Talk of banning political donations, or banning corporate and union political donations, should have Australia’s non-government organisations very worried. As the current bill before the Senate to tighten the political donations law shows, governments increasingly regard NGOs as direct competitors in the political system, with changes to political party donations laws flowing through to the NGO disclosure regime.

Labor’s current reform legislation, for example, would lower all disclosure thresholds in the Commonwealth Electoral Act to just $1000 each six months, down from nearly $11,000 each 12 months now. This would mean that NGOs spending $1000 expressing views on political parties, candidates or election issues would have to report this, and any donors of more than $1000 whose money financed the expenditure, to the Australian Electoral Commission. Failure to disclose could result in convictions and fines for activists involved in very small-scale political activity.

The proposed new rules on anonymous donations would also apply to NGOs, turning money-in-a-bucket community fundraisers into an AEC red-tape extravaganza. To ensure nobody gives more than $50, organisers of private political fundraisers would need to report the date, location and nature of the event; the number of people in attendance; the names and addresses of those collecting the donations; and the total amount received. Penalties for breach of this provision are as high as jail.

Prison terms also loom for NGO officials caught spending foreign-sourced donations, potentially a major issue for global organisations like Greenpeace. The proposed law on foreign-sourced donations is anomaly-ridden. Australian expatriates will be banned from giving unless they have kept an Australian bank account. Yet foreigners will be allowed to give if they have an Australian bank account. The law would permit foreigners to purchase political activity for their commercial activity, but ban them from giving out of public interest concerns.

The rules are already tougher on NGOs than political parties. NGOs must report their spending in more detail and make complex distinctions between activities. Yet unlike political parties which often have professional political staff, many NGOs are either small volunteer organisations or are only incidentally involved in politics. It is much more likely that NGO members and staff will accidentally break the law out of ignorance or inability to understand their obligations.

NGO disclosure rules could and should be simplified. But the bigger question is whether the disclosure regime should apply to NGOs at all. Unlike political parties, they have no direct control over government decisions, and the disclosure regime does nothing to target ‘secret’ influence—NGOs only have to disclose spending on activities that are already public. The last two years of disclosures have only told us what we already knew: that the unions spent a fortune campaigning against the Howard government. Already the costs of these laws outweigh the negligible benefits. The more donations law is tightened, the more NGO political activity is likely to suffer.

Andrew Norton’s paper Diminishing Democracy: The threat posed by political expenditure laws is published by the Centre for Independent Studies.