Right now, the Turnbull Government is trying to ram through a package of laws that directly attacks the heart of our democracy in Australia. 

Never in Australia's history has our right to speak out for people and our planet been so under threat.

Egged on by the Big Coal lobby, the Turnbull Government is trying to silence criticism and severely restrict charities like us from speaking out for what really matters. 

If passed, these sweeping anti-democratic laws would have a chilling effect on public debate in this country. They would impose extreme penalties on civil society organisations advocating for good – for the air we breathe, the water we drink, the planet and people we love. They would stifle people speaking out.

The Turnbull Government introduced the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017 (EFI Bill) alongside the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017 and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017, just ten minutes after the marriage equality vote in Parliament on 7 December 2017.

Foreign Donations Bill 2017

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017 bill amends the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 to create a new category of ‘political campaigner’ and essentially bans foreign donations to organisations that incur ‘political expenditure’ (defined very broadly, would capture issues-based charitable advocacy and applies all year round).

Impact: We are very concerned about this bill, as it would significantly shrink civil space for debate, dissent and advocacy. It would treat advocacy as a political act and set up infrastructure to further stifle charitable advocacy in the future. For organisations that rely on international funding (such as aid and environment groups), the impacts are potentially very severe.

Status: We’re concerned that having rushed the Espionage and Foreign Influence bills through Parliament, the Turnbull Government will now try to ramp up their attacks and pass this even more restrictive one.

We’re campaigning strongly to amend this bill. The Greens, Labor and a number of cross benchers have agreed to our Red Line guiding principles for fairer laws.

Espionage Bill 2017 (EFI Bill)

The National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and foreign interference) Bill 2017 is a frightening erosion of political freedoms and civil liberties which Australians take for granted, particularly the rights to freedom of opinion and expression and the implied right to political communication.

Status: The bill has passed the House of Representatives and is currently being voted on in the Senate.

Impact: The bill introduces proposed offences of sabotage, espionage and foreign interference and broadens the concept of “national security” to include “the country’s political, military or economic relations with another country or countries”. The proposed offences come with severe penalties (up to live imprisonment), coupled with this broad definition risks criminalising the legitimate actions of activists and civil society organisations. For example, contacting UNESCO to report on the mismanagement of the Reef by the Australian Government (as ACF recently did), could potentially be captured by the definition and be punishable by 25 years jail. Protest actions could also be captured. Protections for whistle-blowers are inadequate.  

Foreign Influence Bill 2017 (FITS bill)

The foreign influence bill introduced requirements to register as a ‘foreign agent’ – so if an organisation does things like discusses lobbying or public campaigning on an issue with a ‘foreign’ person or organisation. Being named on the register comes with a range of burdensome red tape, and high penalties for non-compliance.

Impact: Due to excellent advocacy by the ACF community and other organisations across civil society, this bill has been amended to exclude charities registered with the ACNC. This bill may still impact organisations that are not registered charities, however the effected activities are a small subset of their general campaigning.

Status: Passed the House of Representatives on 26 June, voted in the Senate on 27 June.

What can the ACF community do?

We are:

  • Keeping up the pressure on our elected representatives not to approve laws that take away our right to speak out. We've made significant headway (they didn't manage to ram through all bills at once and have made significant amendments to the Foreign Influence and Espionage bills) – our focus now is fixing the Foreign Donations bill. 
  • Continuing to lead the Hands Off Our Charities alliance so we can respond to the government’s threat as a strong, unified sector.
  • Keeping this important issue in the public eye by liaising with mainstream media and activating our community.

You can donate now to fund this urgent work and call key decision makers to share your concerns. We’ll keep you up to date with any developments.

Because we have the right to advocate, kids can snorkel the Great Barrier Reef with no oil rigs. We have Landcare and National Parks. When we get sick, we have Medicare. No one has to go into debt just to go to hospital.

This is what advocacy means. This is what's under threat.


Paul Sinclair

Campaigns Director at the Australian Conservation Foundation.