Queensland charity laws to face High Court challenge

By Naomi Neilson|19 January 2020

The proposed changes to a Queensland law that would severely cap charity donations could face a High Court challenge due to its “well intentioned” but “serious flaws”.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s (HRLC) team of Queensland barristers has warned the Palaszczuk government that changes to state electoral laws would lock out some charities, community groups and other not-for-profits from election debates.

HRLC senior lawyer Alice Drury said: “It’s critical that charities and the local community groups are able to engage in election debates on the work they do, whether it is about women’s rights, stopping gambling harm or protecting the environment.”

“We’ve been warning that this proposed legislation will muzzle those vital voices. Now, they are expert Queensland barristers concluding that the proposed laws could breach the Australian constitution and be invalid,” Ms Drury added.

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These experts are being led by Stephen Keim SC who, along with his team, said that “rather than levelling the playing field”, the laws would push charities and not-for-profits to the lower end of the “expenditure continuum” and out of political discussions.

Proposed laws are likely to impose “onerous compliance obligations” on a community group or charity that spends more than $1,000 on election advocacy. It will prevent the regular donors from giving more than $4,000 in a four-year term. As such, all charities and community groups will struggle to raise funds to speak out on election matters.

In contrast, corporations will not face any restrictions on any of the income they use to fund campaigning and will be able to spend up to $1 million on election advertising.

It is important to note the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) prohibits these groups from either promoting or opposing a political party or candidate for office or engage in or promote activities that are contrary to public opinion.

They are permitted to have a purpose of advancing public debate and to either oppose or promote a change to a law, policy or practice where it aids a charitable purpose.

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Mr Keim’s advice states the $1,000 election spending threshold will trigger compliance obligations by charities and community groups for an “absurdly low” amount and said it places further burdens on proposed laws on communication.

“It is critical that these laws don’t silence the voice of charities and Queenslanders and leave big businesses to run large-scale election campaigns,” Ms Drury said. “If these problems in the proposed legislation are not fixed, the Queensland government could worsen political inequality in Queensland and face a High Court challenge,” he said.

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Queensland charity laws to face High Court challenge
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