Increased compliance obligations for charities target environmental advocacy organisations

The long campaign against the environment movement

As the environment and climate movements grow in power and influence, various conservative and anti-environmental forces have sought to damage or reduce the power of the movement.

The campaign against environmental protectors reached something of a fever pitch while Tony Abbott was the Australian Prime Minister, and has become less overt since Malcolm Turnbull became PM. But it is now clear that the agenda continues, with a new ‘review’ of tax arrangements for non-government organisations (NGOs) singling out environmental organisations for particular scrutiny.

Last Thursday evening at the Conservation Council of SA AGM we heard from Dr Peter Burdon and Dr Sylvia Villios speak about changes to the charity (DGR) status of environmental NGOs. They spoke about the recent treasury discussion paper, describing the proposed changes. Submissions have now closed, but none of the proposed changes have been passed into law. There is still an opportunity to influence this process by contacting the Federal Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt or the Assistant Minister to the Treasurer, Michael Sukkar.

For more background on this campaign, as well as additional resources, click here:

This article appeared in The Saturday Paper is recommended:

The article is behind a paywall, but the site allows non-subscribers to read one article free per week. Here are some excerpts from the article:

In 2015, the government initiated an inquiry by the House of Representatives standing committee on the environment into whether green groups should lose their Deductible Gift Recipient status if they engaged in advocacy or protest.

The current minister with responsibility for the commission is the assistant minister to the treasurer, Michael Sukkar.

“Michael Sukkar is of that right-wing part of the Victorian Liberal Party, along with Kevin Andrews, that opposed the very notion of the ACNC,” David Crosbie says.

The committee went through the motions of taking submissions and evidence, but the result was a foregone conclusion. Indeed, some members of the committee trumpeted their findings before the inquiry began. During one inquiry hearing, Queensland Nationals MP George Christensen tweeted about cancelling tax-deductible status: “Time to get the donations in. I can’t see it continuing longer once we report.”

Sure enough, a majority of that committee recommended in May last year that the advocacy of these groups should be limited and at least 25 per cent of the budgets should be focused on “on-ground” environmental remediation work.

In other words, they should concentrate on cleaning up environmental messes rather than lobbying to prevent them happening. As David Crosbie, chief executive of the Community Council for Australia, the peak body representing non-profit groups, puts it: the change would see them “picking up the dead fish instead of advocating to stop the poisons going into the stream.”

The deputy program director at Greenpeace, Susannah Compton, attacked the proposal as an attempt to “turn environmental advocates into a clean-up crew for fossil fuel companies and the government”. She said it amounted to “a double hit” for taxpayers. “First the government subsidises large fossil fuel companies through tax exemptions and grants that cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions,” she said. “Then they try to force charities to use the money given to them by the community … for cleaning up the fossil fuel companies’ mess.”

Subsequent to the parliamentary committee, the government commissioned an inquiry by the Treasury into the Deductible Gift Recipient status of other charities, not just environmental ones, which also recommended they be required to devote more resources to on-ground activities rather than advocacy.

“Indeed, the Treasury paper steps it up and talks about 50 per cent,” says Darren Kindleysides, director of the Marine Conservation Society, who passed on to The Saturday Paper the environment department’s letter demanding information from his organisation. “It amounts to an attack on free speech, to democracy.”

There is international precedent for this. In Canada, the right-wing Harper government attempted to close down environmental advocacy by auditing charity groups and insisting they spend less than 10 per cent of their time and resources on political advocacy. It was effective in muting the voice of civil society, but his Conservatives still lost the last election in a landslide.

Beyond these changes, is the second front in the Abbott/Turnbull government’s efforts to nobble charities: the changes to the operation of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC).

Last week Susan Alberti was appointed to the board of the ACNC. Charity leaders have expressed concern about that, but of greater worry to the sector is a second appointment, a former tax partner with PwC, Peter Hogan. Sukkar’s media release noted Hogan remained “actively involved on boards of listed corporations …” It failed to mention what types of corporations. It omitted, notably, that he was chairman of a fossil fuel company, Carbon Energy, which specialised in mining unconventional gas and the technology of underground coal gasification, now banned for its pollution of groundwater, soil and air.

“So,” says Crosbie, “now we have a director of a company which is a member of the Minerals Council, which is driving the campaign to close down advocacy, with influence inside the commission.

“What concerns us is that they are planning to repurpose the ACNC to close down advocacy.”

In any case, Crosbie says, charities are “already more constrained and accountable than any other advocacy groups”.

The Charities Act forbids them from partisan political campaigning: they can take their arguments to the public on issues within their remit, but they cannot tell people how to vote.

“If a green group hands out a how to vote card, you can complain and have it stopped,” he says. “But you can’t complain about the Minerals Council telling people how they should vote, much less stop them.”

That is not sufficient for the conservatives.

“Our understanding is that the changes being drafted will say that if you received any overseas donations you won’t be able to campaign during an election period,” Crosbie says.

The whole issue is freighted with irony and hypocrisy: that a government allegedly committed to removing red tape for industry is intent on burdening civil society groups with more of it; that a government that advocated the right of racists and bigots to free speech is trying to curtail the rights of civil society groups; that a government trying to prevent charities from advocating to political ends imposes no such restrictions on the likes of the Minerals Council or other corporate influencers.

But this isn’t about consistency or principle. It’s about monied interests, power and political survival.