Advocacy for energy efficiency and community renewable energy precincts could become casualties if the federal government adopts key recommendations from an Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Groups.
Released today, the inquiry’s recommendations include a requirement that environmental organisations with Deductible Gift Recipient status be made to spend at least 25 per cent of donor funds on direct “environmental remediation” works.
It further recommends that requirement be administered and managed by the Australian Taxation Office, and that environmental groups with charitable status should be prohibited from having a political purpose.
Environment Victoria chief executive Mark Wakeham told The Fifth Estate the environmental remediation stipulation would mean his organisation would not be able to achieve as large a number of outcomes in terms of advocacy.
“We choose to get the biggest bang for the buck for our donors,” he said, “and we have had some major wins through our advocacy efforts.”
These have included getting lead removed from petrol, and promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Mr Wakeham said these things had had a larger impact overall than if the time and money had been spent on tree planting programs.
He also pointed out the requirement would mean money being wasted on administration trying to demonstrate compliance. The ATO, he said, would also have to dedicate resources to compliance.
“The government wants the ATO to be administering these limits on advocacy. They want to tie up the ATO in chasing environmental groups over planting trees, not chasing the big tax avoiders.”
Mr Wakeham said this did not reflect what the average tax payer would regard as the right priorities.
“It is important the Prime Minister and the Environment Minister distance themselves from the report and rule out introducing these changes,” he said.
He pointed out that the government has virtually defunded the Natural Heritage Trust, which had been carrying out environmental remediation works including tree planting, and now seemed to want to shift the burden of that work to donor-driven environmental organisations.
One of the other key recommendations is that administrative sanctions be introduced for environmental DGRs that “encourage, support, promote or endorse illegal or unlawful activity undertaken by employees, members, or volunteers of the organisation or by others without formal connections to the organisation”. The inquiry also recommended fines for those found in breach of the legislation.
Mr Wakeham described this as a way for the government to “silence critics” and introduce “anti-democratic” sanctions.
“Peaceful demonstrations have a proud history in Australia, and not just in the environmental movement,” he said.
“This is a particularly blatant attack on just the environmental sector.”
Friends of the Earth’s Cam Walker said that without peaceful protest and civil disobedience, “the Franklin River would have been dammed and a uranium mine would have been built at Jabiluka”.
Total Environment Centre executive director Jeff Angel said senators who supported the inquiry’s recommendations were “simply mouthpieces for a mining industry that doesn’t like being placed under scrutiny and has a record of trying to squash opposition”.
Mr Angel said the recommendations were aimed at negating education and advocacy work by many environmental organisations, and could be seen as a “thoroughly anti-democratic manoeuvre”.
“If these recommendations were in place last year, or 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, we would not have the magnificent National Parks we have, or the push for renewable energy, or the growth in the renewable energy industry, and an aware public [that knows] we must protect the environment,” Mr Angel said.
The TEC holds DGR status, and he said if it were to have to dedicate at least 25 per cent of donor funds to remediation work, it would have the “intended effect” of significantly reducing the organisation’s investment in systemic solutions such as community renewable energy precincts.
“While it’s nice to plant trees, our focus is on getting an economic system that protects existing bush and improves the sustainability of communities and of Australia,” Mr Angel said.
The inquiry received over 685 submissions, and held a number of public hearings. The final report is accompanied by a dissenting report by Labor members of the committee and also dissenting comments by the Liberal member for La Trobe, Jason Wood.
The Labor report stated that “the overwhelming weight of evidence presented to the committee points to the vital importance of maintaining the tax deductibility of donations to environmental organisations, without imposing further conditions or constraints on the operation of those organisations”.
“Despite the efforts of government members, no disinterested evidence was adduced in support of the proposition that a distinction should be drawn between so-called ‘on ground’ environmental activities on the one hand, and advocacy, on the other.”
The Labor MPs also said “citizens should be supported to question government decision-making and corporate power, not manoeuvred into silence by legislative and administrative action.”
Mr Wood included in his comments a list of groups he considered would be unlikely to meet the 25 per cent target, or would find it “very difficult”. They include Beyond Zero Emissions, Great Barrier Reef Foundation, Environment Victoria, Australian Youth Climate Coalition, Environmental Defenders Offices of Australia, Environmental Justice Australia, National Parks Australia Council and the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
“The DGR groups impacted, which would not reach this target or any target for that matter, would be groups solely focused on education and research, advocacy – including environmental law – and overseas activities,” Mr Wood said.
The chief executives of WWF, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Wilderness Society, Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Friends of the Earth and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW issued a joint statement calling on Greg Hunt to reject the inquiry’s findings.
“The Report of the Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations correctly recognises the enormous contribution environment groups have played in safeguarding Australia’s precious yet fragile environment, protecting icons from the Great Barrier Reef to the Franklin River,” the statement said.
“However, the report contains a number of deeply flawed and dangerous recommendations, including an arbitrary requirement to spend a quarter of donor funds on ‘environmental remediation’ and a draconian attempt to clamp down on the type of work organisations conduct.”
The group said the inquiry “failed to uncover any evidence to justify removing the charitable status of any environment group”.
“We welcome the dissenting statements made by Liberal MP and committee member Jason Wood, raising significant concerns about the two most dangerous recommendations.”
The statement said “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 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.”
- Read the full report