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Step by step, conservative forces move to silence NGOs’ voices

The Abbott government is all for free speech except when the speakers are green activists like Mackay Conservation Group’s Ellen Roberts. AAP/Dan Peled

The federal Liberal Party, government ministers, Coalition MPs, the Minerals Council of Australia and the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) are targeting the advocacy role of Australia’s environmental NGOs. In particular, they are trying to silence debate on climate change. The attacks are significant, they appear to be concerted and they are intimidating.

Under the Howard government, a ten-year campaign of attacks tried to “silence” non-government organisations. An IPA and government narrative sought to change Australia’s long-held idea of democracy – one in which many voices join in public debate. Instead, they spoke of democracy as a market in which NGOs “interfered”.

Twelve months into the Abbott government, conservative forces, both in government and outside, are mounting a new push. It is the same ideology as before and it affects the whole NGO sector. But it is also more focused on silencing climate change debate and protecting corporations that are responsible for emissions and unsustainable practices.

Tracking the campaign against NGOs

The attacks on NGOs have intensified in recent months. Their timing suggests they are not random events.

  • The Liberal Party federal council in June unanimously recommends stripping NGOs of their ability to receive tax-deductible donations. Tasmanian MP Andrew Nikolic names the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Bob Brown Foundation and the Environmental Defenders’ Offices, accusing them of “untruthful, destructive attacks on legitimate business” and “political activism”.

  • In June, Coalition MP George Christensen, the member for Dawson in north Queensland, calls for a “cleansing” of the Department of Environment’s list of those organisations eligible to receive tax-deductible gifts. He singles out the Mackay Conservation Group, which is trying to protect the Great Barrier Reef. The group is challenging environment minister Greg Hunt’s approval of dredging at Abbot Point for a coal port.

  • At the end of the financial year, a number of reports emerge from the environment movement of NGOs being audited by the Tax Office and questioned by the Department of Environment about their right to receive tax-deductible donations.

  • In April, a review of competition law has the parliamentary secretary for agriculture, Richard Colbeck, talking about repeal of Section 45DD of the Competition and Consumer Act. He wants to take away environmental NGO exemptions from its secondary boycott clauses. Its repeal would stop NGOs from campaigning against the environmental behaviour of companies. Colbeck says: “I think there is an appetite in the government for changing these laws”. He claims that the backbench rural committee and “quite a number of the ministry” want the competition review to take away the exemption. Later, some submissions (from the Australian Forest Products Association, for example) echo this proposed change. The review’s draft report is due in September.

  • In June, the Minerals Council of Australia releases a paper by IPA senior fellow Sinclair Davidson, entitled A Critique of the Coal Divestment Campaign. Davidson welcomes the Abbott government’s “announced plans” to remove the Section 45DD exemption “to provide a level playing field and hold environmental groups to the same standard as business”.

  • Davidson in his paper also claims that NGOs are breaking Section 1041E of the Corporations Act by encouraging individuals and organisations to stop investing in fossil fuel companies and their financiers.

  • In December, attorney-general George Brandis removes funding from the national legal network of Environmental Defenders Offices.

George Brandis has overseen the removal of a funding clause upholding community legal centres’ right to engage in debate and advocacy. AAP/Lukas Coch
  • While not an environmental NGO, the national network of community legal centres is collateral damage and has also been targeted by Brandis. The centres’ service agreements are changed to prevent them publicly suggesting legal reforms.

  • The May budget abolishes Grants to Voluntary Environment, Sustainability and Heritage Organisations. This grants scheme has been helping state conservation councils and their member groups, as well as hundreds of grassroots groups throughout the country, since 1973.

  • The Coalition moves to abolish the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. The NGO sector had hoped this relatively new body would improve accountability, as well as reduce government red tape. Its abolition would change the regulation of NGOs – a worrying prospect when the government is trying to silence their voices.

Charitable advocacy belongs in a democracy

Advocacy and lobbying activities are not unlawful or inconsistent with being a charity. The High Court has supported this argument. Protection of the environment is soundly based in charitable law.

Campaigns directed against companies in order to protect the environment are not like union or industrial boycotts. It was a Coalition government that last protected environmental and consumer campaigns from the requirements of Section 45D. Despite Minerals Council claims, legal experts say Section 1041E of the Corporations Act would be hard to apply to the work of NGOs.

Australia’s democracy is not a market. NGOs allow the average citizen to have a voice, they call governments and businesses to account, they suggest policy that has a longer time frame than the next election, and their ideas enrich debate on public policy. The climate change and sustainability debate in Australia needs them.

Read the other articles in The Conversation’s Remaking Australia series here.

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