Charities gather outside Parliament House to speak out against Federal Laws

Charities Gather at Parliament House to Condemn New Federal Laws That Shut Them Down for Speaking Out

Morrison Government regulations introduced into the Senate today will silence charities representing millions of Australians

Leaders of Canberra-based charities including Anglicare Australia, St Vincent de Paul Society National Council of Australia, The Benevolent Society, Alliance for Gambling Reform, the ACT Council of Social Service, Public Health Association of Australia and Catholic Social Services have come together today at Parliament House to call on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to immediately withdraw regulations that target and shut them down for advocating on behalf of the communities they represent on matters of public interest.

They are backed by a broader alliance of Australia’s most well-established and respected charities, including Baptist Care Australia, Save the Children, Oxfam Australia, Amnesty, The Fred Hollows Foundation, Caritas Australia, WWF-Australia, ACOSS and People with Disability Australia.

The Morrison Government’s amendments to Governance Standard 3 of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) Regulations, sponsored by Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, give the Charities Commissioner extraordinary powers to deregister a charity:

  • for the most minor of offences, for example, if a staff member blocks a footpath at a public vigil
  • where he believes it’s likely that a minor offence may occur in the future
  • where he believes that something that could be dealt with as a minor offence has occurred, even if no charge has been made by police
  • preemptively, if he believes that the charity lacks “internal control procedures” to prove compliance with the regulations, or that it has not adequately documented these procedures.

To ensure compliance with these unreasonable laws, charities’ time and donations will be tied up in unprecedented red tape and legal fees, depriving communities of vital support.

At today’s media event, 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.”

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.”

Gordon Ramsay, CEO of the Alliance for Gambling reform said, “Especially at the moment, with all of the pressures on our community and the charities sector, these new regulations add nothing of value. Instead they will damage our charities and the people we support. They tighten red tape and controls when we need to focus our energy on working for a stronger community.”

Dr Emma Campbell, CEO of the ACT Council of Social Service said, “ACTCOSS’s members advocate on behalf of some of the most disadvantaged members of our community. It is important that our charities are protected when they are advocating for vulnerable Australians including Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples, veterans, older people, people with disability and children.

This change to the ACNC regulations is an attack on the charities who fight for Australia’s most vulnerable communities. We will strongly oppose these amendments.”

Lin Hatfield Dodds, CEO of The Benevolent Society said, “The Benevolent Society is strongly opposed to these proposed changes in regulations that limit freedom of speech by people working in the not-for-profit sector.

“We know that positive social change comes when people are heard. Regulations designed to stifle people’s voices stifle our mission to create a just society where all Australians can live their best life. With these regulations in place, the decision of one staff member to attend a rally could undo an entire charitable organisation, putting people out of jobs and leaving clients without support. We shouldn’t have to operate under the weight of such severe consequences. We shouldn’t have to be afraid that our advocacy work for Australians or the decisions of a few could result in deregistration.”

Charities unable to attend the Parliament House event due to COVID restrictions have also voiced their strong opposition to the regulations.

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 Liberal Party member damages someone’s lawn when putting up a sign.

“The laws are antidemocratic and authoritarian. They must be abandoned.”

Dr Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, the peak body for the community sector, said: “Our sector is made up of organisations that represent people who are too often left out of public debate and provide support to people in poverty or facing disadvantage. Our shared commitment is to ensure that we live in a fairer and more decent society, where no-one is left behind. To achieve this, it is essential that we can fully participate in public debate and action.

“It is at the heart of a healthy democracy that communities are free – and encouraged by their governments – to speak up, and act in the interests of people who are less powerful in society. These regulations do exactly the opposite. They fly in the face of the Federal Government’s purported commitment to free speech, and are undemocratic. They single out charities, and are an attack on our ability to perform our vital role in Australian society.”

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.”

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 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.”

The 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. Advocacy 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.”

Examples of actions and omissions triggering de-registration.

A charity could be deregistered if:

  • It organises a small Palm Sunday vigil where people congregate in front of Town Hall and do not move on when asked to; or an employee of the charity does not move on when asked to.
  • An employee attends a rally organised by another group opposing the high rate of removal of Indigenous children from their families and temporarily obstructs traffic.
  • A staff member erects a temporary placard on the lawns of Parliament House at a rally calling out sexual assault of women, causing minor damage to the turf.
  • Staff lead a group delivering a petition to the office of the Minister for Homelessness calling for him to increase social housing, and the group refuses to leave until they see him.
  • It engages in lawful activity, such as tweeting to promote a rally where farmers plan to peacefully and temporarily gather in the lobby of a multinational fracking company’s office.
  • It sets up an email group for a local community which, without the charity’s knowledge, uses it to plan a peaceful protest involving minor trespass, like blocking the entranceway to a liquor chain store being built in a dry community against the community’s wishes.
  • It fails to put in place, or document, actions that control how staff and volunteers behave. For example:
  • Members of a church congregation book a room in a church building to plan a peaceful vigil inside the Immigration Minister’s office to support asylum seeker children. The church charity failed to tell the members that the rooms were not to be used to plan peaceful protests involving minor trespass, and could be deregistered.
  • A charity prints stickers and posters as part of a campaign to raise JobSeeker, and gives them to volunteers, who, without the charity’s knowledge, stick them to stop signs and walls of buildings. The charity failed to tell volunteers not to use them in this way, which involves minor damage to property, and could face deregistration.
  • A volunteer posts details on a charity’s Facebook page of another organisation’s gathering that has not been authorised by police, and will involve temporarily blocking a road. Since the charity did not tell volunteers to check whether the event was authorised before posting, and did not review the posts, it could be deregistered.
  • A charity does not have a documented policy on which staff are permitted to use its social media accounts, or a protocol for approval if staff wish to tweet about a peaceful rally, and it therefore may be shut down by the regulator.