Lobbyists parading as charities can account to donors and taxpayers

Charities are worried the government wants to silence them. Are they right to be worried? The alleged threat has two sources.

The government majority in the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has recommended that foreign donations to political actors be banned. Some Australian charities use foreign donations for lobbying (advocacy). And, in a review of deductible gift recipient charities, the government is considering limiting charity lobbying.

Some deft policymaking is ­required.

On foreign donations, environmental charities are an especial focus. For example, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, 350.org Australia and the Wilderness Society (Australia) participated in a pre-election rally against Malcolm Turnbull in June last year, along with GetUp!

In addition, Friends of the Earth Australia passed on a donation of $262,000 from philanthopist Graeme Wood to GetUp!

On the DGR front, another parliamentary committee has recommended that the value of each environmental charity’s expenditure on environmental remediation work should be “no less than 25 per cent of the organisation’s annual expenditure”, which is an apparent attempt to limit lobbying.

The recommendation has obvious implications for all charities. That is, resources should be devoted to “on-the-ground” work.

The charity sector, or at least the big advocacy players, argues for “international philanthropy”, or foreign donations to charities. To which the reply would be: Why does one of the richest countries in the world want international ­charity?

The sector argues that there is “a category difference between political parties and charities”. I agree. The category difference is that charities spend some of their time lobbying for government money, taxpayers subsidise the lobbying, and the lobbying results in more money for charities. Political parties, on the other hand, have to run for office.

The sector also argues that “charities have completely different access to and influence over the political process compared to political parties”, which is truer than they realise. Charities can trade in politics under cover of charity purity. Political parties cannot.

And further, they argue that “international philanthropic funding is an important part of many charities’ annual budgets and enables them to deliver their public good”. But is it a public good?

The sector argues that “any charity receiving international funding would have to go missing during election campaigns and all who campaign or advocate during elections would have to show they received no overseas donations”.

Remember, many of these charities, which operate under the guise of public benefit, may find that some members of the public do not consider campaigns against coal as in their interest; or campaigns to give aid to Third World kleptomaniacs as in their interest; or campaigns to lock Aborigines on to collectives and out of the economy as in their interests; or campaigns to increase welfare dependence as in their interests. All these and most other charity matters are contestable. One man’s public benefit is another man’s public enemy.

What to do? My advice is as follows. Labor and Greens do not support blocking foreign donations, while Labor is at least wary of the accusation of breach of ­national sovereignty in foreign donations. The Greens, on the other hand, have no qualms about trashing national sovereignty, their allegiance being to Gaia and the UN. Perhaps the provisions of section 44 of the Constitution should catch all Greens?

To encourage the sector, Pro Bono Australia is conducting a survey to collect “evidence” on the state of advocacy. One of the lead researchers, Sarah Maddison, was formerly on the board of GetUp!

A fight against the charity sector and Labor and the Greens is not wise. However, recruiting donors and taxpayers to the cause of transparency would work. The Liberal Democrats argued that donations and contributions from foreign sources should be treated no differently from those obtained domestically. As long as the source of the donation was sufficiently identifiable then “voters would be able to use the information to create an informed opinion on which candidates and parties they would choose to support”.

This is the key: inform the ­donors and taxpayers. Charities spend time lobbying government for money. They are indignant that government wants them to account to their donors and the taxpayer for their lobbying.

There is one other important piece of information the government has not required of charities: to disclose money received from government sources by way of grants or contracts.

This information should be explicitly included in charity accounts and on their websites. To this, add international source donations and disclosure of lobbying, and the voters can decide whether the charity operates in the public interest.

This article was first published in The Australian.