(Another) attack on environment groups
UPDATE - MAY 2016:
The final report from the House of Reps Inquiry into the tax status of green groups was released on May 4. It is available here.
A response from a range of environmental groups is available here.
The Friends of the Earth response is available here.
It is now up to the Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, and the Prime Minister to decide how to respond to the report.
We are urging them to ignore the report given the negative impacts it would have on groups who are working to protect the natural environment.
The Coalition government seems to be intent on trying to silence anyone who stands up for the environment.
Some of their actions include:
The new Standing Committee on the Environment review of tax deductibility for environment groups listed on the Minister’s Register (see below).
The motion by the Federal Council of the Liberal Party to strip eco-charities of the same rights permitted to other charities, including tax-deductable donations
The push by Minister Richard Colbeck for a secondary boycott ban to apply to environmental groups.
The recently released ‘Re:think, Better Tax system Better Australia’ discussion paper which calls for a review of the Not for Profit sector’s tax deductibility.
The cuts to the Environment Defenders Office (EDOs).
The government has axed the Grants to Voluntary Environment, Sustainability and Heritage Organisations to 150 groups in the 2014 budget. This program had bipartisan support since it was set up in the 1970s.
Is the new Inquiry the government's chance to take green groups tax status off them?
It has been announced that the House of Representatives Environment Committee will hold an inquiry into environmental groups who are eligible to receive Tax-deductible donations.
While the chair of the Committee has assured us ‘it’s not a witch hunt’, it is hard to see this as anything but another part of the ideological attack on the environment movement being waged by the Abbott government.
The Age newspaper reports that "It was the mining industry and its representative lobby groups, such as the Minerals Council, which months ago began calling for donations to environmental organisations to no longer be tax deductible". The Federal Council of the Liberal Party has endorsed the call for green groups to have their tax status removed.
The Committee says “over 600 environmental groups are currently deductible gift recipients (DGRs). This allows them to access tax-deductible donations to fund important, practical work to improve the natural environment. We need 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.”
[Above: the FoE International meeting in Sri Lanka, 2014. The environment needs strong voices.]
The terms of reference suggest that activities which involve on-ground environmental works constitute ‘appropriate’ activity. The subtext here is that advocacy and activism and, especially direct action, are not.
What the Committee seems to be ignoring is the High Court case of 2010 which confirmed the right of DGR listed groups to engage in political debate and advocacy.
What is the agenda behind this Inquiry?
The federal environment minister Greg Hunt requested the Inquiry happen. So if the Committee does recommend groups lose their tax status, responsibility will ultimately rest with him.
In spite of the High Court precedent, the agenda of conservative elements within the government is clear:
Queensland LNP senator Matthew Canavan says a preliminary audit (of the Register) shows "eco-charities were getting tax deductibility status to engage in political rather than environmental activity".
"We've got 100 to 150 groups that seem to have their purpose at stopping industrial development, not just mining, some of those developments include tourism developments or agricultural developments but engaging in what I would view as a political debate, not the environmental debate."
Clearly, Mr Canavan and others want to see up to 150 groups struck off the Register. Loss of DGR status will be nothing short of disasterous for the majority of these groups. It is not hard to work out who these groups are: the key regional, state-based and national organisations with a strong advocacy and campaign focus, especially those working on climate change issues.
The Committee is composed of 7 Coalition and 5 ALP MPs.
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus - Labor's frontbench representative on the committee - has declared the review an "ideological attack by the government on political advocacy".
The Chair is Alex Hawke, who says this about climate change:
“To say that climate change is human induced is to overblow and overstate our role in the scheme of the universe quite completely over a long period of time.”
This is of concern given that mainstream science clearly shows that one of the gravest threats to the natural environment comes from unabated climate change. If green groups are to act effectively to protect natural ecosystems, they must also respond to the threats posed by climate change. (After the leadership reshuffle in The Coalition which saw Malcolm Turnbull become the PM, Mr Hawke was replaced as Chair by Nationals MP John Cobb).
The Committee has recently appointed two supplementary members. One is George Christensen, an MP from Queensland, who has called environmental activists "gutless green grubs" and "terrorists" and said "the greatest terrorism threat in North Queensland, I'm sad to say, comes from the extreme green movement". After attending the hearing in Brisbane, Mr Christensen said "evidence points to them losing their tax deductibility status", a disturbing pre-empting of the outcome of the Inquiry.
Hearings have now concluded and the Committee is expected to release its reports(s) in May.
Don’t let them get away with a witch hunt
1/ Track what is happening in the Inquiry.
While submissions are now closed, hearings are due to start in mid June. We will need people to be tracking the hearings, as the questions put forward by Committee members will show the agenda of the government.
The first hearings were held on tuesday June 16 and thursday June 18. The federal environment department and the Australian Charities and Not for Profits Commission (ACNC) were the first to appear. These are the entities responsible for managing environmental organisations on the REO and the ACNC more broadly manages the not for profit sector.
Both the department and the ACNC said there were no significant problems with the current management systems. The ACNC says that it has the appropriate enforcement powers to regulate charities. This begs the question - why proceed with further hearings if both government bodies that manage the sector say there are no significant problems?
There have now been public hearings in a range of places including Adelaide, Brisbane and Hobart. FoE appeared before the Inquiry in Melbourne on September 21. If you would like further information or would like to attend the hearings, please check here.
Check the FoE Twitter account for updates on the issues that are raised by the Committee. This will tell us a lot about their motivation and agenda.
Please Sign the petition: Protect Tax-deductible Donations for Environment Groups. This has been put together by a concerned individual and will be delivered in July.
[Image: rally in support of environmental organisations, outside HoR hearings in Melbourne, September 21].
2/ get your friends active
We need to show the government that any attack on the environment movement is an attack on democracy. If you are a member of any organisation, let them know about the Inquiry. We need a broad cross section of the community to get active on this issue.
3/ tell Alex you’re watching him
Conservative MP Alex Hawke is the chair of the committee running the Inquiry. Please tell him you don’t want a witch hunt against the green movement:
No witch hunt against the environment. Democracy needs strong voices, don’t attack the defenders @AlexHawkeMP
4/ get vocal
Make it clear you don't support attacks on environmental organisations.
Speak out with letters to the editor, facebook, twitter and other social media.
Please use the hashtags
[Image: Trev and Di from Seaspray in Victoria].
Please re-post our images.
5/ stay in touch
6/ provide a donation to support our work.
7/ Find out about the government's agenda.
[More recent articles at the top]
Green Groups call on Malcolm Turnbull to keep tax deductible status.
The Guardian, September 2015
Endangered species: The potential impacts of the Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations
Opinion piece by Cam Walker, Generosity Magazine, September 2015.
Australian public support environmental advocacy
The mining and forestry lobby campaign to remove tax-deductibility for certain non-for-profit organisations they deem contrary to their business interests, does not have the support of the Australian public, according to new polling.
Polling carried out for The Australia Institute. September 2015.
Voters feel Coalition is trying to silence environmental groups.
Leonore Taylor, The Guardian, September 2015.
George Christensen apologises but environment groups fear tax 'witch-hunt' could cost them millions
Bianca Hall, The Age, July 19, 2015
Green groups feel squeeze over tax-deductible donations probe
The Saturday paper, Samantha Trenoweth, June 27, 2015
Inquiry Targeting Green Groups Accidentally Exposes $145 Million Mining Tax Dodge
Thom Mitchell, New Matilda June 2015
Silence on the Agenda for Enviro-Charity Inquiry
Andrew Leigh, Probono News. June 2015
Australia needs politically active environmental groups
The Conversation, June 2015
Miners 'hypocritical' on tax status, says Greenpeace
The Age. Journalist Heath Aston. June 12, 2015
Greenpeace has accused the mining lobby of "breathtaking hypocrisy" in its attempt to silence environmental groups by stripping them of charitable status when minerals and oil industry groups are themselves bankrolled by tax-deductible contributions from mining companies.
Minerals Council misses deadline to make submission to inquiry it called for
Heath Aston, The Age, May 28 2015.
Big green donors warn funds could dry up if Abbott government changes tax rules
Tom Arup, The Age/ SMH. May 25, 2015
Preventing political advocacy by environment groups an 'attack on democracy'
Heath Aston. SMH/ The Age. May 2015.
Limiting environmental philanthropy would leave our democracy poorer
By Greens Senator Larissa Waters. ABC Environment.
Silencing NFP Environmental Groups No Surprise
From ProBono News, by Senator Rachel Siewert.
Tax exempt status of Environment NGOs targeted.
By John Englart.
Government inquiry takes aim at green charities that ‘get political’
From The Conversation, by Peter Burdon.
Government MP steps up campaign against eco-charity tax concessions
From ABC 7.30 Program, journalist Conor Duffy.
Environmental groups face tax deductibility loss in Government push
ABC 7.30 Report, journalist Conor Duffy.
Brandis ties NGO funding to non-advocacy
The Abbott government is using money and law to close down criticism and gag the community’s most trusted voices.
From The Saturday paper, by Mike Seccombe.
Step by step, conservative forces move to silence NGOs' voices
From The Conversation, by Joan Staples.