Here we go again

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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.


We're under attack (again)

In the latest development in the ongoing attack on green groups, Federal Treasury has released a Discussion Paper which includes proposals that would restrict the ability of organisations to advocate for environmental justice, and even clamp down on democratic and civil liberties.

The deadline for making a submission has now passed. For a good up-to-date summary of the government's campaign against green groups, read this article from The Saturday Paper, or scroll down for background information.

Who’s behind the campaign?

The political genesis of the campaign rests with the far Right Institute of Public Affairs (IPA). The IPA is a ‘deductible gift recipient’ (DGR) listed ‘think tank’, which has been crafting much of the campaign to try and take the DGR status off environmental organisations. Unlike green groups, the IPA is lacking in transparency when it comes to providing details on their income sources. While historically they have been funded by entities like pesticides and mining companies and the tobacco industry it is not clear exactly who is their main funding source at present.

Back in 2001 the IPA launched a specialist newsletter, NGO Watch, to ‘investigate’ human rights, development and environmental organisations.

The IPA has also campaigned for environmental groups to lose any financial support they may get from government for many years. For instance, an IPA report released in 2011 called for governments to stop funding environmental organisations.

DGR_Attack_6_(2).jpgMore recently, this campaign has focused on the DGR status of green groups. Almost every larger environmental organisation (ENGO) and certainly all which employ staff rely on holding DGR status. To have DGR status, a group must be registered as a charity, and either be listed on the Register of Environmental Organisations (REO) or inscribed in the Taxation Act. This allows them to collect tax deductible donations from the public and is necessary for philanthropic granting organisations to give them funds. If you can remove the DGR status, you cut the vast majority of that organisations funding.

When Tony Abbott was PM, there was a concerted effort to challenge the tax status of a number of groups, and some conservative MPs actively pursued a sustained campaign against those groups with DGR status.

It seemed clear that the Coalition government was intent on trying to silence anyone who stands up for the environment.

Some of their actions included:

  • The House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment review of tax deductibility for environment groups listed on the Minister’s Register
  • 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 ‘Re:think, Better Tax system Better Australia’ discussion paper which called for a review of the Not for Profit sector’s tax deductibility.
  • The cuts to financial support for the Environment Defenders Office (EDOs).
  • And the axing of 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.

It was clear that conservative MPs and the IPA were not acting in isolation. The agenda against green groups was aided by the conservative press (especially parts of the Murdoch Press, notably The Australian newspaper) and the fossil fuel and mining sectors.

The call for green groups to have their DGR status stripped has been promoted by a range of actors within the mining and fossil fuel sectors. The Age newspaper reported 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". It was this call that helped create the opportunity for the Abbott government to launch its House of Reps Inquiry mentioned above.


The House of Representatives Inquiry into the tax status of green groups

meme1.jpgThe then federal environment minister Greg Hunt initiated the Inquiry. The Chair was an Abbott ally, conservative MP 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.

After the leadership challenge in The Coalition which saw Malcolm Turnbull become the PM, Mr Hawke was replaced as Chair by Nationals MP John Cobb. Towards the end of the Inquiry process, Mr Cobb said farmers should be wary of siding with “rabid left wing protesters” in opposing gas fracking. He is also a known climate sceptic.

At the start of the Inquiry, Queensland LNP senator (and now federal Resources Minister) Matthew Canavan said 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."

The Committee appointed two supplementary members. One was 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 an early public hearing during the Inquiry, Mr Christensen said "evidence points to them losing their tax deductibility status", a disturbing pre-empting of the outcome of the Inquiry.

The first hearings were held in June 2015. 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 said that it has the appropriate enforcement powers to regulate charities. This raised the question - why proceed with further hearings if both government bodies that manage the sector say there are no significant problems?

meme_2.jpgOf course, the inquiry continued, with hearings held in many cities. Many people in the community provided submissions.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus - Labor's frontbench representative on the committee -  declared the review an "ideological attack by the government on political advocacy".

The final report from the House of Reps Inquiry into the tax status of green groups was released on May 4, 2016. It is available here.

A response from a range of environmental groups is available here.

The Friends of the Earth response is available here.

There was then a federal election and the Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, did not respond to the final report before the government entered the ‘caretaker’ mode. Subsequently, Josh Frydenberg became the federal Environment Minister. He has not yet issued a public response to the report.

This does not mean the threat is over. It now appears that Treasury has taken on prosecuting the campaign against green groups (see below).

Conservative commentators and politicians continue to routinely call for green groups to lose their tax status.


New threats

Foreign funding of green groups

The Australian newspaper has been the key cheerleader in a campaign that has attempted to portray the environment movement and - in particular - the groups working to stop new coal mining as 'a secretive cabal of foreign-funded green groups'.

This is based on the 'revelation' that some groups receive funding from overseas donors. The Minerals Council and other industry bodies and a range of conservative MPs and commentators then fell over themselves to join the chorus of 'concern' when stories were run in the Murdoch press.

For some good analysis of this fear campaign, please check the article 'why the attack on 'foreign funded' green groups stinks of hypocrisy' by Graham Readfern.

Eric Abetz gets his facts wrong

In late May 2017, conservative senator Eric Abetz tried to stir the pot again, claiming in Estimates that Friends of the Earth and its affiliate member Market Forces was engaged in ‘money laundering’ and carrying out a ‘scam’ on the taxpayer. This was largely based on Mr Abetz not understanding the FoEA membership structure. He did not attempt to clarify his claims before making them in Estimates. MPs are provided with ‘parliamentary privilege’ when making comments in parliament which means they can make statements without fear of legal action. FoE has asked him to retract his claims.

‘Reform’ of charities

In June 2017, it was announced that the federal Treasury was conducting a review of ‘potential reforms to the Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) tax arrangements’. On face value this seems benign enough (for instance, it considers a number of proposals to ‘strengthen the DGR governance arrangements, reduce administrative complexity and ensure that an organisation’s eligibility for DGR status is up to date’). However, we have to see this through the lens of the long campaign against the green movement by the Coalition government.

And sure enough, the review considers a number of the recommendations from the majority report from the House of Reps inquiry (see above). These relate to the suggestion that:

  • Environmental groups should be limited in how much advocacy they are allowed to carry out (with the suggestion that they be required to spend between 25 and 50% of their funds on environmental remediation (eg tree planting), and
  • They should be open to being ‘sanctioned’ if they are not operating ‘lawfully’. As pointed out above, during the HoR inquiry, relevant bodies like the ACNC confirmed that the current system allows them to ensure this is the case. So why is the government pursuing this issue?

As noted recently by David Crosbie, CEO of the Community Council for Australia,

“There may be many reasons why the government is seeking to audit environmental organisations and restrict their advocacy, but there is no doubt that lobby groups representing the mining industry are going to be active players in responding to the Treasury DGR discussion paper.

In a recent newsletter, the Minerals Council of Australia have asked mining companies to make submissions in response to the Treasury DGR paper, providing the address and some suggested content. In part, this newsletter suggests the following:

Greenpeace, Lock the Gate and groups like them currently receive Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status which means that donations to them are tax-deductible. This assists them to raise funds for illegal protests.”

Having Treasury drive this review is a convenient development for the environment minister Josh Frydenberg as it means he is not the one who has launched yet another attack on the environment movement (which is, after all, a key part of his ministerial constituency).

Submissions are due by July 14. We encourage all people who are concerned about the natural environment and who can see through the government’s political agenda to send in a submission. We will post a draft submission document here shortly.


Take action

We need to continue to be proactive on this issue. It is not acceptable that conservative MPs, aided and abetted by their mates in the mining industry and the right wing media, get away with destroying the power of the movement by taking away the bulk of their funds.

When the HoR inquiry was being held, the community rallied behind the movement, showing support for the essential work we do to protect the environment. In 2017, we will need the same groundswell of vocal opposition to this anti-environment agenda.

Trev___Di.jpg1/ 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 help to start the conversation that the environment is not negotiable.

Possible tweet:

Here we go again. Federal gov re-opens the war on the green movement with ‘review’ of groups. #DefendEnviroOrgs

The original FoE tweet is here.

When writing your own posts, please use the hashtags:

#FriendofFoE

#DefendEnviroOrgs

#NoWitchHunt

And tag key federal MPs, like:

Josh Frydenberg, Minister for Energy and Environment @JoshFrydenberg

The PM, Malcolm Turnbull @TurnbullMalcolm

2/ support our work.

These constant attacks and reviews take our staff away from doing their job – protecting the environment. Please provide a tax deductible donation to support our work. The best response to these endless attacks is to campaign harder to protect the environment – with your help this is possible.

You can donate here.

 


Background reading

These articles are in chronological order, with most recent towards the top. Many relate to the House of Reps Inquiry of 2015 and 2016.

Paul Karp, The Guardian, September 6, 2017

Mike Seccombe, The Saturday Paper, August 2017

Joan Staples, July 2017

Lenore Taylor, The Guardian, July 2017

Rachel McFadden, ProBono News, July 2017

With environmental charities in the firing line over DGR status the sector must stay strong and not become divided, writes David Crosbie, CEO of the Community Council for Australia (CCA). 2017