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Thursday, 15 November 2018
Page: 8294


Senator McALLISTER (New South WalesDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:13): Before turning to the substance of the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the tortuous path to get here. The government's initial legislation was entirely inappropriate. It left charities and not-for-profits terrified that they would be stripped of their ability to participate in public debate. It has taken a year of fighting, both inside and outside this place, to drag the government to a position that is acceptable. I've been meeting with members of Hands Off Our Charities throughout this time. This organisation deserves our thanks. The organisations involved and their work on this issue showcase exactly what the community sector has to offer: a genuine commitment to ensuring that Australia has a vibrant and free public debate about the issues that matter.

I've spoken in this chamber a number of times this year about the importance of advocacy by the community sector. It's a belief that the government doesn't seem to share. Throughout its life, this government has shown hostility to civil society. The government's first draft of this bill was simply the latest in a series of aggressions towards the sector that included the abortive push to deny environmental groups legal standing and the outrageous gag clauses that prevent charities that deliver government social services from speaking out on policy issues. The government seems to think the only role for charities should be to provide services that the government can't be bothered to provide itself, and this is a mistake.

The community sector brings a depth of knowledge and understanding to public debate, and advocacy is a core part of its mission. Take Foodbank, for example: when they're not having their funding cut by the government for no apparent reason—like this week—their core mission is to provide food relief to vulnerable Australians and their families. Solving hunger in the long term, however, requires much more than putting meals on the table; it means addressing the fundamental drivers of poverty. So Foodbank have a separate research and advocacy strategy to shine a light on hunger and its causes. Hands Off Our Charities put it quite well in the communique they issued earlier this year: 'The people of Australia, and our country's civil society, need to be free to air their views, however uncomfortable for governments or political parties. And this best guarantees that our laws and policies truly support the Australian community.'

Democracy doesn't start in this place. It starts with free, well-informed debate in our media and around our kitchen tables. And those debates need honest voices that are genuinely interested in the public interest. That's why it's important that there be proper rules governing foreign donations. The community sector not only needs to have the ability to speak it needs to have the ability to be heard. We've seen from overseas what can happen when genuine public debate gets crowded out by loud voices funded by foreign interests. Restrictions on foreign donations do not just protect the integrity of our electoral system; at best, they also strengthen the conversations we have about the issues that matter. That is why Labor is happy to support the bill today, subject to important amendments that reflect the concessions we have fought for.

Thanks to the work that the Labor team has done with the sector, charities will have new clarity around their rights and obligations when engaging in political advocacy. We have ensured that only when an organisation spends money to influence a vote will it need to comply with the Electoral Commission's rules. And unless they're spending over $500,000 a year on electioneering—and currently no charity does that—charities and not-for-profits will still be able to use overseas donations to do their everyday work. We've also protected the rights of donors who support charities in their vital work. Civil society plays a unique and important role in public debate and Labor is proud to support it.