Labor backs bill forcing charities to reveal donors in deal with government for dropping voter ID laws

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP</span>
Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP

Labor has helped pass a bill that will force charities to reveal their donors for all advocacy, after the Coalition agreed to drop its proposal to make voters show identification at the 2022 federal election.

The deal has enraged the charity sector, which believed the Senate crossbench would have helped Labor block both the voter ID and political campaigner bills, but they will now have to declare donors with retrospective effect.

On Wednesday the independent senator, Jacqui Lambie, announced that she would vote against the voter ID bill because there was “no way” the benefits outweighed the risks of discouraging legitimate voters.

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Despite the Morrison government’s determination to pass the bill in the final sitting fortnight of the year, the Coalition has struggled due to rebel Liberal senators withholding their votes over vaccine issues. Centre Alliance senator, Stirling Griff, likely the swing vote on voter ID, intended to send the bill to an inquiry.

But the government overcame the impasse on the political campaigner bill, which aims to lower the threshold for entities such as charities to disclose political spending.

On Wednesday afternoon Labor confirmed to Guardian Australia it had reached a deal with the government to pass a watered down version of the bill because it lacked the numbers to refer it to an inquiry and feared the crossbench could wave it through.

Griff disputed that, telling Guardian Australia he would not have voted for a bill that applies retrospectively. The charities sector believes senators Rex Patrick and Jacqui Lambie would have held the same position, enough to block the bill.

Under the deal struck between the Coalition and Labor the proposed legislation was changed to:

  • Raise the new disclosure threshold from $100,000 to $250,000, closer to the current $500,000 threshold; and

  • Rename political campaigners “significant third party”, to allay concerns charities’ status would be under threat for their advocacy.

The bill passed the Senate on Wednesday evening with the Coalition and Labor voting together to defeat unrelated crossbench amendments.

The charities sector is concerned that despite the $250,000 threshold, organisations like the Australian Conservation Foundation, unions, Voices for groups backing independent candidates, and climate groups including Australian Youth Climate Coalition and Farmers for Climate Action will now have to declare their donors.

It is also concerned that the new definition of electoral expenditure will capture issues-based and awareness-raising campaigns that don’t aim to influence voters’ choice.

Senior lawyer at The Human Rights Law Centre Alice Drury told Guardian Australia a coalition of 80 charities was “really disappointed about the whole process this bill has taken”.

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“The government has rushed through amendments to retrospectively capture charities it doesn’t like, in an effort to silence them,” she said.

“We’re equally disappointed Labor has allowed this process to happen.”

Drury said the bill has a “discriminatory” impact on charities, which must demonstrate they are non-partisan to maintain their charitable status, which could be imperilled by advocacy spending above the threshold.

“Our major concern with this law is the threshold will act as a spending cap on charities.

“It will effectively punish them by labelling them, and in the future if an issue comes up during an election year about eradicating homelessness or domestic violence to women and children, charities will feel they can’t respond.”

Greens senator, Larissa Waters, said the party was glad to see the back of the voter ID laws but secretly trading one legislative outcome for another is not how democracy is supposed to work”, labelling the deal a “cynical stitch-up between the government and Labor”.

Although it insists the two issues are not linked, Labor has received a commitment from the Coalition it will not put the voter ID bill to a vote before the 2022 election, in recognition it lacks the support to pass it.

On Wednesday, Lambie revealed that “nearly two-thirds” of 33,500 voters who responded to her poll on the bill opposed it, including a majority in every state and territory.

Guardian Australia revealed the voter ID proposal in October. The bill was panned for its impact on vulnerable groups including Indigenous Australians and people experiencing homelessness.

Even the government-chaired human rights committee found there was no evidence it was necessary. The Australian Electoral Commission had found instances of voter fraud were “vanishingly small”.

Lambie told the Senate the bill prevents people voting for others, but “nobody knows” how often that happens and “that’s about all it does”. Lambie also conceded there were benefits in improving confidence in election results.

But Lambie said there were risks of “unintended consequences” of “asking 16 million Australians to prove they are who they say they are” to stop “1,000 people doing the wrong thing” which hadn’t had a “measurable impact” on the election result so far.

“There’s the risk this bill ends up making things worse, so, some people who are entitled to vote just won’t.”

“Do the benefits outweigh the risks? No, no way, not even close.”

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