The right-leaning Institute of Public Affairs has joined the Greens, charities and activist group GetUp! in slamming the Turnbull government’s “unprecedented and dangerous” bid to clean up the political donations system.
The think tank, which is often aligned with the Coalition on key policy questions, blasted the plan as unnecessary and excessive, arguing the legislation was so poorly drafted as to go “way beyond” its declared aims.
Under the bill before Parliament, political parties, associated entities and all organisations engaged in political advocacy would be banned from receiving foreign donations, and would be subject to more rigorous disclosure and transparency requirements.
IPA research fellow Gideon Rozner, who advised former special minister of state Michael Ronaldson during the Abbott government, said the potential reach of the bill was “extremely concerning” and could effectively silence contributions to the public debate.
“This bill represents a dangerous restriction on freedom of speech, and sets a very bad precedent,” he said. “The apparent aim of the bill is to regulate entities that actively campaign at elections … but the way the bill is drafted goes way beyond these aims. Charities, religious organisations, industry associations, service clubs and other groups could all be affected.”
Of particular concern to the think tank was the expansion of disclosure obligations to the n Electoral Commission. For the first time, any group spending more than $100,000 advocating on potential election issues will be subject to the donations disclosure regime, and will not be able to use foreign money for any political expenditure.
In its submission to the government, provided to Fairfax Media, the IPA argued this arrangement was “extremely wide and poorly-drafted”. It said compliance costs would be severe, and would favour groups who are “prominent, entrenched and well-funded”.
The think tank has been reluctant to report its own sources of funding, but believes it would be exempt from the new rules as an academic organisation. News media organisations are also exempted, which the IPA argues is arbitrary and a “double standard”.
The Turnbull government has already copped criticism from the charities sector, which has been included in the shake-up, and by activist group GetUp, which is regarded as the government’s main target under the new regime. Government ministers have repeatedly singled out GetUp! as a quasi political party in bed with Labor and the Greens – an assertion rejected by GetUp!
A ban on foreign donations to political parties is supported across the political spectrum but the extent of the crackdown is disputed. Momentum for the ban was aided by the foreign influence scandal that sank former Labor senator Sam Dastyari – but the IPA argued in its submission Mr Dastyari’s downfall was evidence that “the system, such as it is, works”.
Special Minister of State Mathias Cormann said the bill was modelled on overseas precedents and the design was necessary to stop foreigners “channelling” money into n politics through alternative means. He said the number of charities actually affected would be “very small” and rejected the IPA’s characterisation of the bill as burdensome.
“The new rules are proportionate, necessary and apply to all relevant political actors equally,” Senator Cormann told Fairfax Media. “The integrity, real and perceived, of ‘s electoral system is critical to our system of government.”