Malcolm Turnbull must reject anti-democratic attack on environmental groups

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(Image via foe.org.au)

Will Malcolm Turnbull follow Tony Abbott's witch-hunt on environmental groups, which will see them lose charitable status for "civil disobedience"? Cam Walker reports.

THE DISPROPORTIONATE influence of the fossil fuel and mining sectors over federal government policy is both well documented and long standing.

With the rise of the far right neo-liberal Abbott Government, the agenda of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) also became more influential after several years of being on the "outer" while the ALP was in power.

The IPA is well known for arguing against the environment movement and has campaigned against specific environmental policies like the carbon tax.

Being fundamentally opposed to mainstream scientific positions on climate change and the work of the environment movement, the IPA has argued for the government to reconsider all funding which is provided to the environment movement.

This convergence of views – conservative MPs, right wing think tanks and influence by the fossil fuel sector – has led to a sustained attack on the environment movement in recent years.

One key aspect of this attack has been the House of Representatives Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations. After narrative in the media and, we have to assume, lobbying by many in the mining and fossil fuel sectors, Minister for the Enviroment Greg Hunt initiated the Inquiry into the tax status of green groups. It was widely seen as being politically motivated. For instance, shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus – Labor's frontbench representative on the committee – declared that the review was an "ideological attack" by the government on political advocacy.

Given the strong focus of the movement on key fossil fuel projects in places like the Galilee Basin in Queensland, at a point in time where decisions are being taken about whether proposals will gain approval and funding, the timing of this report was significant.

All environmental non-government organisations (NGO) rely on their Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status for the majority of their funds. Without DGRs, most philanthropic foundations cannot fund organisations. Many individual donors rely on the tax deductible receipt that comes from supporting the groups. Some groups rely on DGRs for up to 90 per cent of their income, so their loss will have disastrous impacts and profoundly change the movement in Australia. Loss of funding will, of course, impact on the ability of groups to run effective campaigns to protect the environment.

Now, after receiving a huge number of submissions – the vast majority of which were supportive of environment groups – and an extensive program of nation-wide public hearings, the final report of the committee has been delivered to Parliament. With far right Coalition MP George Christensen being on the committee, there was never much doubt that the majority report would be hostile.

Early in the public hearings, Mr Christensen tweeted that

'evidence points to them losing their tax deductibility status.'

However, it seems that the report has not gone entirely to plan. What is of most interest is the fact that not only is there a dissenting minority report from the ALP but also significantly different opinions being expressed by Liberal MP Jason Wood, who expressed concern about a number of the recommendations in the majority report.

The majority report acknowledges that environment groups are doing a necessary job protecting our precious environment. However, it contains a number of deeply flawed recommendations, which if implemented would profoundly change the environmental movement in Australia.

In response to the report, Friends of the Earth (FoE) state

It is not surprising that the inquiry failed to uncover any evidence of wrong doing by environmental organisations that would require the loss of their Deductible Gift Recipient status. The report contains some dangerous recommendations that will create an unnecessary, bureaucratic nightmare for the government and environmental groups, with costs being passed on to donors and, ultimately the tax payer.

The mining sector called for this inquiry. It was widely denounced as a political show trial and an attempt to silence the movement. If all recommendations are implemented, it will distort the way environmental organisations work. This will be for the ultimate benefit of the fossil fuel and mining sectors. This was an Abbott Government inquiry that Minister Hunt should now confine to the dustbin.

Of the report's nine recommendations, two were of greatest concern.

Recommendation 5

The recommendation requiring environment groups spend at least 25 per cent of their supporters’ hard-earned money on "environmental remediation" is ludicrous, imposing a huge bureaucratic burden on both the government and organisations, particularly small groups working with local communities. In Canada, the same policy experiment failed dismally, creating enormous red tape with no resulting public benefit.

The public understands that protecting the environment is about much more than planting trees. Campaigns to help protect places like the Kakadu, the Franklin River and the Great Barrier Reef and to stop massive coal mines, are equally if not more important.

Environment groups should be free to pursue a range of activities, from scrutinising policies and laws, to challenging planning decisions and being a public voice for the environment to prevent future damage.

Recommendation 6

The recommendation that environment groups be sanctioned for encouraging illegal or unlawful activity is ill-motivated and unfair. Civil disobedience is an important part of a healthy democracy, successful in saving many precious places from the Franklin River to the Daintree Rainforest. The federal government should instead be pursuing illegal activity by big business, from corporate tax-evasion to mining and logging companies’ regular breaches of environmental and planning laws.

FoE was in good company – all national environmental groups joined together to oppose the findings of the report – and a range of social commentators and political parties share this view.

The shadow environment minister Mark Butler said that the report continued 

'Tony Abbott’s ideological attack on environmental advocacy groups.'

Australian Greens environment and climate change spokesperson Senator Larissa Waters said:

This inquiry has been a politically motivated witch-hunt from the start. The Coalition can’t take criticism of its anti-environment policies and so wants to shoot the messenger by crippling environment groups who are working for the public good.

Many have hoped that Malcolm Turnbull will turn away from the hard right agenda of the Coalition Government when Tony Abbott was PM. If he acts on the findings of the report, this will be a clear indication that he is following the agenda of conservative MPs like George Christensen. This is a significant test for the Prime Minister.

Green groups are united in calling for the PM and Minister Hunt to reject the report and a number of its recommendations. Any administrative changes to the Register of Environmental Organisations done before the federal election would confirm that the Inquiry was all about politics and not about good management of environmental groups.

Cam Walker is the campaigns co-ordinator with Friends of the Earth in Melbourne.

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