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Thursday, 15 November 2018
Page: 8411

Senator CORMANN (Western AustraliaMinister for Finance and the Public Service, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (16:58): The government will oppose this amendment. Where charities spend significant amounts of money to influence the outcome of an election they are already subject to disclosure requirements in the Electoral Act. This is necessary to protect the integrity of the electoral process and will continue to be the case.

The Greens are not correct when they claim that the Charities Act already prevents charities from engaging in partisan political activities. The Charities Act prohibits registered charities from having an overall purpose of promoting or opposing a political party or candidate for political office. However, this does not prevent registered charities from undertaking an activity of promoting or opposing a political party or candidate in pursuit of their broader charitable aim. For example, a charity focused on reducing homelessness might lawfully oppose a candidate seeking to eliminate public housing, to use an extreme example to demonstrate the point.

In the 2015-16 financial year, which included the last election campaign, third-party campaign groups spent almost $40 million on election advertising, polling and campaigning and, indeed, issuing how-to-vote cards. It is clear that elections are no longer just fought between political parties and candidates, and it is appropriate that all participants who choose to make significant amounts of political expenditure are subject to consistent transparency, disclosure and reporting requirements that apply to all other relevant political actors.

The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters considered evidence, including photographs in social media, showing charities and not-for-profits opposing the election of some candidates and promoting the election of other candidates. New political actors do not field candidates from their own ranks or seek to form government, but they actively seek to influence who gets elected and can sway the outcomes of elections. While this is a positive indication of the strength of Australian civil society and civic engagement in our democracy, it is important that these actors be subject to appropriate transparency and accountability rules when their election spending is significant.

I would make the general point, which I have made on the public record on many occasions, that a blanket exemption of charities from, for example, the proposed ban in this bill on foreign political donations would make that ban entirely ineffective, because it would create a massive loophole and a massive incentive for those foreign actors intent on influencing the outcome of elections here in Australia to channel their donations through relevant charitable organisations.

We have considered the views, assessment and recommendations of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, and we believe that we have ended up with an appropriate balance. Of course, issue advocacy is important and will not be affected through this bill, but, where there is significant expenditure to a relevant level on political campaigns, of course the same or similar transparency, disclosure and reporting requirements should apply and the same ban on foreign political donations should apply.