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Lobbyists parading as charities can account to donors and taxpayers

By Gary Johns - posted Thursday, 31 August 2017

Charities are worried the government wants to silence them. Are they right to be worried? The alleged threat has two sources.

The government majority in the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has recommended that foreign donations to political actors be banned. Some Australian charities use foreign donations for lobbying (advocacy). And, in a review of deductible gift recipient charities, the government is considering limiting charity lobbying.

Some deft policymaking is ­required.


On foreign donations, environmental charities are an especial focus. For example, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Australia and the Wilderness Society (Australia) participated in a pre-election rally against Malcolm Turnbull in June last year, along with GetUp!

In addition, Friends of the Earth Australia passed on a donation of $262,000 from philanthopist Graeme Wood to GetUp!

On the DGR front, another parliamentary committee has recommended that the value of each environmental charity's expenditure on environmental remediation work should be "no less than 25 per cent of the organisation's annual expenditure", which is an apparent attempt to limit lobbying.

The recommendation has obvious implications for all charities. That is, resources should be devoted to "on-the-ground" work.

The charity sector, or at least the big advocacy players, argues for "international philanthropy", or foreign donations to charities. To which the reply would be: Why does one of the richest countries in the world want international ­charity?

The sector argues that there is "a category difference between political parties and charities". I agree. The category difference is that charities spend some of their time lobbying for government money, taxpayers subsidise the lobbying, and the lobbying results in more money for charities. Political parties, on the other hand, have to run for office.


The sector also argues that "charities have completely different access to and influence over the political process compared to political parties", which is truer than they realise. Charities can trade in politics under cover of charity purity. Political parties cannot.

And further, they argue that "international philanthropic funding is an important part of many charities' annual budgets and enables them to deliver their public good". But is it a public good?

The sector argues that "any charity receiving international funding would have to go missing during election campaigns and all who campaign or advocate during elections would have to show they received no overseas donations".

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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