Will the federal government revisit its attacks on environment groups?

Cam Walker

In its assessment of the environment policies during the recent federal election campaign, the Australian Conservation Foundation gave the Coalition government a score of 13 out of 100. This poor showing will not surprise anyone who tracks environmental politics. But those not actively involved in the environment movement may be surprised by the long running campaign waged by many key people in the Coalition to break the power of the environment movement.

Over the past two years, the main focus of this attack has been to challenge the tax status of environmental organisations. With all large environmental groups (ENGOs) reliant on their tax status (called deductible gift recipient or DGR status), a good approach for anyone wanting to break the movement's power is to try and remove the majority of ENGO income.

After lobbying from the fossil fuel and mining lobbies, the federal environment minister Greg Hunt launched a House of Representatives inquiry into the tax status of ENGOs. Originally chaired by a climate sceptic ally of Tony Abbott, there was a change of leadership after Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister. The new chair, a Nationals MP called John Cobb, didn't exactly engender a sense of hope that ENGOs would receive a fair hearing. After the committee released its final report in May, Mr Cobb went on the public record warning farmers to be wary of siding with "rabid left wing protesters". One of the members seconded onto the committee was the far right Coalition MP from north Queensland George Christensen, who famously tweeted early in the public hearings that "evidence points to them losing their tax deductibility status". So much for a fair hearing.

After thousands of submissions and dozens of public hearings, during which some Coalition MPs did their best to find evidence that the movement was, in fact, full of groups doing terrible things to the economy, the final report was released without much fanfare just before the federal election was called. The majority report had no surprises. As one ALP member of the committee (Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus) said early on in the process, the inquiry was an "ideological attack by the government on political advocacy". It was easy to imagine what would be in the majority report. The minority report (endorsed by the ALP) rejected the more draconian measures proposed by the Coalition.

What was perhaps surprising was the dissenting comments from moderate Liberal MP Jason Wood, who opposed the most restrictive of the majority report recommendations.

The majority report made nine recommendations. Some of them would have simply improved and streamlined management of ENGOs. However, these sensible measures were wrapped up in a nasty political agenda. The report acknowledges that environment groups are doing a necessary job protecting our precious environment. However, two deeply flawed recommendations were included, which if implemented would limit the ability of ENGOs to carry out political advocacy.

The two recommendations were: requiring groups to spend 25% of their income on 'environmental remediation' (e.g. tree planting), and 'sanctioning' groups that 'encourage, support, promote, or endorse illegal or unlawful activity'. Illegal activity sounds a bit sinister. In reality, the report is talking about peaceful protest and civil disobedience. These are tactics that have been used by the Australian environment movement for decades. Without peaceful protest, the Franklin River would have been dammed, we would have a lot more logging in high conservation forests, and a new uranium mine would have been built in Kakadu in the NT. This is noted by Liberal MP Jason Woods, who said in his dissenting report "it should be noted that it was due to environmental activists, through their efforts and through the use of a blockade, that major environmental disasters have been prevented".

This inquiry was a legacy from the far right political approach of the previous prime minister Tony Abbott which had been initiated by the mining sector and sanctioned by the environment minister. Given Malcolm Turnbull's more moderate politics, it would be sensible for him and the responsible minister Greg Hunt to quietly bury the report rather than respond to its recommendations.

The government did not have time to respond to the final reports before it went into caretaker mode, so the environment movement has been able to dodge this particular bullet, at least for the time being. While the Coalition did manage to hold on to power after the July election, it is not yet clear whether they will revisit the report. Arch anti-green conservatives like George Christensen retained their seats, and there is no doubt that the war against the green movement is being fanned by many in the mining and fossil fuel sectors. It remains to be seen if the Turnbull government will support this unpopular and dangerous attack on democracy.

For further information please visit www.foe.org.au/articles/2015-04-21/another-attack-environment-groups

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, August 2016