Time to party?

Attacks on charitable advocacy may compel some charities to form their own political parties, writes Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News.

Time to Party?, Pro Bono News, 12 April 2018

Is forming a political party on your board’s agenda for discussion? Maybe it should be.

Some politicians resent the advocacy of charities, especially during election periods. This is not new or surprising. What is new is that the current government is going a step further than previous governments by seeking to impose significant new accountabilities and restrictions on the public voice of charities.

In my appearances before parliamentary committees I have repeatedly been told by politicians that charities have become too involved in advocacy, too political, and at the very least, they should face the same scrutiny and accountability as political parties.

I always point out that under the Charities Act 2013, advocacy in pursuit of charitable purpose is considered legitimate charitable activity. Making political donations, supporting a particular candidate, supporting a particular party, handing out how to vote material etc. is not permissible under the act. Engaging in these activities means the charity is engaging in political activity.

I also emphasise that charities have an obligation to pursue their charitable purpose whether that purpose is to: protect the environment, improve educational outcomes, improve health outcomes, support marginalised people, encourage artists, provide housing to the homeless, reduce discrimination, reduce (global) poverty, or whatever the charity is registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission to do.

Charities cannot engage in activity that does not serve their charitable purpose. Charities can never seek to be elected into parliament.

Currently, a (hypothetical) “Animal Safety” organisation registered as a charity with the ACNC can advocate to end live animal exports or ban the testing of cosmetics on animals, provided engaging in these activities is consistent with their charitable purpose.They will probably only be reporting annually to the ACNC.

Under proposed changes that are being considered in Federal Parliament, if an animal safety charity receives any funding from international philanthropists to support their work or if they spend money running campaigns on their issues, they would be subject to a series of quite onerous new accountability and transparency obligations.

They would have to separate their international income from their Australian income and show that they have not used any international funding to support their campaigns.Clearly this may not be a straightforward task – either identifying sources of income (which donor is not an Australian citizen) or identifying how specific income has been used (what money paid for the CEOs trip to Canberra to meet senior government officials etc).

For Animal Safety, campaigning to ban live animal exports and prevent needless experiments on animals may be two of the most important aspects of their charitable work. Given there is a lot of support in the community for their position, one option their board might consider is to create an “Australian Animals Safety Party” (AASP) that could develop a political manifesto and run candidates in the next election, thereby putting pressure on other political parties to adopt better animal safety policies.

As a charity, this kind of activity is clearly not possible. It is acting politically. But if the government is going to restrict advocacy, impose onerous obligations and label charities as political, Animal Safety may want to pursue their charitable purpose, but as a different kind of organisation. What would they lose if they stopped being a charity?

No longer being a registered charity would mean Animal Safety could not offer donors tax deductibility for their support. Is this a great loss? It seems only a small percentage of donors giving to causes these days are motivated by tax concessions. A few donors may drop off, but the increased profile would almost certainly attract more supporters who may compensate for potential losses.

The value of the previously important salary packaging and tax concession options available to charities have been significantly eroded over time. Now these concessions are hardly worth the management costs, so there is not much loss there. Given any profit generated will be reinvested back into Animal Safety, there will be no income tax to pay, so income tax concessions do not come into play.

It may even be possible to continue the Animal Safety charity, but allow a small number of staff some unpaid leave (at least not paid by the charity) to act in positions in the new political party or even to stand as candidates in the next federal election.

Provided there was a legal wall between the separate entities and no money flowed from Animal Safety to the AASP, what is the risk?

It is not that difficult to register a new political party. You need to: develop a unique name, agree an aim or set of objectives, form a committee and sign up 500 voters/supporters who are on the electoral roll and who do not belong to other political parties, and complete and submit the AEC application form along with the $500 lodgement fee. The AEC will publish an advertisement about the proposed new political party seeking any objections.

One month after the advertisement has been published, the AEC will consider your application and decide your registration.The whole process might take around three months all up, so there is still time before the next federal election for AASP to be established.

There are almost 50 separate political parties registered with the AEC including at least a dozen “single issue” parties including: Animal Justice Party, Science Party, Arts Party, Help End Marijuana Prohibition Party, Consumer Rights and No-Tolls, the Australian Mental Health Party, etc.

There are even more single issue political parties on the list of deregistered parties including: Smokers Rights Party, No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics, No Goods and Services Tax Party, Bullet Train for Australia, etc. The most recently deregistered party is the Australian Equality Party (Marriage).

Charities do not want to be political actors, they do not seek political position and power, they do not want to set up political parties. But most charities are strongly committed to advocating for their cause and their communities. Charities want to make Australia a better place.

If the only way a charity can actively advocate for their charitable cause and the communities they serve, without facing onerous accountabilities and restrictions is to be a registered political party, you can expect more single issue political parties to become part of the Australian political landscape. And who knows, that may be a good thing.

I think the “Australian Charities Party” has a certain ring to it!

Read in Pro Bono News.