An alliance of Australia’s most well-established and respected charities, including Anglicare, UnitingCare Australia, Baptist Care Australia, St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia, Save the Children, Oxfam, Amnesty, Fred Hollows Foundation, Caritas Australia, WWF and People with Disability Australia has today condemned new Morrison Government regulations that will target and potentially shut them down for advocating on behalf of their communities on matters of public interest, and called for the laws to be immediately withdrawn.
Amendments to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC) Regulations tabled by the government in the Senate give the Charities Commissioner discretion to de-register a charity for the most minor of offences – for example, if a staff member blocks a footpath at a public vigil. Under the new laws, charities could even be de-registered for speaking or tweeting in support of a public demonstration, or if others use their materials, such as a logo.
The new laws also give the Charities Commissioner extraordinary powers to arbitrarily shut down a charity if he has the subjective belief that a minor offence has occurred, even if no charge has been made, and if he believes it’s likely that a minor offence may occur in the future.
To prove compliance with these unreasonable laws, charities’ time and donations will be tied up in burdensome red tape and legal fees, depriving their communities of vital support.
The Reverend Tim Costello AO, chair of the Community Council for Australia and former CEO of World Vision Australia, said, “Charities have always spoken up for their communities, and have done so freely, openly and honestly. They play a vital role in civil society, holding government to account for policies on key issues affecting the lives of millions.
“These regulations will stifle legitimate advocacy by charities and the voices of the people they represent, including the most vulnerable. They have no parallel in business or any other sector of society. Giving the Charity Commissioner power to shutter a charity for a minor offence by a member is the equivalent of the Electoral Commissioner having discretion to de-register the Liberal Party because a Party member jaywalked.
“The laws are antidemocratic and authoritarian. They must be abandoned.”
Anglicare Australia Executive Director, Kasy Chambers, said, “Charity is not just about helping people in poverty. It’s about creating a country where poverty doesn’t exist. That’s why we need to be able to stand up for the people we work with.
“But these rules are designed to stop organisations like Anglicare Australia from speaking up for our communities by punishing us – and shutting us down for arbitrary reasons. They are not just an attack on charities. They are an attack on democracy. We’re calling on the Government to withdraw these changes – and put an end to these attacks for good.”
Baptist Care Australia Executive Director, Nicole Hornsby, said, “We are concerned that these proposed changes limit the capacity for charities to undertake legitimate and lawful advocacy. The breadth of their application to include such subjective measures as a ‘belief’ that they ‘may’ commit a minor offence is totally unreasonable.”
UnitingCare Australia CEO, Claerwyn Little, said, “it is unclear as to why the Government finds it necessary to introduce these new regulations, when laws already exist to deal with charities that break the law. The new regulations seem to be simply about making it easier for the Government to deregister charities that undertake advocacy, which should be concerning to all Australians.”
St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia CEO, Toby O’Connor, said, “The administrative burden of monitoring all our activities is enormous and not warranted. Unlawful acts are already covered by existing criminal law. These changes increase red-tape for no good reason.”
Save the Children Australia CEO, Paul Ronalds, said: “Advocacy has always been critical for long-lasting change, but the retreat of democracy and increasing political populism worldwide means the role of charities as global advocates and protectors of human rights has never been more important. The changes the Australian Government is proposing are extremely concerning because they threaten to undermine our most effective tool for achieving impact for the world’s most vulnerable children and their families.”
Amnesty International National Director, Sam Klintworth, said: “It’s chilling to think that if one of our hundreds of thousands of supporters were to be found guilty of a minor civil disobedience offence at a protest for example, that Amnesty International Australia’s existence could be in jeopardy, because that’s exactly the kind of scenario this legislation would allow.
“Organisations like Amnesty exist to hold authorities accountable, and if we’re not able to do the job our supporters want us to, then that augurs very badly for the human rights of everyone in this country.”
WWF-Australia CEO, Dermot O’Gorman, said: “This tumultuous period has taught us that in a crisis we are all in this together. Australian charities are doing vital work to care for communities and protect the environment in the face of enormous threats, from climate change to devastating bushfires to the biodiversity extinction crisis. These regulations are ill-conceived, adding unnecessary red tape and making this work more difficult. We urge the Government to reconsider.”
Caritas Australia CEO, Kirsty Robertson, said, “Our supporters expect us to speak up when we see injustice affecting communities in Australia and overseas. These regulations will effectively silence Caritas Australia and our supporters from doing this – how can that be healthy for democracy in Australia?”
Oxfam Australia Chief Executive, Lyn Morgain, said: “Oxfam is deeply concerned about the damage these new regulations could do to our sector and the communities we work to support. There is zero evidence that these new regulations are necessary – with adequate protections against things like fraud already in place.
“If passed, this legislation would mean extra administrative costs for already stretched not-for-profits, which will mean less money to do the work our supporters want us to do and a reduced impact in creating positive social change. We urge Senators to consider the very real impact of this legislation on their own constituents and to act in their best interests.”
Fred Hollows Foundation CEO, Ian Wishart, said: “Fred Hollows was well known for speaking out and demanding action from our political leaders. It’s a key role of charities to advocate for those who don’t have a voice. These laws limit the ability of charities to raise important issues and hold people in power to account.”People with Disability Australia CEO, Sebastian Zagarella, said: “These proposed laws must not pass. Advocating for people is at the core of what we do and we should not have to be afraid our charity will be deregistered for advocating for people with disability”.