Supplementary Submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
This supplementary submission outlines key areas of concern for the Community Council for Australia (CCA) in relation to the proposed amended Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017.
CCA is pleased that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) have put forward such comprehensive recommendations and the proposed amendments go a long way to reducing the potential negative impact of the original Bill. Given CCA has previously provided a submission on the original legislation, this supplementary submission will make only four key points that CCA sees as important, needing further clarification or amendment.
It is also important to note that CCA is a supporter and participant in the Hands Off Our Charities collaboration and will be a signatory to their joint submission on this issue.
The content of this supplementary submission includes: a brief background to CCA; a listing of key issues relating to the amended Bill, and a conclusion.
CCA welcomes this opportunity to provide input into this Inquiry and is keen to engage in detailed discussion about any proposals arising from the Inquiry.
The Community Council for Australia
The Community Council for Australia is an independent non-political member-based organisation dedicated to building flourishing communities by enhancing the extraordinary work undertaken by the charities and not-for-profit sector in Australia. CCA seeks to change the way governments, communities and not-for-profits relate to one another. It does so by providing a national voice and facilitation for sector leaders to act on common and shared issues affecting the contribution, performance and viability of NFPs in Australia. This includes:
· promoting the values of the sector and the need for reform
· influencing and shaping relevant policy agendas
· improving the way people invest in the sector
· measuring and reporting success in a way that clearly articulates value
· building collaboration and sector efficiency
· informing, educating, and assisting organisations in the sector to deal with change and build sustainable futures
· providing a catalyst and mechanism for the sector to work in partnership with government, business and the broader Australian community to achieve positive change.
Our success will drive a more sustainable and effective charities and not-for-profit sector in Australia making an increased contribution to the well-being and resilience of all our communities.
Key issues with the proposed amended Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017
1. Acknowledgement and support of positive amendments
As noted in the introduction, CCA commends the members of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters for both listening to the views of groups like CCA and the broader charities and not-for-profit sector, and for making considered amendments to the original proposed Bill that substantially address most of the concerns.
It is pleasing to be part of a democratic process that works not only in the interests of charities, but also communities across Australia that rely on charities to voice their concerns and issues.
CCA supports the proposed amendments.
2. Political versus partisan political
CCA would like to see the term ‘partisan’ political used rather than just the term political when referring to electoral matters. Most charities would like their issue to be front and center when it comes to elections whether the issue be; homelessness, testing of cosmetics on animals, mental health or the needs of returned servicemen and women. For this to happen, the charity would need to promote and advocate for their issue to be an important factor when voters are considering political choices. In other words, many charities would like to be having some impact on the way people might vote. This could be described as political. It could not be described as partisan political because it is about the issue rather than the political party or a particular political candidate.
In explaining the new definition of electoral expenditure, the explanatory material notes:
The definition of electoral matter feeds into this new definition and is based on intent to influence the way electors vote in a federal election, including by promoting or opposing parties, candidates, groups, or parliamentarians.
It is then argued that: The definition does not capture general issue-based advocacy.
If the intent of the charity is to advance their charitable purpose, and the charity campaigns on that issue including providing ranking scores for the issue listed against political parties, does that mean the charity has or has not incurred any political expenditure? If the ranking is not a how to vote card but a scorecard against their issue, is that general issue-based advocacy? CCA believes so, but perhaps it could be clarified in the explanatory materials.
CCA believes that no charities should engage in partisan political activity, but political actions in support of a charitable mission or purpose is often a core aspect of charitable work to deliver a public benefit.
Charities should engage in political activity, but not partisan political activity.
3. Drawing on the work of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission
The 2013 Charities Act made it clear that having a political purpose was a disqualifying factor in determining charitable status.
There is a regulator charged to enforce this provision, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC). All Australian charities have to report to the ACNC on an annual basis, with organisations over $250,000 in turnover having to provide detailed financial statements and full details on all their responsible persons, as well as breakdowns on sources of income etc..
Unlike most players competing to influence national policies, charities face restrictions on their activities enforced by the ACNC which has significant powers.
Charities can and do lose their charitable status if they pursue a political purpose. Charities cannot support a particular candidate, support a particular party, make donations to political parties, or hand out how to vote cards. Charities can only advocate for their charitable purpose – a purpose that is linked to public benefit.
The ACNC has produced a very clear set of guidelines around political purpose outlining what charities can and cannot do ( see: http://www.acnc.gov.au/ACNC/Reg/Charities_elections_and_advocacy_.aspx ). Most charities reference this set of guidelines in determining if their activities breach any provision of the Charities Act or place them in any danger of losing their charitable status.
CCA believes the work of the ACNC in this area should be written into the Bill or at the very least, form part of the explanatory materials. Anything less will lead to confusion.
4. Multiple reporting or AEC or ACNC?
While all charities report to the ACNC and must be compliant with their requirements, only a very small number of charities report to the Australian Electoral Commission.
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is not used to working with charities and has shown itself to be uninterested in providing any clarity about the potential impact of new electoral expenditure requirements on charities.
It is almost inconceivable that thousands of charities will review their obligations to see whether they may need to report to the AEC.
At the same time, all charities are regularly checking their reporting requirements to the ACNC in relation to all areas of their operations.
CCA believe any public reporting of electoral expenditure would be better reported by charities through the ACNC.
CCA welcomes the amendments to the Bill
There are still areas where CCA would like to see greater clarification, especially in relation to electoral matters and electoral expenditure, but generally the amendments have ensured that most issue-based advocacy will not result in substantially increased compliance and transparency requirements being imposed on charities.
The amendments could be further improved by drawing on the work of the ACNC in relation to issue-based advocacy, political intent and the disqualifying purposes within the existing 2013 Charities Act.
CCA would also like to see charities reporting to the ACNC rather than having the AEC become an additional regulator of charities in relation to campaigning and issue-based advocacy.