Alliance – a network of environment, health, international development, youth, religious, and service organisations.
This really was the most diverse and powerful alliance I’d ever seen. It’s kind of blown our minds actually. One silver lining to the government attacks on civil society was how it united us.
We began by organising a series of lobby days, media briefings, and political meetings and events – to showcase the breadth and growing power of our alliance to decision makers.
The ACF community – and supporters of dozens of other charities – swamped the parliamentary committee with a record-number of submissions. Everyone from academics to community groups told the committee they had to fix the bill.
We talked to everyone – cross-bench, Government, Labor and the Greens, and were literally in people’s offices until nine or ten at night. That’s the kind of intensive effort that it takes to move a bill once it’s in progress through the legislative process.
We worked with our allies to negotiate the text, line by line, to make sure we got a bill that would get foreign donations out of Australian politics without damaging our democracy. ACF has the political relationships and is a trusted ally across the sector, so together we managed to pull it off.
I know most citizens don’t get to make the case for which words should go into the next edition of Australia’s electoral laws – and actually have those words become law.
The reason I do is only because I get to surf in on a wave of ACF people power – our members, donors, supporters, staff, former staff – all the people who’ve built up ACF’s reputation over decades and keep it relevant and powerful today.
It’s such a thrill to get to work on behalf of our community to make the world a little bit better. And I feel the privilege immensely. So thank you.
Today we celebrate, and tomorrow we get back to what we’re here to do. To speak out for a world where forests, people, oceans and wildlife can thrive.
In the near future, we’ll launch new campaigns to fix our democracy. This whole sorry episode has galvanised us to get on the front foot.
Because in a healthy democracy, dollars don’t determine public policy – people do. That's why we’ll campaign for big, systemic change, to get big money out of politics and to make our government work for people again.