Government inquiry takes aim at green charities that ‘get political’

Friends of the Earth is among the environmental groups that have been criticised in some quarters as ‘anti-jobs’. Friends of the Earth/AAP Image

The almost 600 environmental groups that hold tax-deductibility status in Australia are being scrutinised by a federal government inquiry, with reports that more than 100 of them face being struck off the list.

Some, like the state and territory Conservation Councils and Environmental Defenders Offices, are still reeling from cuts to their programs and core funding. Others, such as Greenpeace, The Wilderness Society, and Friends of the Earth, could lose access to the tax-deductible donations that help sustain their work.

Encouraging donations

Deductible gift-recipient status allows eligible organisations, such as those on the environmental register, to receive tax-deductible gifts and contributions. Consistent with similar schemes in the United States and Europe, the environmental register was established as an incentive for citizens and corporations to fund organisations that are active in the public sphere, while also feeding into the logic of small government and shifting the burden of catering for social needs back onto the community.

In Australia, an environmental organisation is defined as a body or society whose primary purpose is to protect the environment or conduct education and research.

Importantly, however, in 2010 the High Court ruled that groups with tax-deductible status also have the right to engage in political debate and advocacy. The judgement described the freedom to speak out on political issues as “indispensable" for “representative and responsible government”.

Moreover, the court pointed out that there is no general rule that excludes “political objects” from charitable purposes. Instead, the key consideration is whether the organisation “contributes to the public welfare”. The ruling has been used as a precedent both in Australia and overseas, such as when Greenpeace won a favourable decision from the New Zealand Supreme Court last year.

Why is Australia holding the inquiry?

The review’s chair, Liberal MP Alex Hawke, said the inquiry aims to:

…ensure that tax deductible donations, which are a generous concession from the taxpayer, are used for the purpose intended and expected by the community.

His colleagues' comments have given some more insight into what Hawke means by the adjectives “intended” and “expected”.

Nationals Senator Matthew Canavan said he is concerned by the development of environmental groups from “a niche village industry” into “serious professional organisation[s]”, while highlighting what he described as a “large minority” of “100 or 150” groups that are “clearly engaged primarily” in stopping fossil fuel and industrial development in Australia.

Liberal MP Andrew Nikulic sought to distinguish groups like the Bob Brown Foundation who “campaign against the government” from “real charities” like “St Vinnies and Salvos”. Ignoring the fact that the latter groups have been vocal critics of government cuts to welfare spending, Nikulic has also made unsubstantiated claims that green groups have been involved in “illegal activities”.

His Liberal National Party colleague George Christensen went even further, labelling certain groups as “terrorists” and accusing them of treason.

Their views are echoed by Gary Johns, a former Labor MP and now columnist for The Australian newspaper, who has criticised the entire rationale for tax-deductible status on the basis that it contradicts the “voluntary nature of charity”.

While conceding that the Hawke review may be interpreted as an “attack on [environmental organisations'] efforts to protect the environment”, Johns also argued that governments “should be reticent” about supporting organisations that “promote viewpoints on issues where there is reasonable disagreement in the electorate”.

It is difficult to see what organisations would satisfy such a test. Certainly not the Institute of Public Affairs, the Chifley Research Centre or Menzies House, which also enjoy tax deductibility but seem unlikely to face the same scrutiny advocated by Hawke.

The political context

Clearly, we have strayed some way from Hawke’s official justification for the inquiry. His vague reference to the undisputed notion that tax-deductible donations should be subject to public scrutiny disguises deeper political and ideological goals.

To properly understand those goals, we must interpret the current inquiry in the appropriate political context. Parts of this have been described by Joan Staples in an earlier Conversation article, and by Mike Seccombe in the Saturday Paper.

In terms of the wider political context of this inquiry, we might also consider:

• last year’s attempt by Liberal MP Richard Colbeck to ban environmental boycotts;

• incidences of gag clauses being written into the contracts of community legal centres;

• the defunding of voluntary environment, sustainability and heritage organisations and national environmental defenders' offices; and

• the drafting of anti-protest laws in states such as Western Australia.

Against this backdrop, the inquiry can be seen as part of a trend towards quieting the environment movement. Even if it does not result in substantive changes to the law, the inquiry is forcing poorly funded groups to spend time and resources on making submissions to justify their status.

Another difficulty is the committee’s desire to frame the “public welfare” requirement in terms of ill-defined community “expectations”. These can be difficult to discern and for this reason we ought to strive for the broadest possible political debate, rather than attempting to narrow it. If that means that taxpayers subsidise perspectives with which they don’t necessarily agree, it is a small price to pay for a robust public sphere.

Finally, given the urgency of the environmental crisis, an increasing number of Australians recognise that we need environmental groups who do more than plant trees.

In the run to this year’s Paris climate talks and next year’s federal election, we need laws that encourage full-blooded political participation.