A Coalition-chaired committee has called new government regulations for charities unnecessary and suggested they have the potential to restrict freedom of speech.
Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has written to Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar on behalf of the Senate standing committee to express concerns about the Morrison government’s proposed amendments to charities regulations.
The amendments would give the charities commissioner far-reaching powers to deregister charities for minor offences – such as blocking a footpath at a vigil – or if he believes a minor offence may occur in the future.
Earlier this year, the Morrison government supported recommendations that would overhaul laws for charities and not-for-profits and give the charity body discretion to disclose issues, but an alliance of over 30 charities has welcomed the senator’s letter abhorring the proposed regulations.
In the letter, Senator Fierravanti-Wells noted that the government “does not provide sufficient detail as to the scope of [the charities commissioner’s] discretionary powers, their necessity, or any relevant limitations”, and asked why it is appropriate and necessary to expand the commissioner’s discretion.
The proposed changes have already been criticised by a number of legal professionals, who called them “unconstitutional” and “indefensible” regulations that would stop charities from fulfilling their purpose and continuing public interest work freely.
The charities commissioner, Gary Johns, has previously admitted in the Senate that he has seen no evidence to support the changes to the regulations being necessary.
The committee’s concerns reflect those of the Law Council of Australia, who said the laws “inhibit legitimate public dialogue by registered charities to the detriment of Australian representative democracy”, and others including top-tier law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler, who said that the regulations are “fundamentally inconsistent with our democratic system of government”.
The Reverend Tim Costello AO, chair of the Community Council for Australia and former CEO of World Vision Australia, called the new regulations “anti-democratic” and said they would silence charities’ legitimate advocacy.
“Giving the charity commissioner power to shutter a charity for a minor offence by a member is the equivalent of the electoral commissioner having discretion to deregister the Liberal Party because a party member damages someone’s lawn when putting up a sign,” he said.
“It is heartening to see that this important committee shares the concerns of charities from across the sector, which have formed a broad alliance to condemn these egregious regulations. The committee’s intervention is a clear signal that these laws are unprecedented and an unjustified regulatory overreach. The charity sector is speaking with one voice: these new laws must be scrapped.”
Dr Cassandra Goldie, CEO of the Australian Council of Social Service, added that this was an “attack on charities and our democracy”.
“Throughout history, and today, we have also pushed for change when our communities need it. A healthy democracy is one where communities and their charities are free to speak up and act in the interests of the people they represent and serve,” she said.
“It is the government’s role to support us. These regulations do exactly the opposite and they must be stopped.”