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)
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.
More 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
The 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?
Of 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.
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 were due by July 14.
We are currently (Oct 2017) awaiting the recommendations from the ATO on this issue.
In a significant move, the Minerals Council of Australia, who were driving the attacks on green groups, has now moderated its position.
In late November 2017, media reports stated that:
"Australia’s mining industry has stepped back from its hard line on trying to limit the charity sector’s lobbying on energy and climate change issues.
The Minerals Council of Australia says it does not support policies requiring environmental charities to devote most of their resources to on-the-ground remediation, despite previously writing submissions to government calling for it to consider such policies".
Banning foreign donations
The government is now seeking to ban activist groups from accessing foreign donations.
According to a report in The Guardian:
“the Coalition has made it clear that it wants any ban on overseas funding to apply not only to political parties, but to advocacy groups participating in political debates.
That ambition has caused intense disquiet among advocacy groups, who argue a ban would adversely affect their public interest advocacy.”
Now the government has made it clear it intends to proceed with legislation which will ban foreign donations for charities. It is expected that this will be tabled before the end of 2017.
This is part of a larger legislative agenda which aims to limit ‘foreign influence’ in Australian politics. Any legislation affecting charities should be treated separately from efforts to ‘enhance and reform the espionage and foreign interference-related offences in the criminal code and introduce a Foreign Influence Transparency scheme’. It seeks to use legitimate fear about the role of foreign powers on Australian politics as a cover for an attack on the ability of listed charities to carry out their core mission statement.
‘Hands Off Our Charities’ campaign
The proposed legislation linking NGOs to a ban on overseas funding has led to the formation of one of the broadest coalitions of civil society groupings for many years. 25 charities launched their ‘Hands Off Our Charities’ campaign in late November 2017. They included Oxfam, the Fred Hollows Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, World Vision, 350org, the Human Rights Law Centre and numerous environmental NGOs such as the Australian Conservation Foundation.
A good win on right to advocacy
On Dec 6 2017, the Turnbull government announced a retreat from plans to curb environmental advocacy.
Kelly O'Dwyer, the Minister for Revenue and Financial Services, announced the government would drop its intention to require environmental charities spend at least 50 per cent of donation income on "environmental remediation work" to retain their tax-deductible status. This idea had been strongly promoted by the Minerals Council of Australia.
Gary Johns appointed as Charities Commissioner
[DEC 2017] In a move described by the Community Council of Australia as ‘bizarre’, Gary Johns has been appointed as the new head of the Australian Charities and Not-For- Profits Commission (ACNC).
The ACNC monitors the compliance of charities and maintains a list of registered organisations. It also ensures charities abide by the laws in the Charities Act. Assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar announced the appointment at Parliament House on Thursday morning.
Over 100 Australian charities wrote an open letter in June to the Prime Minister after Assistant Minister Sukkar failed to re-appoint Susan Pascoe as Commissioner, despite very strong positive recommendations for her reappointment. The Assistant Minister had refused to meet with anyone from the ACNC for over six months even though he is responsible for the agency, and did not even meet with Susan Pascoe prior to not renewing her contract.
Gary is a former Labor MP who has expressed controversial views about charities in the past. He previously argued that advocacy should not count as a charitable purpose and backed an unrealised Abbott government promise to remove it.
He was Senior Fellow at the conservative Australian think tank the Institute of Public Affairs (the IPA), and the head of its Non-Government Organisation Unit. He joined the IPA in 1997 and left in 2006. The IPA has had a long term interest is seeing green groups lose government funding (background here).
Describing environmental groups opposing the Adani coal mine in a 2014 newspaper column, Mr Johns stated: "Why should we be forced to subsidise the views of a minority who are anti-progress?”
He said the government should deny “charity status to the enemies of progress”.
FoEA has called on the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to intervene and over ride this obviously political appointment. Our petition to the PM is available here.
ALP MP Andrew Leigh has launched a petition calling on Mr Johns to resign, which will be tabled in parliament early in 2018.
Further reading on the appointment of Gary Johns:
Fergus Hunter, SMH, December 7, 2017
Alex McKinnon, The Saturday Paper, December 18,2017
Dr Johns says "investigating serious concerns about misconduct" (by charities) is one of his priorities for 2018.
Paul Karp, The Guardian, January 24, 2018
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.
1/ 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.
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:
And tag key federal MPs, like:
Josh Frydenberg, Minister for Energy and Environment @JoshFrydenberg
The PM, Malcolm Turnbull @TurnbullMalcolm
2/Sign the petitions
FoEA has called on the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to intervene and over ride the obviously political appointment of Gary Johns as the head of the ACNC. Our petition to the PM is available here.
ALP MP Andrew Leigh has launched a petition calling on Mr Johns to resign, which will be tabled in parliament early in 2018.
3/ 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.
These articles are in chronological order, with most recent towards the top. Many relate to the House of Reps Inquiry of 2015 and 2016.
Human Rights Law Centre, December 12, 2017
Joan Staples, Pearls & Irritations, 6 Dec 2017
Michael Slezak, the Guardian, Nov 27, 2017
Nicole Hasham, Fairfax, 29 Oct 2017
Michael Slezak, The Guardian, 1 Nov 2017
Wendy Williams, Probono, 6 Nov 2017
Katharine Murphy, The Guardian, Oct 10, 2017
Paul Karp, The Guardian, September 6, 2017
Mike Seccombe, The Saturday Paper, August 2017
Joan Staples, July 2017
Lenore Taylor, The Guardian, 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
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
Lenore 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
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.
The Age. Journalist Heath Aston. June 12, 2015
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