Australian bank notes and coins. Photo by: Theen Moy / CC BY-NC-SA

CANBERRA — Australian-operated INGOs fear that a current government inquiry into political donations could threaten their ability to receive overseas funding, cutting an estimated 137 million Australian dollars ($108 million) — or 7 percent — from annual funding and impacting their work worldwide.

As part of its terms of reference, the inquiry into and report on all aspects of the conduct of the 2016 Federal Election is investigating donations from foreign sources that may impact political campaigning, the extent to which fundraising and expenditure by third parties is conducted in concert with registered political parties, and current donations disclosures.

While the inquiry ostensibly focuses on political parties, Australia’s development sector fears they could fall under the proposed legislation’s remit. As the government looks to lessen the power of local campaigning organizations that have wielded outsized political influence, international NGOs fear they could be caught it the crosshairs.

The Australian Council for International Development, CARE Australia, Save the Children, World Vision, and World Wide Fund for Nature are among the organizations that have made submissions to the inquiry urging an exemption for NGOs. But NGOs are working with the broader charity sector and Philanthropy Australia to advocate for a charity exemption.

Civil space in peril

Closed offices, seized records, bureaucratic delays, and new laws targeting their work —  these are just some of the ways that governments are cracking down against aid groups across the globe.

In this series, Devex will examine this shrinking civic space and go behind the scenes to understand why and how NGOs are being singled out — and how the impact resonates far beyond the borders of those countries involved.

Read more: 'Massive anxiety' as Turkey cracks down on international NGOs

In their submission, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission strongly highlighted their efforts to ensure political influences of charities are limited to their causes.

Changes to legislation would be another case in a worrying precedent for philanthropic protectionism globally. A recent paper from the Transnational Institute notes that government-imposed constraints are impacting on the ability of domestic civil society organizations to receive international funding not just in India, Russia, Ethiopia, and Egypt, but dozens of other countries through various national laws.

The message from the development sector to the inquiry is clear: charities need to be exempt from any proposed legislation.

“International philanthropy complements domestic philanthropy in supporting charities that make a valuable contribution to the public good in Australia,” Marc Purcell, CEO of ACFID, told Devex.

Why are international NGOs under threat?

In theory, there is no reason Australian charities should fear loss of income from international sources. The ACNC has rules outlining what charities can and cannot do in regards to political advocacy with legislative power to take action against charities that do not abide by the rules.

“Charities cannot engage in party politics and must stick to their charitable purpose when it comes to advocacy,” Purcell said. “This is set out in Charitable and Electoral law, and the statutory regulator — the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission — has powers to investigate and impose penalties for wrongdoing.”

But in practice, the impact of community campaigning organization GetUp on the political scene means that charities do face a real threat.

GetUp, which is not registered with the ACNC, has become a threat to the current government with campaigns targeting specific political issues and even politicians, including Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, GetUp reported spending more than 10 million Australian dollars ($7.9 million) in 2015-16 to influence the outcome of the 2016 federal election.

Reports of GetUp receiving 300,000 Australian dollars ($235,611) in foreign donations over two years means that this inquiry could be looking at ways to reduce the organization’s political influences. And international NGOs could be collateral in the political battle.

How would this affect Australia’s INGOS?

Purcell told Devex international philanthropy complements domestic philanthropy in supporting charities that make a valuable contribution to the public good in Australia. At 7 percent of total financing, international donations are an important source of funding.

For ACFID members, as with other international NGOs, work is not limited to one country — which makes NGOs of interest to international philanthropists and organizations seeking to make a difference in humanitarian and sustainable development.

Globally, philanthropic funding from sources including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is important in being able to innovate to create larger impact for sustainable development. Within Australian in particular, private sector investment in international development NGOs is still at an early stage — similar to impact investing and social bonds.

Without the instruments or practice domestically to support a 7 percent drop in funding for charities, communities in need will be impacted.

But it could also have the potential to further impact on the ability of NGOs to engage in the Australian aid program, which is encouraging greater private sector engagement. Recent aid announcements by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has included partnerships with Bloomberg Philanthropies, as well as a range of international private sector partners through the Business Partnerships Platform.

Legislation preventing international funding could impact the involvement of NGOs in the aid program and limit their ability to innovate.

Who is advocating for NGOs?

Outside of the inquiry, the issue on international philanthropy and funding for NGOs has been raised with the prime minister’s office, the foreign minister’s office, and minister for international development and the Pacific’s office in the hope they will advocate for international NGOs.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were contacted by Devex to provide information on the nature of this engagement, the position of the department and its ministers, and the potential impact new legislation could have on an international aid program that is encouraging wider public sector engagement — with international philanthropy an important source of private sector investment.

But their response provided little insight into whether they would advocate on behalf of NGOs when it came to drafting legislation.

“DFAT is aware of concerns held by some NGOs regarding possible restrictions on foreign political donations,” a spokesperson from the foreign minister's office told Devex. “It is expected that draft legislation will be introduced in the spring session of Parliament.”

Without a submission to the inquiry from DFAT, the department’s position is a question mark.

The message from Australia’s NGOs

Purcell is urging Australia’s politicians to not let public concern over foreign donations to political parties be used as a mandate for “catch-all regulation,” which could gag charities, undermine financial sustainability, and stifle democracy.

“Communities want charities to be advocates on their behalf and to raise their voice on matters of public interest,” he said. “We do not want to see charities silenced and shut out of public policy debates, further marginalizing those least able to speak out.”

There was a categorical difference, he said, between the access to decision-making by political parties and charities, which do not have the lobbying clout of big business.

“Public trust in charities is also increasing, not decreasing,” he said. “Yet, it is charities who are highly regulated when it comes to political campaigning and face sanctions for wrongdoing.”

And it is not just an Australian concern; it is increasingly becoming a global concern impacting the development’s sector right to advocate for those in need with the smallest of voices in the world’s politics.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.