Rushed bill will muffle community voices – 1/12/21

In the final sitting week of the year, the Morrison Government has guillotined debate and rushed through amendments to the Electoral Act that will see charities and community voices muzzled at election times. 

The changes to the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021 will place an unnecessary burden on charities that engage in issues-based advocacy at election times and make it harder for Australians to participate in national debates on important issues.

At the last minute, Labor negotiated with the Government to secure several amendments to the bill. Charities say the amendments do not fix the most significant problems and the law will stifle advocacy.

Among other concerns, the legislation requires a charity that participates in Australia’s democracy to register as a ‘significant third party’ based on a new expenditure threshold that will be applied retrospectively. It will discourage charities from advocating in future elections by applying a new, legally vague and very broad definition of ‘electoral expenditure’ to this new category.

Charity sector representatives thanked the Greens and crossbench Senators Rex Patrick, Jacquie Lambie and Stirling Griff for their constructive engagement on these significant legal changes, which will alter Australia’s electoral rules.

Australian Conservation Foundation Chief Executive Officer Kelly O’Shanassy said:

“This legislation unfairly and incorrectly conflates advocacy with running for political office. 

“As it reduces the expenditure threshold and applies it retrospectively, ACF and other organisations will now be assigned to this onerous category for past lawful, non-partisan activities.

“In my time as CEO of the Australian Conservation Foundation, I have not seen another piece of legislation that has the potential to so severely muffle community voices as this one.”

Australian Democracy Network Executive Director Saffron Zomer said:

“This legislation makes significant changes to the Electoral Act and applies those changes retroactively. It’s bad law making and is fundamentally unfair. 

“The rushed, eleventh-hour publication of the proposed amendments and the failure to send this bill to a committee, where it could be properly and appropriately scrutinised, is a blow to good governance.

“It is beyond disappointing that our government would spend its time on stifling civic participation when it could be focussed on important reforms that would really make democracy work better for all, such as political donation caps and a strong federal ICAC.  

“It is also very disappointing to see the Australian Labor Party, with its proud history of standing up for charities, support these regressive changes. The charity sector is in shock.”

Australian Council of Social Services CEO Cassandra Goldie said:

“We are deeply concerned that this legislation will stifle the voices of community services and prevent them from advocating for the much needed changes to ensure people with greatest need are front and centre in the work of Government and the Parliament. 

“Everyone across the country benefits when charities are able to advocate for systemic policy reform. It strengthens the decisions made by the Government, improves the services delivered and ensures transparency, accountability and integrity.”

Media contact: Josh Meadows, ACF media adviser, 0439 342 992