Written by Lisa Cornish. Published by Devex on February 5 2018.
CANBERRA — Australia’s NGOs concerned that proposed legislation to curtail foreign political influence would have dangerous knock-on effects for their advocacy made their opinions known to lawmakers during public hearings this week.
Held in Canberra, Melbourne, and Sydney between Jan. 30 and Feb. 2, the hearings investigated the new legislation as part of three parliamentary inquiries — an inquiry and report on the 2016 Federal Election and related matters, Review of the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017 and the Review of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017.
Despite the committees being made up of representatives of the sitting government, opposition and other political parties, the views of the government were apparent in the engagement with NGOs and supporting witnesses. And Australian NGOs have good reason to believe their concerns will not be addressed in recommended amendments.
Calls for charity exemptions
Australia’s charities were clear that they wanted total exemption from the proposed legislative changes — a view supported in recommendations from the Law Council of Australia.
In Canberra last Tuesday, the chief executive officer of the Community Council for Australia, David Crosbie, explained to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security that existing regulatory frameworks surrounding charities and not-for-profits already prevented them from crossing the line from advocacy into telling people how to vote. The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission both regulates nonprofits and mandates transparency.
According to evidence from Crosbie, the proposed legislation already provides exemptions for a range of organizations. He explained that, from his understanding, an international company such as Diageo was still entitled to seek to influence Australian alcohol policies but if an organization such as the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support their research, they would have to register under the new act and provide political expenditure reports.
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