Environment groups fear censorship over tax-free status

Photo: markemark4/flickr

Photo: markemark4/flickr

Voices for climate action in Canada and Australia are hearing a chilling message: stop challenging government policy or have your charitable status revoked.

By Alison Potter

In June this year, the Liberal Party federal council unanimously recommended stripping NGOs of the ability to receive tax deductible donations, and MP George Christensen called for a ” “cleansing” of the Department of Environment’s list of those organisations eligible to receive tax-deductible gifts.

Blair Palese, CEO of climate campaigning outfit 350.org told Freedom Press, “These are very worrying signs, they are worrying not only from the NGO perspective and the freedom we have to comment on issues of concern, but also from a straight democratic point of view.”

“They really are looking at limiting the voice of the public and individuals concerned about specific issues. It’s not only NGOs who should be concerned, all of Australia should be worried.”

She says moves to strip environment groups of funding and to regulate what they can speak out on and how they is an attack on democracy.

“They are limiting the voice of the public and individuals concerned about specific issues.”

It’s part of a suite of recent attacks on environment groups, undermining their legal and financial support. Joan Staples, Vice President of Environment Victoria compiled this list of recent conservative attacks on Australian NGOs in The Conversation in August.

  • In December, 2013, Attorney General George Brandis removed funding from the national legal network of Environment Defenders Offices .
  • In April, Richard Colbeck, parliamentary secretary for agriculture talks about repealing Section 45DD of the Competition and Consumer Act. He wants environmental NGOs to no longer be allowed exemption from its secondary boycott clauses. A draft review of the Act is due on September 22.
  • In May, the budget abolished nearly $5 million dollars worth of Grants to Voluntary Environment, Sustainability and Heritage Organisations.
  • In June, the Liberal Party federal council unanimously recommended stripping NGOs of their ability to receive tax-deductible donations.
    Coalition MP George Christensen, the member for Dawson in north Queensland, calls for a “cleansing” of the Department of Environment’s list of those organisations eligible to receive tax-deductible gifts. He singles out the Mackay Conservation Group, which is challenging environment minister Greg Hunt’s approval of dredging at Abbot Point for a coal port.
  • Tasmanian MP Andrew Nikolic accuses the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Bob Brown Foundation and the Environmental Defenders’ Offices of “untruthful, destructive attacks on legitimate business” and “political activism”.
  • The Minerals Councils of Australia released a paper saying NGOs are breaking Section 1041E of the Corporations Act by encouraging individuals and organisations to stop investing in fossil fuel companies and their financiers. It calls for a repeal of Section 45DD of the Competition and Consumer Act.
  • And in July, service agreements for community legal centres were changed. The new conditions now state that organisations cannot use Commonwealth money for any activity directed towards law reform or advocacy.

Should advocacy groups get special tax breaks?

Joan Staples, wrote in The Conversation, “Australia’s democracy is not a market. NGOs allow the average citizen to have a voice, they call governments and businesses to account, they suggest policy that has a longer time frame than the next election, and their ideas enrich debate on public policy. The climate change and sustainability debate in Australia needs them.”

It is well established in Australian law and through the Charities Act that protection of the environment provides a benefit to the community in the same way that helping to relieve poverty or funding research into health does.

Julien Vincent heads up fossil fuel divestment campaigning outfit Market Forces, for Friends of the Earth. “We help people keep money out of environmentally destructive projects. We’ve all got connections to good and bad environmental projects through our taxes, our banks, our superannuation,” he said.

“A lot of people don’t know where that money is directed, so we shine a light on who is investing in what.”

“It’s perfectly legal and appropriate and proper in a society that believes in free speech to be able to educate people on issues of where their money is going. And that is entirely in accordance with the law.”

He believes that legally silencing environmental advocacy and legal rights groups, and stripping them of tax deductibility and funding flies in the face of the underlying libertarian principles of freedom of choice and speech.

“It really is an attack on not just the environment but also freedom of choice and freedom of speech.”

He told Freedom Press,“It would basically be pretty remarkable for a liberal government to try and make some legislative change like that. It really is an attack on not just the environment but also freedom of choice and freedom of speech.”

Canada muzzles its environment groups

Environment groups in Canada are under intense scrutiny over their political messages. The Canada Revenue Agency, the equivalent of Australia’s Tax Office, has been conducting extensive audits on some of Canada’s biggest environment groups to assess whether or not they comply with guidelines that restrict political advocacy.

If the CRA rules that the groups exceeded those limits, their charitable status could be revoked, a move which would effectively shut them down.

The Canadian case is important because Stephen Harper’s conservative government shares an ideology and vision for economic growth with our Coalition Government – along with a disdain for outspoken climate change advocacy groups.

The Canadian blitz on environment groups began with the 2012 federal budget, when some cabinet ministers dismissed them as radicals and money launderers.

The groups, including the David Suzuki Foundation, Tides Canada, West Coast Environmental Law, Equiterre and Ecology Action Centre, are big names in the sector and have sharply opposed the Harper government’s oilsands and pipelines projects.

John Connor, CEO of The Climate Institute told Freedom Press he is concerned about what the developments in Canada meant for free speech. “It’s part of the culture wars which are certainly trying to muzzle NGOs. It’s both undemocratic and anti-free speech to muzzle activities that are there for public good, for consumer protection and climate protection.”

“The Canadian Revenue Agency is [undertaking] a consistent and continuous review of environment groups. It’s a much more naked push on advocacy and advocacy organisations and it restricts what the groups can do.”

Abolishing the Charities Commission

John Connor’s concerns may be justified. Charities in Australia are governed by the newly-formed Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission. This watch-dog was formed to bring good oversight to the sector.

The ACNC’s charter ensures that the governance of charities is at arms length from ministerial interference.

However, despite extensive consultation which revealed that most of the charities sector wanted to keep the Commission, the Coalition Government seems intent on abolishing it. This will expose the NGOs to far more ministerial intrusion – akin to that which Canadian NGOs are being subjected to.

Connor says, “The current mob [Australian Government] are constricted because of the High Court interpretation that advocacy is a part of normal work.”

“The Charities Commission, which has a charter and a certain independence, doesn’t allow it to be so directed by the relevant minister or government. That’s why [abolishing it] really is the thin edge of the wedge.”

Canada’s pro fossil fuels stance

There are striking similarities between the measures the Abbott and Harper governments are taking to expand exports of their fossil fuel resources, and remove environmental obstacles.

In Canada, the Harper-led Conservatives (who came to power in 2006) have made sweeping cuts to government scientific research labs, including shutting down a research station that produced critical findings about acid rain and water quality.

In its vision to develop the highly contentious Alberta Tar sands and ship the oil to America and China (the core of Harper’s economic growth plan), it has weakened or abolished scores of environmental laws, including Canada’s strongest environmental law, The Fisheries Act.

Dozens of government science positions have been cut, and research projects and pollution control programs have been scrapped. And it abolished the unit in charge of monitoring emissions from power plants, furnaces, boilers and other sources.

The Harper government cut funding entirely for advisory body, the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science, which awards research grants.

Here in Australia we’ve witnessed the Coalition government also taking the axe – with breathtaking vigour – to a slew of environmental protections and programs in its first year of government.

Given the mutual respect between Abbott and Harper, Canada’s reforms and in particular its interference with the freedoms of the Canadian environment groups bodes badly for Australian groups that challenge the the fossil fuel industry.



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