National News

Churches and charities caught in foreign influence net

Monday 5 February 2018

Fr Frank Brennan SJ, Eureka Street

7 December 2017 was the last sitting day of the Commonwealth Parliament last year.

The media spotlight understandably was on the historic vote in the parliament giving the go ahead to same sex marriage. Meanwhile, the pressure was on Labor’s Sam Dastyari to resign from the Senate in the wake of his dealings with Chinese business interests and of his political actions which may have been influenced by such dealings. Also, both sides of politics were having to admit that they had received significant donations from Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo. Immediately following the bipartisan euphoria on the passage of the same sex marriage legislation, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced to the House of Representatives a series of bills including the very shoddily drafted Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017.

He told Parliament that the government was sticking to three principles: ‘we are focused on the activities of foreign states and their agents in Australia and not the loyalties of Australians who happen to be from a foreign country’; ‘interference is unacceptable from any country whether you might think of it as friend, foe or ally’; and ‘we will not tolerate foreign influence activities that are in any way covert, coercive or corrupt’. He asserted, ‘That is the line that separates legitimate influence from unacceptable interference.’

These three principles are fine. But the proposed legislation goes well beyond these principles. The line has not been well drawn. The legislation defines ‘registrable activities’ and then sets out a series of exemptions. The web of registrable activities is impossibly wide. The public servants trying to explain the operation of the bill gave an example of a priest preaching against euthanasia, asserting that ‘the priest’s position is consistent with the Catholic Church’s position on voluntary euthanasia, as determined by Vatican City’ and would thus be a registrable activity because the Vatican is a foreign government. But this registrable activity would then be exempt. They explained that the ‘exemption seeks to avoid the activities of the churches affiliated with foreign government, such as the Catholic Church, being registrable under the scheme’. The drafters of the legislation have an Orwellian view that Catholics operate at the direction of foreign operatives.

The government hoped that the public consultation on this legislation would be complete before both Houses of Parliament resumed on 5 February 2018. But the shoddy drafting has occasioned such public concern that Andrew Hastie who is chairing the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Security and Intelligence has extended the time for public submissions until 15 February 2018.

Appearing before the committee last week, Catholic Bishop Robert McGuckin was unapologetic: ‘I want to be clear in rejecting the characterisation of the Catholic Church found in the explanatory memorandum. Catholics are followers of Jesus Christ. We are not agents of a foreign government. The Catholic Church in Australia is made up of millions of Australian citizens who practice their Catholic faith, and they’re not beholden to a foreign power.’

Andrew Hastie appreciated how cumbersome was the language of the bill and the mindset of the bureaucrats who drafted it. He told the bishop: ‘I take the theological point that the Catholic Church is first and foremost a spiritual enterprise and not affiliated with a foreign government.’ Another Government member on the committee, Julian Leeser, backed him up: ‘I completely understand. Bishop McGuckin, let me say for myself: I accept your submission that the Catholic Church in Australia is not a foreign power.’ Leeser conceded the need for clarification ‘that effectively the Catholic Church in Australia isn’t acting on behalf of the Pope or Vatican City or whatever it may be’.

'Catholics are followers of Jesus Christ', said Bishop Robert McGuckin.
'We are not agents of a foreign government.
The Catholic Church in Australia is made up of millions of Australian
citizens who practice their Catholic faith,
and they’re not beholden to a foreign power.’

Meanwhile the government is also doing battle on a broader front with charities, whether they be religious or not. Back in the Senate on the last sitting day of the year, Mathias Cormann the Minister for Finance, had introduced another cumbersome bill, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Electoral Funding and Disclosure Reform) Bill 2017. Cormann claimed the bill would ‘improve the consistency of the regulatory treatment of all political actors’. This bill creates new classes of political campaigners and third party campaigners who have to account for their political expenditure. Many charities would now be classed as campaigners.

In the past, political expenditure required public disclosure if it funded the public expression of views about a political party or candidate during an election campaign. This bill would expand the definition of political expenditure to include any funds spent on the public expression of views on any issue that is, or is likely to be, before electors in an election, whether or not there is an election campaign underway. Vinnies campaigning about homelessness at any time would be required to comply with the reporting conditions.

Minister Cormann told the Senate, ‘It is clear that elections are no longer just fought between political parties and candidates, and it is appropriate that all participants who choose to expend significant amounts of political expenditure are subject to transparency.’ He explained how this was to be done: ‘To keep foreign money out of Australian elections, political parties, candidates, Senate groups and significant political campaigners will be banned from receiving foreign gifts over $250, or any money transferred from foreign accounts.’

Vinnies have given an example of how the proposed law would operate, and what a chilling effect it would have on the usual expression of opinions you would expect in a democratic society and what a bureaucratic nightmare it could be for Vinnies just trying to do their job:

Ms Y is an Australian citizen and the CEO of the Australian branch of a multi-national company. She regularly participates in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout to help the homeless. She encourages CEOs of her company in London, New York and Zurich to each donate $250 for her effort. She in turn donates to their charitable works when they occur.

The $250 donations from the overseas donors would need to be placed in a separate account and could not be used for Vinnies’ routine advocacy against homelessness, even when there is no election in the wind. While purporting to place restrictions on foreign donations, the provisions of this bill would not limit the activities of Huang Xiangmo who is a permanent resident of Australia and who has used Australian corporations to funnel large funds to the major political parties.

Minister Cormann has claimed, ‘This bill simply seeks to keep foreign billionaires and foreign governments out of Australia’s elections.’ The political activities of charities are already regulated by charity law and the existing provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918. Charities which overstep the mark can already be pulled into line by the authorities including the ACNC (the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission).

Charities should be exempt from these further restrictive measures. Charities are not political parties, and they should not be treated like political parties. Keeping foreign billionaires and foreign governments out of Australia’s elections can be done without keeping churches and charities out of routine advocacy for the poor and marginalised. Now that Sam Dastyari has resigned from Parliament, it’s time for a more considered drawing of the line so that charities can continue to make their legitimate contribution to a better society while Australian electoral processes are spared covert, coercive or corrupt foreign interference.

Frank Brennan SJ is the CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia
Read this story on the website of Eureka Street 
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