Nicola M Drayton-Glesti, a Legal Entities lawyer at the Wellington Community Law Centre has warned ……
The Charities Commission may be exerting informal social control over community groups. If a group undertakes too much law reform or political advocacy, their charitable status could be removed. This makes community groups’ existence extremely fragile, and is very concerning: the very important “grass roots” voices in our community may slowly be silenced. We do not know how many times a group can write submissions on proposed law changes, appear in front of a Select Committee of Parliament, participate in protest meetings or write letters to the newspaper before their charitable status becomes endangered. Many are now calling for a review of the Charities Act to establish a more modern definition of the word “charitable”.
A review had been set for 2012 but now has been deferred until 2015. International comparisons may be useful here. In 2006, the Australian Tax Office (ATO) removed the charitable status of a small organisation called Aid/Watch which was set up to monitor research and report on the Australian Government’s overseas aid programme. Aid/Watch had specifically criticised the government’s spending of the Tsunami Aid Fund. They lost charitable status because of their “political activities”. In December 2010, the High Court of Australia confirmed that Aid/Watch was in fact entitled to charitable status because:
1. The distinction between politics and charity work is no longer clear. Modern charities are expected to “have a view” on government policy and write submissions etc.
2. Agitation for legislative and political change has a long history in Ausralian democracy and is reflected in the Australian constitution. Ignoring this could restrict the “freedom of speech” of charitable organisations.
The High Court concluded that “public debate by lawful means is beneficial to the community.” This decision lends weight to the early review here of the term “charitable purpose,” and gives clear guidance of what “charity” could mean in modern New Zealand society. How many groups will still be freely advocating for their communities in 2015, without the fear of losing their charitable status? Are we in danger of losing a vital piece of our democracy?
An Extract from: Charitable Status: A New Form of Social Control?
by Nicola M Drayton-Glesti, Community Lawyer – Wellington Community Law Centre
Contribution to a legal seminar on “Getting and Keeping Charitable Status” held by the Wellington Law Centre
Source: Wellington Community Law Centre – Community Newsletter October-November 2010