In an age of increasing polarity, agreement on policy matters between Australia’s major political parties are becoming rarer and rarer. Such a case was evident recently regarding the surprisingly volatile charity sector. Labor and Liberal were both up in arms at the recent decision of the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission (‘ACNC’) to investigate the political activities of an arm of the Catholic Church which manages Melbourne’s private Catholic schools.
The ACNC recently announced that it was investigating the actions of Catholic Education Melbourne (‘CEM’) and was determining whether or not it had breached charity laws. CEM is a registered charity for the purposes of advancing education and religion. The investigation will focus on ‘robo-calls’ commission by CEM during the recent Batman by-election which criticized the Turnbull government’s and the Greens’ education funding policies and which stated that Labor would restore the funding that was cut.
The investigation was sharply criticised by both sides of the political spectrum and is reflective of the uncertain and somewhat divisive restrictions on advocacy and political activities of charities. Under the Charities Act 2013 (Cth), a charitable purpose includes ‘advancing public debate.’ Charities can also promote or oppose changes to law or policy as long as this further or assists their charitable purpose. However, charities are strictly disqualified from undertaking activities with the following purposes:
- Engaging in, or promoting, activities that are unlawful or contrary to public policy; and
- Promoting or opposing a political party or candidate for political office.
It is clear that charities can undertake some advocacy activities and can express their views on policies, ideas and issues, including during election periods. Charities can even broadcast and advertise their views. However, charities must be wary of showing close allegiances or support towards specific candidates or political parties as this is likely to be a disqualifying purpose. A fine-line is drawn when a specific candidate is advancing an issue or policy that closely aligns with the purposes of the charity.
The ACNC is yet to release any findings in relation to CEM and is adopting due process in applying the relevant legislation.
In the lead up to an election, it is increasingly likely that more charities will come under the ACNC’s microscope. It is extremely important that anyone running a charity is aware of the limitations of their ability to undertake advocacy-related and political activities.
For further information about what your charity can and cannot do, please get in touch with the charity law team.