HELEN SZOKE PRESS CLUB
Charities are pushing back against proposed foreign interference laws which they fear could stifle their ability to raise funds and silence their community advocacy.
A broad alliance of charities, not-for-profits and community groups have raised serious concerns about three pieces of legislation aimed at curbing interference.
The groups fear they will be cut off from international philanthropy and regulated much more heavily than businesses, lobbyists and industry bodies.
They are also concerned the laws would redefine political activity for charities and make it harder to co-operate on issues-based advocacy.
A bipartisan deal was struck last week to pass amended legislation targeting secret attempts by foreign spies to influence Australia's politicians and media.
A second bill forces people acting on behalf of foreign powers to register or face criminal charges, while a third targets electoral funding and disclosures.
The charity sector believes - despite extensive amendments to the bills - the laws will hurt some of Australia's largest and most respected not-for-profit organisations.
Oxfam Australia regularly works with foreign governments to deliver aid programs, and fears it will be required to register as a foreign agent in those situations.
"Humanitarian work must be seen as independent and neutral," its chief executive Helen Szoke said on Friday.
"Being categorised as a 'foreign agent' could hurt our reputation with partners in Australia and overseas."
Attorney-General Christian Porter insisted there is an urgency for the parliament to pass the foreign interference laws ahead of five by-elections to be held in July.
He suggested foreign interference could take a number of forms, such as hacking into an Australian Electoral Commission website to change voter registration information.
But members of the Hands Off Our Charities alliance insisted they would only support laws which adhere to six key principles:
* Charities and not-for-profit groups are able to use funding (including from overseas) for issues-based advocacy
* There is a clear distinction between issues-based advocacy and politically partisan electioneering
* Charities and not-for-profits are not subjected to harsher regulations or stricter compliance measures
* Donors of gifts not being used to promote or oppose a candidate or party for political office should not be subjected to new reporting or registration requirements
* A "clear, precise and unambiguous" regime is established so charities are not left wondering what applies to them
* Charities and not-for-profits must be free to work with non-Australian citizens and non-permanent residents to advance issues of public interest.
Labor shares the alliance's concerns on foreign donations, arguing overseas money should be banned from politics without hurting charities.
"There is bipartisan support for banning foreign political donations, but banning donations to political parties should not entail cutting down free speech," opposition frontbencher Andrew Leigh said.
"When the voice of charities and not-for-profits are threatened, so is our democracy."