Special minister of state accuses Labor of contradicting its own alternative bill
Mathias Cormann, who believes exempting charities would render the foreign donations bill ‘ineffective’. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP
Mathias Cormann has ruled out exempting charities from a ban on foreign donations, despite Labor toughening its stance to warn it won’t support charities and not-for-profits being silenced.
The special minister of state, who has previously suggested the government may have to amend the electoral funding and disclosure reform bill, said that exempting charities would render the ban “entirely ineffective” and accused Labor of contradicting its own alternative bill.
The Coalition’s bill, introduced by the government last December, would ban foreign political donations and requires charities to keep international donations separately so they are not spent on political advocacy.
It has been opposed by GetUp, charities, the Greens and the Institute of Public Affairs, because the proposal will increase red tape, including requiring statutory declarations to check the identity of donors.
On Sunday Bill Shorten said Labor would “keep working with the government to ban foreign donations, which is already Labor policy”.
“I believe we can clean up donations without silencing our charities and not-for-profits. Labor is not interested in laws which punish Australian charities,” he said.
At the regular Labor caucus meeting on Tuesday, Shorten reiterated that message. He referred to a move by GetUp to target the ALP in a campaign urging members to lobby federal parliamentarians against the proposed laws, and told colleagues the opposition had a good story to tell on donations and disclosure reform.
But he insisted that Labor would not allow charities to be silenced, which suggests Labor won’t support the elements of the bill dealing with third party activity.
The Greens say Labor needs to go further. Greens senator Rachel Siewert said Labor needed to be explicit about its position. She said the Coalition had “long had a vendetta against charities and not-for-profits who dare to weigh in on policy debates”.
“The current moves by the government to silence charities and not-for-profits is a clear part of their campaign to silence civil society,” she said. “There is agreement amongst the diverse group of stakeholders opposing these changes that the bill should be rejected outright”.
Asked by Guardian Australia if the government would consider allowing charities and not-for-profits to continue to take foreign donations for advocacy, Cormann said: “No – that would make a ban on foreign donations entirely ineffective.
“It would create a massive loophole and is inconsistent with Labor’s own bill designed to ban foreign donations in relation to all political expenditure (including political expenditure by charities),” he said.
Cormann cited a provision in Labor’s bill that would make it unlawful for persons to incur political expenditure enabled by the gift of “foreign property”.
“This is another case of a Bill Shorten wibble-wobble.
“His own bill seeks to ban foreign donations for all political expenditure including that by charities.”
Cormann noted the government bill allowed charities to take foreign donations to fund charitable activities that are not political expenditure.
“Under our legislation charities can continue to engage in political advocacy as long as it is funded by permissible Australian domestic donations – but they cannot fund political expenditure under our bill or under Labor’s bill with foreign donations.”
Cormann signalled the government would look at other recommendations to “ensure the compliance arrangements are as efficient as possible”.
The Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, Cory Bernardi of the Australian Conservatives and the Nick Xenophon Team’s Stirling Griff have all expressed concerns about the bill, with the statutory declaration requirement and changes to public funding of elections requiring parties to track their spending particular irritants.
The bill is being examined by the joint standing committee on electoral matters, with submissions closing on 9 March before it reports on 28 March.
The chair of the committee, Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, said the bill would “clarify charities’ requirements to report political spending while also banning foreign donations for the purpose of political influence”.
Reynolds said it had become clear that “charities have not been complying with the existing requirements” to disclose political expenditure.
When asked if the Coalition could exempt charities from the