Legislation introduced to federal parliament today would make it harder for charities and community groups to engage in important national debates and would have a chilling effect on Australia’s democracy, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) said.
Ben Morton, the Assistant Minister for Electoral Matters, this morning introduced four pieces of legislation, including one that would significantly lower the threshold for the ‘political campaigner’ classification, meaning more community groups would be subject to onerous reporting requirements and restrictions.
“Lowering the threshold for who is considered a political campaigner might seem a small change, but it would have the effect of silencing community voices,” said ACF’s democracy campaigner Jolene Elberth.
“The proposed changes imply that advocating for a safe climate and a healthy environment is the same as campaigning for a political party.
“Charities have no issue with further transparency, but we are not the same as political parties and should not be treated as such. Charities exist for a charitable purpose, while political parties exist for the purpose of getting elected and holding power.
“Some of Australia’s most precious environmental jewels – including Kakadu, the Daintree, the Wet Tropics and the Barrier Reef – are protected because of the advocacy of charities.
“The existing ‘political campaigner’ threshold was determined after extensive consultation with civil society only a couple of years ago. Two recent committee reviews looked at this matter and heard strong recommendations from charities to retain the present classifications.
“The committee that recommended lowering the threshold provided only two paragraphs of reasoning for this proposed change and did not give any evidence or reference submissions it had received. This is not evidence-based policy making.
“Elections are crucial times for charities to elevate important issues and highlight policy reforms in the public interest. This enriches public debate and feeds better policy making.
“The government should encourage many diverse voices during election campaigns, not seek to silence them, as these bills would do.
“Protecting the community’s right to advocate is critical to maintaining a healthy democracy where all voices can be heard, not just those backed by powerful vested interests.”