Threats against environment groups, threats against democracy

Ben Courtice

A federal parliamentary inquiry dominated by Coalition MPs is being held into registered environmental organisations. Donations to groups on the Register of Environmental Organisations are tax-deductible under the Income Tax Assessment Act, but the terms of the inquiry and a number of submissions from Coalition MPs and resource industry bodies are calling into question this small measure of public recognition for the work of environmental organisations.

For an organisation to be listed on the register, the main requirements are to keep tax-deductible donations in a separate fund, and to have a primary purpose of protection of the natural environment (including education and research about the natural environment).

While this seems fairly clear and simple, the Inquiry has been set up with terms of reference that have enabled an attack on the rights of registered environment organisations.

The terms of reference include the definition of an environmental organisation and the extent that groups' activities "involve on-ground environmental works". In the course of submissions and the inquiry committee's questioning of witnesses, it has become apparent that many would like to restrict the legitimate activities for environmental groups to "on-ground" activities like tree planting and rubbish removal.

Despite explicit laws and legal precedent for registered charities to engage in advocacy and political comment, arguments heard by the Inquiry from resource industries and federal MPs suggests that it is improper for registered groups to oppose developments (by protest, or legal avenues), to comment on candidates' policies in elections, or to lobby for divestment from particular companies. It is even argued that protests should be off-limits to groups on the register, including both legal protests and civil disobedience.

A number of submissions to the Inquiry have raised allegations of "illegal activities" against a number of environmental groups, in particular Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Lock the Gate. Many of these submissions have argued that the environment minister should use his executive power to directly and immediately remove these organisations from the register.

This immediate threat seems significant based on the rhetoric used to argue for it. However, on closer examination, it appears more of a scare tactic. The register at present does not prohibit organisations from political comment, protest, advocacy in the courts, or consumer boycotts in any way. Provided it is not the purpose of an organisation, even participating in (or supporting) protests that break the law are not clearly grounds for removal.

Friends of the Earth is concerned at the threatening rhetoric directed at us and other organisations. Mining and resource companies enjoy unquestioned tax deductions for their membership of lobbying organisations like the Minerals Council, whether or not they are in breach of the law. On the other hand, environmental protests often uphold the law by preventing illegal activities such as logging protected rainforests until government authorities can be prompted to act.

The threat is concerning because it could lead to a reduction in the (small) amount that the public donates to environmental organisations. There are donors such as some philanthropic trusts who require tax-deductibility as a condition of donating, and removing groups from the register would mean that many of their larger donations might go elsewhere. The impact on the finances of environmental organisations could be considerable in some cases. Nevertheless, the Department of the Environment guidelines for removing an organisation are clear and it seems very unlikely that Friends of the Earth or any other organisation is in breach of them.

Perhaps more concerning than the scare tactic (or ambit claim) of immediate deregistration is the longer term aims of the committee. These make reference to overseas systems, and Canada in particular has been cited as an example to follow. In Canada, only 10% of an environmental charity's budget can be allocated to advocacy. This severe restriction is in a country that (like Australia, but more so) has defunded and muzzled government scientists and defunded environmental programmes systematically for years under the conservative Harper government. Australia's neo-conservative government would love to follow suit.

When you consider the battery of undemocratic laws that can be used against protests and activist organisations, such as Tasmania's anti-protest legislation, the parliamentary inquiry is both a worrying new development, and yet also, just another sign of the times. Friends of the Earth will resist what we see as a politically motivated witch-hunt. In the meantime, we ask our supporters to join up and get involved (if you haven't already), and to donate if you can.

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Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, edition #124, September 2015,