Morrison's 'unconstitutional' crackdown on charities
Sweeping new laws that could strip charities of the non-profit status for minor offences are intended to stifle protest, the sector warns
(Acknowledgments to Mike Seccombe in The Saturday Paper 22.5.2021)
BR4R supporter Hazel Davidson has joined our newsletter team. Hazel has provided us with a great summary of this issue.
Rev. Tim Costello met President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in 2013. Putin admitted he could not see the difference between 'policy' and 'politics'. Similarly it seems that the Morrison Government cannot see the difference between 'advocacy' and 'civil disobedience'.
The plan: The Government is planning harsh new laws against charities whose members break even very minor laws. There are about 59,000 charities governed by the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC)
Over 1200 charities are planning to write a joint letter to the Government about their concerns. Church-based charities are sending members to lobby MPs of the same religion. BR4R would be subject to these laws.
The issue: Registered charities like BR4R could be held responsible for minor legal breaches by members and supporters. This would mean that charities could lose their charitable status and preferential tax treatment; board directors/Committee members could be suspended, or the charities shut down. Charities fear they could also be held responsible for how other groups might use their reports or materials. They could be punished on suspicion that they would be likely to commit a crime because a similar group had done so.E ven if the charity, its staff, volunteers or supporters are not charged, the ACNC could deregister the charity.
How it might affect us: BR4R, like other groups and churches, organises rallies each year on Palm Sunday to ask others to join them in acknowledging the impact of government policy on asylum seekers and refugees. People wearing T-shirts with a charity logo could be asked to "move on" and the charity "reviewed" if it was felt any person disobeyed the request. Tim Costello points out he had nearly 600 staff at World Vision and could not possibly know if one of them committed a "summary offence" (one serious enough for the decision to be made by a Magistrate's Court).
Another example could be a rally against hotel detention at which a speaker is associated with a particular charity, or perhaps a charity staffer might tweet in support of the protest. Some protesters might join a blockage of a parliamentary entrance, for example. All of those could be seen as Summary Offences. As a result, a charity could be penalised by the ACNC. Volunteers working at community radio stations make all sorts of announcements, for example, who is rostered on for a local Lock the Gate protest. The radio station could even be seen as supporting the cause.
Summary: The two main concerns about the situation are:
i) The scope of the term "unlawful activities" is extremely broad.
ii) There are potential problems deciding who has "supported" the "unlawful activity".
Generally what happens now is that when there are arrests made, a few protestors finish up at the police station, their names and addresses are recorded and they are sent home without being charged. Or, if the incident does get to court, it is dismissed by the magistrate.
The Government now wants to discourage political demonstrations. Hence the proposed new laws. Probably there would be a few charges against the most conspicuous groups to discourage others. The current Charities Commissioner is Gary Johns who was originally a Labor MP and is now a loud voice against support for charities.
In 2017 the Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill (EFDR) was introduced, which meant charities which "advocated" would be taxed and follow the same rules as political parties. This caused a furor among charities throughout Australia. They banded together and succeeded in getting the legislation amended. It also taught the charities that it is useful to lobby collectively and to be actively on the lookout for damaging Government changes to the rules. One real problem is obtuse wording which often disguises the real meaning of new rules.
We must all be vigilant for changes that limit our democratic freedoms.