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The climate denialist IPA and its 'public interest' charity status

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The climate denying IPA and CIS have powerful friends and donors (Screenshots of mining magnate Gina Rinehart, on left, and Environment Minister Sussan Ley via YouTube)

Since the IPA and CIS organisations argue against the scientific consensus on the climate change emergency isn’t that against the public interest? Why, then, are they classified as 'charities'? David Paull reports.

The Prime Minister’s recent comments on the rights of individuals to undertake actions, such as boycotts, that may adversely affect "secondary" company interests raises questions of free speech and public interest.

But the increasingly shrill advocacy for climate denial in the public sphere in this country has reached a stage where it seems that substantive scientific arguments regarding future Earth scenarios are being drowned out.  

The debate has descended – thanks in no small part to Murdoch media and political pundits – so that now it’s a "conspiracy" by the Bureau of Meteorology and NASA,  or it’s "sun-spots", which will initiate a new "ice-age". Even the line, "We must take a balanced view" provides anti-science advocates with a platform.

Which raises the clear question: Is climate change denial of benefit to our community? Or, to put it another way, if some are still arguing against the scientific consensus on the climate change emergency we are confronting, isn’t that against the public interest?

What does it take to be a charity?

As it turns out, not if you are a "charity" registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC).

When talking about climate denialist organisations, key among those in Australia is the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). Both have generated substantial public communication, which is "climate sceptical" in nature and at deviance from the consensus scientific view. Yet both organisations – particularly the IPA – and through their front groups such as the Australian Environment Foundation, have been at the forefront of promoting the idea that global warming is a conspiracy. Examples are the recent book published by the IPA and edited by Dr Jennifer Marohasy who is working on releasing a new edition next year.

Both charities claim they are benefiting the “general community of Australia”. However, given the difficulty in matching a climate denialist agenda with a supposed community benefit, this simply does not stack up anymore.

The CIS, while not being a loud advocate of climate scepticism, has certainly hosted talkfests which have articulated these views. Both organisations are also within the international Atlas Network, which channels money into groups around the world that seek to further the climate denialist and libertarian agendas. And both have registered charities with the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission (ACNC).

The IPA’s registered charity is called Trustee For Institute Of Public Affairs Research Trust, while the CIS has registered a charity under the name of, The Centre For Independent Studies Ltd.

But hang on, what is a charity and what is the purpose of becoming one? The ACNC does have specific requirements, one of which is that you must be "charitable".

"Charitable purpose" under the Charities Act 2013  has a legal definition, which has been developed over the years by the courts and parliament.

These purposes have changed over time and now include the following 12 categories:

  • advancing health;
  • advancing education;
  • advancing social or public welfare;
  • advancing religion;
  • advancing culture;
  • promoting reconciliation, mutual respect and tolerance between groups of individuals that are in Australia;
  • promoting or protecting human rights;
  • advancing the security or safety of Australia or the Australian public;
  • preventing or relieving the suffering of animals;
  • advancing the natural environment;
  • promoting or opposing a change to any matter established by law, policy or practice in the Commonwealth, a state, a territory or another country (where that change furthers or opposes one or more of the purposes above); and
  • other similar purposes ‘beneficial to the general public’ (a general category).

The IPA and the CIS

Let’s leave aside the other policy areas which the IPA pursues and focus on the key IPA issue du jour — that of climate change.

After looking at the various ideas the IPA and its Environment Foundation have been pursuing on this important issue for all citizens of the world, they can be summarised broadly thus:

  • we shouldn’t trust the science; 
  • scientists can’t agree;
  • science doesn’t have to be precise; and
  • data concerning climate science is being routinely manipulated by government agencies and the United Nations to pursue an agenda of public control and manipulation.

Okay, so people are allowed to have a point of view, right? Democracy is supposed to encourage free speech. What is wrong with holding these views and saying so in public? Well, apart from being factually challenged views, none of course, but is this a charitable purpose under the law?

Given the high public profile the organisations pursue, it is difficult, if not impossible, to place the climate denialism they pursue into one of the 12 charitable purposes. The last general catch-all category, of being "beneficial to the public" also does not work. After all, how could climate denialism and the lack of action on tackling the issue, which these ideas seek to do, be of benefit to the public?

Indeed, a stronger argument could be that such an agenda is, in fact, harmful to the public. If we accept the view that scientists – the vast majority of whom agree on the threat of climate change – do know what they are talking about, this would certainly be the case.

How much money do the two organisations receive through their charities? Here it gets interesting because the amounts received and the purposes of that money are quite different between the two.

Follow the money

The IPA receives only about ten to 20 per cent of its annual income through its charity, most of which is spent each year, amounting to some $800,000 in 2017-18. These are nearly all classed as "donations" under the ACNC disclosure requirements — though of course "donors" are not required to be identified.

Compiled by David Paull from data provided by the ACNC

Interestingly, there was a switch in how the IPA described the use of these moneys from 2015-16 when it was issuing "grants", to the ambiguous category of "other" in 2016-17 — an apparent disclosure loophole under the Act. IPA annual reports show the bulk of its money is received as donations from individuals and membership fees, using their company’s donor gift recipient (DGR) status. This amounts to millions of dollars each year.

The CIS receives much more money through its charity and, given that "wages" comprise the bulk of its expenses, it seems its charity receives most of the money required to run the organisation.

Compiled by David Paull from data provided by the ACNC

The CIS has been running on a budget of over $3 million for the last five years (not counting the last financial year for which statements are not yet available). Most of this has been in the form of "donations", though a not insignificant proportion is described as "other income". Another loophole.

Coincidentally, both charities were registered at the same time, 3 December 2012, just prior to the new Commonwealth Charities Act coming into force the following year.

When looking at whether organisations seeking registration as charities have a charitable purpose, it is assumed the ACNC should have inspected the organisation’s governing documents, as well as documents relating to an 'organisation's activities, annual reports, financial statements and corporate documents'.

The disclaimers the ACNC provide are that while some activities may not seem to be charitable, they can be included if they are to 'further a charitable purpose'.

The other is for those

'... purposes that the law recognised as charitable before the Charities Act came into effect will continue to be charitable. The charity subtypes of public benevolent institution and health promotion charity also continue[d] to be recognised.'

As both charities were registered just prior to the new Act coming into force, it is likely that the accepted charity purpose of the IPA as a ‘public benevolent institution’ was accepted by the Charities Commission. The ACNC website states that in 2012, the Commission deemed that the IPA met the requirements of being 'another purpose beneficial to the community'.

Purpose beneficial to the community

In January 2014, the Commission reviewed the purpose of the IPA charity and, in addition, deemed it be consistent with

'... purposes beneficial to the general public that may reasonably be regarded as analogous to, or within the spirit of, any of the other charitable purposes'.

The CIS was similarly assessed as having “another purpose beneficial to the community” when registered in 2012, but the January 2014 assessment of whether it complied with the new Act determined that the CIS also met requirements for 'advancing social or public welfare” and “Advancing the security or safety of Australia or the Australian public'.

The second category would probably be due to the CIS’s focus on promoting public debate on international and security issues. A topic cherished by its current president Tom Switzer on his weekly ABC Radio National program.

Both charities claim they are benefiting the “general community of Australia”. However, given the difficulty in matching a climate denialist agenda with a supposed community benefit, this simply does not stack up anymore.

The reviews by the ACNC in January 2014 of the charitable status of these two registered charities, in this light, needs to be reviewed again. This is particularly so of the IPA with its increasing focus on spreading misinformation (none of which stands up to proper scientific scrutiny) since 2014.

But there are also other issues which need clarification in order that better transparency occurs, such as better definitions of income and expenditure, the question of influence by foreign entities and perhaps what is key: whether charity funds being used by these organisations is for a purpose that may be deemed as being of detriment to the community. Charitable status should be relinquished under these circumstances.

I have written to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC) to undertake a fresh review of these charities and await a response in anticipation. You can make a complaint to the ACNC HERE.

David Paull is an Australian ecologist. You can follow David on Twitter @davesgas.

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