Silence on the agenda for enviro-charity inquiry

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

It's hard to see the Abbott Government's inquiry into the Deductible Gift Recipient Status of environmental charities as anything except a show trial, writes the Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Andrew Leigh.

For the past few years, the Australian Marine Conservation Society has been fighting hard to stop millions of tonnes of dredge spoil being dumped onto the natural wonder that is the Great Barrier Reef.

Sometimes their fight has taken them out in the community – collecting signatures on petitions and making phone calls to let Australians know what's happening. Other times it has taken them into courtrooms, where they've stood with other environment groups in seeking injunctions against the harmful dumping.

From time to time, it has also brought the Society into conflict with big resource companies and state and federal Liberal governments via the media and other public forums.

Today in the Federal Parliament, the House of Representatives Environment Committee will meet to hear evidence on whether groups like the Society should continue to have Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status under Australia's tax law. There are almost 600 environmental groups that currently qualify for this status; it allows them to offer tax breaks when accepting donations from the Australian community.

There's a rather cynical axiom in politics that you should never hold an inquiry if you don't already know what it will find. In my experience, that's actually not true most of the time. In this case however, it's hard to see the Abbott Government's inquiry as anything except a show trial aimed at stripping some environmental Not for Profits of their DGR status.

The Government wants to silence groups who disagree with them on major environmental issues like climate change, fossil fuel reliance and dumping near the Great Barrier Reef. They plan to do it by hacking into their budgets.

Inspired by groups like the right-wing think tank the Institute for Public Affairs, Committee Chair Alex Hawke claims to be concerned about environmental groups getting tax deductions when they're not doing real environmental work. The committee's terms of reference include exploring the extent to which these not-for-profits are carrying out 'on-ground environmental works'.

This suggests that eco-groups are acting improperly if they get involved in political and community advocacy on environmental causes. But the High Court has specifically ruled groups like these have a right to be part of the political conversation. In 2010, the nation's seven most senior judges declared it 'indispensable' for charities to have the right to speak out, to ensure 'representative and responsible government'.

If the Abbott Government has genuine concerns about some environmental groups, the right thing to do would be to refer them to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

The Commission was specifically set up so that it could keep an eye on charities and make sure they're doing the right thing. If there are some environmental groups that genuinely don't deserve their DGR status, the commission will find them out and de-register them.

Charities Commissioner Susan Pascoe has already overseen the removal of over 7,000 Not for Profits from the National Charities Register, which means these groups can no longer qualify for DGR status. Of course, it will be hard for the commission to continue supervising environment groups or any other Not for Profits this way if the Abbott Government goes ahead with its plan to abolish it.

There may well be environment groups out there who are taking advantage of the system and shouldn't be receiving benefits from the tax office. But stripping DGR status from an entire category of n Not for Profits just to catch a few bad eggs would be overkill in the extreme. That's not really what this inquiry is about.

This inquiry is about silencing dissent amongst environmental groups, and sending a message to other Not for Profits at the same time. If the Abbott Government is prepared to take tax deductibility away from groups like the Australian Marine Conservation Society, what is to stop them from moving on other charities next?

Groups such as the Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul Society have frequently spoken out against Australian Governments (of both stripes) when they've felt that policies would hurt vulnerable Australians. Disability and health advocacy groups regularly criticise state governments in standing up for the people they represent.

It is in everyone's best interests that groups like these continue to feel free to raise their voices. Sometimes their critiques are just as uncomfortable for my party as they are for the current government. But that's how democracy works.

When the committee meets today, its Coalition members will already know exactly what they want to hear from those giving evidence. But that doesn't mean the outcome of the inquiry has to be a foregone conclusion. Let's make sure they know the Not for Profit sector must not be silenced, and that all of us will stand with environmental groups to stop that happening.

Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Member for Fraser.

Reprinted from Pro Bono Australia, 16 June 2015