A recent bill introduced by the Turnbull government to amend electoral laws could seriously threaten the ability of grassroots organisations to raise funds. It represents a significant attack on non-profit organisations and small political parties, as well as an attempt to undermine our democratic rights.
Under the pretext of reducing undue foreign influence in Australian politics, this bill aims to create extraordinary hurdles for organisations that raise funds via donations from the general public. While placing a huge burden on non-profits and small parties, the changes would not do anything to clean up the widespread corruption that plagues Australia’s electoral system.
The proposed changes include putting restrictions on the source of donations. Donations would only be allowed to come from Australian citizens or entities. Also proposed is the ability of the federal government to seize donations, or force them to be returned if they are not from ‘allowable donors’.
This would not stop the major parties from receiving donations from the wealthy or big business. Money from overseas sources could still be funnelled through other organisations or Australian citizens and locally registered businesses to hide its origins.
But the main problem is not that the bulk of big money bribes comes from overseas sources. The problem is that both of the major parties are on the payroll of big businesses located right here in Australia. Corporations make donations and expect policies designed in their interests in return. Be it Liberal or Labor in power, they are usually generously rewarded.
The bill also contains a clause that dictates that non-profit organisations will need to get a statutory declaration from donors who give donations as small as $5 per week. This is an absurd hurdle for ordinary people who want to support a charity or political organisation. It is an attack on people’s democratic right to decide where they spend their own money.
This bill is widely seen as the Coalition government taking aim at the activist group GetUp!, who the government consider to run pro-Labor and pro-Green campaigns. While GetUp! seems to be the main target, this change is designed to hurt a wide range of progressive organisations that rely on small donations to survive. This includes groups from the non-profit sector to anti-establishment political parties such as the Socialist Party.
The scope of the proposed law is so broad that any organisation that does advocacy, or even research that has an effect on voters, would be deemed a “political actor”. Once described as a political actor the organisation has to register with the Electoral Commission and faces mountains of red tape designed to bog them down in time consuming administration.
Apart from the extra work of ensuring that a donor is allowable and has signed a statutory declaration, the organisation also has to appoint a financial controller. If any rules are breached penalties of up to 10 years jail, or a fine of more than $200,000, can be applied.
Another explicitly draconian aspect of the bill is it would only apply to “public activities”. This means that private lobbying of politicians would still be allowed. This would only push political debates further behind closed doors and reduce the agency people have through grassroots organisations.
This bill is really designed to be a gag order on all those who stand against the status quo. It must be opposed in its entirety. The only real way to deal with big money dominating politics is to build organisations and parties that voluntarily refuse to take cash from big business.
All community groups, progressive political parties and organisations like trade unions should come together to oppose this bill, whether it directly affects them or not. If it is allowed to pass it could be expanded to include other organisations at a later stage.
If the bill is rammed through it will be far too burdensome to adhere to. We can not allow hundreds of small organisations to go to the wall. Instead, the laws will have to be defied. In this case again we will need a broad coalition of groups to come together to defend any group or individual who is targeted by this regressive legislation.
When bad laws are defied en mass they can be made unworkable. If the government refuses to back down on this bill they may need to be taught this lesson.
By Tim Tran