The Uniting Church has expressed concern that new electoral funding laws could stifle advocacy by Australian religious organisations.
Legislation aimed at regulating foreign influence on the Australian political system was introduced into parliament last December.
Under the proposed Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill, all political parties and organisations engaged in political advocacy will be banned from receiving foreign donations.
Any organisation defined as serving a “political purpose” will be required to register as a “political campaigner”.
Political campaigners will also have to keep records of donors who contribute more than $250 to verify that they are Australian citizens or residents.
Charities believe the reporting requirements will create a huge red-tape burden that will divert resources away from frontline services. A ProBono Australia poll of the not-for-profit sector found that 79 per cent of respondents are concerned about how the draft bill will affect them.
A number of NGOs, including St Vincent de Paul, World Vision Australia and Oxfam Australia, have criticised the vagueness of the proposed legislation.
Advocacy on issues such as homelessness, income inequality, tax justice, refugees, Indigenous justice and the environment could be classified as political activity under the new legislation.
Uniting Church president Stuart McMillan called on the government to redraft the legislation.
“These changes, if implemented, have the potential to damage the democratic process,” Mr McMillan said.
“Welfare and public interest advocacy should not be seen as political, nor should funds received for this purpose be seen as ‘political donations’.”
Mr McMillan warned the proposed legislation would have a chilling effect on organisations that campaign for social policy changes.
“Churches and other organisations advocating for the common good should not be impeded in exercising our prophetic voice,” he said.
“These changes will make it harder to make heard the voices, issues and concerns of people in the communities we serve.”
UnitingCare Australia and the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania have both made submissions to the federal government.
In the synod’s submission, Dr Mark Zirnsak said the government needs to differentiate between organisations that “campaign for particular policy outcomes” and those that “campaign for certain parties or candidates to be elected”.
“Many Australians rely on the analysis of the policies of political parties by civil society organisations they trust,” Dr Zirnsak said.
“The Bill appears to stifle certain civil society groups being able to publicly advocate for what kind of society we would want to be, rather than be targeted at genuine political activities tied to the election process.
“As drafted, the Bill will reduce scrutiny of political parties policies.”
Dr Zirnsak said all religious organisations could be defined as serving a “political purpose” under the proposed legislation. The electoral commissioner will also have the power to decide which registered political party an entity like the Uniting Church will be associated with.
“There are policies of each of the major political parties that the Church would be supportive of and there are policies of each of the major parties the Uniting Church in Australia would oppose,” Dr Zirnsak said.
“If the Electoral Commissioner decides the Uniting Church in Australia must register as an associated entity, how will the commissioner decide which registered political party to allocate the church to?”
The federal government will release a report on the Bill by 2 March.
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