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Lobbyists parading as charities can account to donors and taxpayers

By Gary Johns - posted Thursday, 31 August 2017

Remember, many of these charities, which operate under the guise of public benefit, may find that some members of the public do not consider campaigns against coal as in their interest; or campaigns to give aid to Third World kleptomaniacs as in their interest; or campaigns to lock Aborigines on to collectives and out of the economy as in their interests; or campaigns to increase welfare dependence as in their interests. All these and most other charity matters are contestable. One man's public benefit is another man's public enemy.

What to do? My advice is as follows. Labor and Greens do not support blocking foreign donations, while Labor is at least wary of the accusation of breach of ­national sovereignty in foreign donations. The Greens, on the other hand, have no qualms about trashing national sovereignty, their allegiance being to Gaia and the UN. Perhaps the provisions of section 44 of the Constitution should catch all Greens?

To encourage the sector, Pro Bono Australia is conducting a survey to collect "evidence" on the state of advocacy. One of the lead researchers, Sarah Maddison, was formerly on the board of GetUp!


A fight against the charity sector and Labor and the Greens is not wise. However, recruiting donors and taxpayers to the cause of transparency would work. The Liberal Democrats argued that donations and contributions from foreign sources should be treated no differently from those obtained domestically. As long as the source of the donation was sufficiently identifiable then "voters would be able to use the information to create an informed opinion on which candidates and parties they would choose to support".

This is the key: inform the ­donors and taxpayers. Charities spend time lobbying government for money. They are indignant that government wants them to account to their donors and the taxpayer for their lobbying.

There is one other important piece of information the government has not required of charities: to disclose money received from government sources by way of grants or contracts.

This information should be explicitly included in charity accounts and on their websites. To this, add international source donations and disclosure of lobbying, and the voters can decide whether the charity operates in the public interest.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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