In December 2017, the Turnbull Government introduced legislation to restrict foreign political donations. This is because only Australians and Australian entities have a legitimate role in influencing Australian elections and political processes.
Contrary to a campaign of misinformation, the Bill does not ban charities from advocating for their stated cause.
The Bill does not restrict charities from receiving foreign donations to fund non-political activity, such as medical research, conservation or aid projects.
A handful of charities (approximately 0.02 percent of Australian charities) are currently regulated by the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) because they spend significant amounts of money on things like election advertising and campaigning at polling booths. Under current law, significant political expenditure incurred by any entity must be reported to the AEC.
This Bill will continue to apply Australia’s electoral laws to all key groups that participate in elections, including a very small number of charities. Far from targeting charities, this legislation extends Australia’s electoral laws to all entities seeking to influence Australian voters – be they an individual, a business, a union or a charity.
Under the government’s legislation, any entity required to report their political expenditure to the AEC will need to ensure this money is raised from Australians. Political expenditure is defined in existing law, and includes expenditure on the production of material intended or likely to affect voting in an election.
The objective of this Bill is to ensure all political campaigning that targets Australian voters is paid for by Australians – be it election advertising, campaign phone calls or how-to-vote recommendations. Foreign governments, foreign billionaires and foreign companies have no legitimate role in funding these activities to influence Australian politics.
The reality of modern political campaigning is that a range of entities – not just political parties and candidates – spend millions of dollars each year to influence voters. Banning foreign donations to some political campaign groups, but not others, would create loopholes for foreign interests to seek to influence Australian politics.
This approach is consistent with foreign donations bans in other jurisdictions, including New South Wales, Canada and the United Kingdom, and enjoys broad support in the Commonwealth Parliament.
According to AEC data, in 2015-16 political campaign groups like GetUp spent almost $40 million influencing Australians’ votes.
GetUp alone incurred $10 million in political expenditure in the year leading up to the 2016 federal election, handing out how to vote cards and campaigning on election issues.
As a very significant political group GetUp should clearly be subject to the same transparency and disclosure requirements as other political groups such as political parties, and GetUp should be subject to the same ban on foreign political donations.
The Bill does provide for future regulations to determine what information a political party or political campaigner can rely on to determine that a donation is permitted. That may include a statutory declaration but is likely to include other options.