JOAN STAPLES. Government targets international philanthropy for civil society.

Dec 6, 2017

A Bill expected to be introduced by the Government this week, may deliberately create confusion by linking foreign donations to political parties, with foreign donations to civil society organisations.  It is expected to propose banning both.

Difference between civil society and political parties

Placing the two proposals in the one Bill ignores the fundamental difference between political parties and civil society.  Politicians and their parties form governments, and governments have the executive power to enact legislation that materially advantages or disadvantages organisations and individuals.  In contrast, civil society cannot pass legislation.  Instead, it is the engine of ideas in our democracy.   The conjuring trick in linking the two proposals is an attempt to continue conservative attacks on NGO advocacy and ‘wedge’ Labor into supporting the Bill – a strategy that could well succeed given Labor sensitivities in regard to a Chinese donor’s links to Sam Dastyari and Labor, and the Coalition’s current pursuit of that issue.

The proposed Bill is the result of an Inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters following the 2016 election – the second part of which was into Foreign Donations.  Banning foreign donations to politicians and political parties has strong civil society backing, strong public support and, significantly, the agreement of Labor, the Coalition and Greens.  It is being addressed in the context of US debate about Russian influence on the Presidential election, and Australian examples of Chinese funding of politicians such as Dastyari and his travel.

‘Hands Off Our Charities’ campaign

Proposed legislation linking NGOs to a ban on overseas funding has led to the formation of one of the broadest coalitions of civil society groupings for many years.  Last week 25 charities launched their ‘Hands Off Our Charities’ campaign.  They included Oxfam, the Fred Hollows Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, World Vision,, the Human Rights Law Centre and numerous environmental NGOs such as the Australian Conservation Foundation.  When it became clear the Standing Committee Inquiry was looking to link civil society to the overseas funding restrictions, submissions were received from many groups including peaks such as the Australian Council for International Development, Philanthropy Australia, the Community Council of Australia, and the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes.

Increasingly, civil society is also the provider of services – in social welfare, international development, health, education, etc. – as governments have withdrawn more and more from this area.  This sector will be materially disadvantaged by any restriction on overseas philanthropy.  Polling by the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) showed that Australians of all political persuasions were opposed to a ban on foreign donations to charities.

Minerals Council influence

ACFID polling also showed that voters were more concerned about foreign corporate influence in Australia.  The Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) has been proactive in promoting a range of restrictions on NGOS to the Inquiry.  While its aim may be environmental NGOs, its proposals would affect the wider social services, international aid, and health sectors.

The Greens have noted that the Minerals Council is ‘an active political third party’ with 43% of its members being foreign owned, Rio Tinto and BHP being partly foreign owned and 18% being ASX listed and potentially including foreign shareholders.  However, the Minerals Council were not subject to the findings of the Standing Committee.

The Coalition, Labor and the Greens were unanimous in supporting the Committee recommendations in relation to donations to political parties.  However, both Labor and the Greens provided dissenting reports rejecting civil society (identified as ‘third parties’) being brought into the debate.  The Greens said that, ‘A ban on overseas donations to third parties would drastically curtail the role of civil society in Australia and would make the playing field less rather than more equal.’

The Labor dissenting report also indicated that they could not support extending the ban against overseas donations ‘to capture all third parties that are in any way involved in public campaigning’ and that to do so would be a ‘dramatic extension of scope of the current regulatory scheme under the Act’. However, Labor is in defensive mode following accusations against Dastyari, and Shorten, in relation to a Chinese donor.  Labor’s position on ‘third parties’ in the proposed Bill is currently unclear.  It may become clearer once the detail of the legislation is tabled.

The proposed restrictions on receiving overseas philanthropy that would affect civil society advocacy and service delivery are a continuation of 20 years of attacks – motivated firstly by neoliberal ideology that NGOs ‘interfere with the market’, and secondly, by the influence of the mining lobby.  Linking foreign donations to political parties and to civil society in the one Bill would be a cynical attempt to force through yet another restriction on NGOs.

Dr Joan Staples was the ACF National Liaison Officer during the Hawke Government and is currently an Associate in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. Her research area is the democratic role of civil society.


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