Fair Democracy

Work for a Fair Democracy

The Human Rights Law Centre, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Democracy Network are building a broad coalition for a better democracy, where our elected representatives put Australians’ interests first, not those of their wealthy donors and mates. ARRCC has joined this coalition.

We have joined because there seems no other reasonable explanation for the fact that our current federal government refuses to legislate sensible policies to keep us – and life on this precious planet – safe from climate change. It is not convinced by increasingly verified scientific warnings, clear ethical guidance, the availability of ever-cheaper clean technologies, not even shifts in popular opinion. What has become clear is that a major block to legislated national climate action is that the major political parties are captured by corporate interests.

Much has been written now on the influence of corporate donors and the “revolving door” between politics and corporate power brokers. Examples are Big Coal: Australia’s Dirtiest Habit, by Guy Pearse, David McKnight and Bob Burton, and Games of Mates: How Favours Bleed the Nation, by Cameron K. Murray and Paul Frijters. Instances of unethical behaviour are frequently exposed by journalists.

The ABC’s two-part factual series released in October 2021, Big Deal, communicates the basic issues to everyday Australians in an effective and entertaining way; and is readily available on iview: https://iview.abc.net.au/show/big-deal

This issue affects other matters of social justice too. Whether community organisations are working to combat climate change, to stand up for workers’ rights, to minimise gambling harm or to keep our gun control laws strong, we are facing the same problem: powerful and harmful industries are resisting regulation for the common good.

Weak laws allow powerful industries and lobby groups to exploit democratic processes for their own financial gain. Even when exposed, there are rarely consequences for morally corrupt behaviour.

Australia lags far behind other jurisdictions when it comes to regulating political donations, election spending, lobbying and the spread of disinformation in elections.

The proposal for a legislated Federal Integrity Commission has been part of the response, which the current government has delayed and attempted to weaken by proposing its own legislation - a toothless, opaque version of the original.

After a long period of research and consultation across civil society, from grassroots organisations to academic experts, the Fair Democracy Network has created this Framework for a Fair Democracy. The Framework can be endorsed by individuals as well as organisations. Of course, ARRCC has of endorsed it:  https://www.ourdemocracy.com.au/the-framework/


Framework outline

1. Stamp out corruption

Create a strong federal integrity commission

Introduce an enforceable code of conduct for politicians

Strengthen the institutions that keep the federal government in check

Introduce a merit-based process for appointing government advisors

2. End cash for access

Make lobbying transparent

Stop ministers moving into industry jobs

Ban corrupting political donations

Shine a light on secret donations

3. Level the playing field in election debates

Stop corporations from spending millions on campaigning against regulation

Limit political party spending on election ads

Introduce standards of honesty in election campaigns

ARRCC Is very grateful to our colleagues in ACF, the Human Rights Law Centre and the Australian Democracy Network for taking the lead in this important work.


Work to protect advocacy by charities


ARRCC made a contribution to this huge win for democracy on Thursday 25 November: the Senate rejected new Government regulations which would have had a silencing effect on Australian charities. This win ensures the long tradition of charitable advocacy continues. #HandsOffCharities
The Federal Opposition and crossbench joined forces to disallow regulations which would have granted the Federal Charities Commissioner the power to investigate and deregister charities on a whim. A crossbench disallowance motion put forward by South Australian Senator Rex Patrick was successful in the Senate by 24 votes to 19, effectively stopping the Government’s proposal in its tracks.
May be an image of 2 people, people standing, outdoors and text that says 'MARCH4 JUSTICE BREAKING: Harmful regulations that would allow the Government to silence charities that speak out have been DEFEATED! 3% RAPE ENDIN HANDS OFF our CHARITIES Learn more at Û.g.au hooc.org.au'
ARRCC is concerned that directions being taken by the Morrison Government, if implemented, would be have a chilling effect on advocacy for a safe climate, just when it is most needed. Therefore, ARRCC participates in a closely related initiative coordinated by the Australian Democracy Network called Hands Off Our Charities. HOOC is an alliance of over 60 charities, which formed in 2017 in response to a number of bills which would have silenced charities on issues of national importance.

Although the Morrison Government has opposed measures to ensure more fairness and accountability in government processes, they have pushed for reforms that increase the burdens on charities and other organisations that advocate for the common good. This is the second time charities have had to organise to defend themselves in the last few years.

While claiming to be “too busy” to address the issues of a Federal Integrity Commission or Zali Steggall’s Climate Change Bill during the pandemic, the Coalition Government has nonetheless found time to draft and push for:

(a) tighter regulations on the advocacy work of charities, to be enforced by the Australian Charites and No-for-profit Commission (ACNC) and

(b) legislation that would lower the “political campaigner” threshold for spending on advocacy during periods leading up to an election.

Throughout much of 2021, HOOC has been fighting these threats.


Proposed changes to ACNC regulations

ACNC regulations are not subject to legislation but are put forward by the Minister, in this case the Assistant Minister for Finance, Charities and Electoral Matter, Senator Zed Seselja. They can potentially be blocked by a successful disallowance motion in the Senate.

Essentially, the Government’s proposed new regulations would create a much broader range of pretexts on which charities could be deregistered.

The effect would be to discourage charities from promoting and having a presence at common peaceful protests. It would also make it much harder for charities to share their resources with community groups to support their advocacy. The regulations could introduce unnecessary red tape for virtually every one of Australia’s 59,000 charities, and again, threaten them with deregistration if they fail to comply.

The proposal is disproportionate and punitive, and could see charities shut down by the regulator because of very minor and inadvertent breaches of the law, or for failing to keep documentation proving their compliance. It also exposes them to pre-emptive punishment if the ACNC Commissioner believes they are likely to breach the regulation in the future. 

This treatment is unprecedented. Neither for-profit corporations nor political parties can be deregistered because a staff member commits — or is deemed “likely” to commit — a minor offence.

See here for further detail provided by the Human Rights Law Centre.


What’s happened so far?

HOOCC published this full-page ad in The Australian on 24th June.

In August this campaign video was circulated.

HOOC fund-raised to pay for Independent modelling by ACIL Allen around the sector-wide compliance cost for the new ACNC regulations. ACIL Allen found that the cost could be up to $150m in the first year alone. That's more than 100 times what the Treasury indicated in their regulatory impact statement. Even the lower bound estimate of $78m is a staggering cost that the sector can't afford for regulations that achieve no public-policy benefit.

The report was covered in the Age, Sydney Morning HeraldBrisbane Times and WA Today. 

The regulations can only be stopped from coming into force by a disallowance motion in the Senate. Two such disallowance motions have been put forward separately by Senator Rex Patrick and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. They are due to be considered on 25th November and the 4th sitting day of 2022 respectively.

Added 17 Nov, 2021: Please write to Josh Frydenberg and Senator Simon Birmingham to ask them to ensure the Morrison Government withdraws these draconian regulations. Details and a template letter are provided here.


Lowering the "political campaigner" threshold on charities

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Party Registration Integrity) Bill would require political parties to have 1,500 unique members each within the next three months, up from 500, and prohibit new parties from using words found in the names of existing parties, with some exceptions. The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Political Campaigners) Bill 2021 would lower the expenditure threshold to be registered as a political campaigner from $500,000 to $100,000.

See here for more background on the bill. 

For commentary on this, see: The Australia Institute, Australian Conservation Foundation.


What’s happened so far?

The HOOC alliance took a strong position opposing this change in its January submission to a review of the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Act.

The Bill was introduced into the House of Representatives together with three other Bills on electoral law reform, on 12 August 2021. 3 out of the 4 electoral law bills were passed in both the house and the senate. The government didn’t list the 4th one - the Political Campaigner bill.

Labor has said they will oppose this bill. 

Representatives of HOOC have had positive discussions with Senators Lambie, Griff and Patrick.

ARRCC is very grateful for others taking the lead in protecting the charities sector.

Added 17 Nov, 2021: Please write to crossbench Senators, especially Rex Patrick, Jacqui Lambie and Stirling Griff, and ask them to oppose this legislation in the Senate. A template is here.


by Thea Ormerod, dated 9 November, 2021