Charities say they could be stripped of their status for supporting protests and whistleblowers
Last modified on Thu 25 Feb 2021 08.47 GMT
A plan by the Morrison government that could see organisations stripped of their charity status because they might commit a crime will have a “chilling effect” on Australian democracy, the sector says.
Under the proposal, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) would be able to deregister an organisation if it “reasonably believes” its members are likely to commit a summary offence.
The government’s explanatory materials on the changes say they would lower the standard of proof so that “it is not necessary for a registered entity to be charged or found guilty of a relevant summary offence for the ACNC Commissioner to take enforcement action”.
Assistant treasurer, Michael Sukkar, told The Australian that while the government supports the right to peaceful protest, the federal government wanted to stop activists “masquerading” as charities.
“The Morrison government strongly supports the right to peacefully protest and engage in political discourse as key pillars of our democracy,” Sukkar told the newspaper.
“However, political activists and organisations condoning criminal activities, while masquerading as charities, undermine Australians’ trust in the sector overall and do not deserve this privilege.”
The proposal follows a decision in November 2019 to revoke the charity status of animal activist group Aussie Farms, which the government accused of encouraging vigilantism and trespassing after it created an interactive map listing the locations of farms, abattoirs and dairies..
Legal experts and charitable organisations immediately condemned the changes.
Daniel Webb, legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said the laws represented an attempt to “silence” community voices.
“The proposed rules are ridiculously broad and unclear, and the latest in a long line of attempts to silence community voices,” Webb said. “These rules could see charities deregistered for supporting protests, whistleblowers and others who are vital to a healthy democracy.
“It’s essential that charities are free to speak up for the people and communities we serve. We can’t do that if we’re all just a few tweets away from potential de-registration.”
Dr Sarah Moulds, a senior lecturer in law at the University of South Australia and director of the Rights Resource Network SA, said the government had not been clear about the problem it was trying to address.
“This change risks freezing charities and not-for-profits out of this important advocacy role and could create a culture of suspicion among the genuine advocacy efforts of community-based bodies,” Moulds said.
“The pre-existing laws already contained a range of safeguards to ensure charities stayed within the law.”
Katrina Bullock, general counsel for Greenpeace Australia, said it was clear the government’s intent was to target protesters.
“Two of the three examples in the explanatory memorandum are about protest activity, which I think makes clear this is an attack on protest,” Bullock said.
“It’s pretty wild. It broadens de-registration to summary offences and if you start to have a look at what are summary offences, you’ll see pretty quick how low the bar is. In South Australia, for example, it is a summary offence to leave a farm-gate door open – that’s enough to have an entire charity deregistered.
“Even if you got hacked and you’re a charity, someone has managed to get access to your documents, and you can’t immediately show you’ve taken reasonable steps to prevent that, that could result in you being deregistered.”
Joelene Elberth, a democracy campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the changes would place a huge administrative burden on charities whether or not they were engaged in advocacy.
“Charities, just like everyone else, have to comply with law or suffer the consequences,” Elberth said. “It’s not the role of the charities commissioner to enforce laws and be the judge and jury.
“In 2018 there was a review of the ACNC legislation and the review advised removing the governance standard all together. It’s quite interesting that the government is now making this move to expand this governance standard when in fact the recommendation put to the government years ago was to remove it.
“We’ve seen a number of states moving towards criminalising different types of protest over the [last] few years, this is just a continuation of that.
“The government knows this type of thing has a chilling effect on charities, so these seemingly innocuous changes erode our rights to fully participate and exercise our voice in our democracy.”