In 2015, the Abbott government initiated a Parliamentary Inquiry into the Register of Environment Organisations. This is the Register that grants tax-deductible status to over 500 environment groups around Australia.
We are deeply concerned that this inquiry may be an attempt to silence environment charities and restrict their advocacy activities.
Our submission to the inquiry can be downloaded here.
A motion to strip eco-charities of the same rights as other charities was endorsed by the Federal Liberal party in June 2014. Minister Richard Colbeck had been pushing to remove environmental groups’ exemption from competition law regarding secondary boycotts, and the ‘Re:think’ tax discussion paper called for a review of the not for profit sector’s tax deductibility. All of this came after the Coalition cut funding for environment defenders offices and cut the Grants to Voluntary Environment, Sustainability and Heritage Organisations, which had bipartisan support for decades.
You can read a summary of the nature of the Inquiry here.
The terms of reference for the Inquiry state it will have regard to:
• the definition of ‘environmental organisation’ under the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997, including under Subdivision 30-E;
• the requirements to be met by an organisation to be listed on the Register and maintain its listing;
• activities undertaken by organisations currently listed on the Register and the extent to which these activities involve on-ground environmental works;
• reporting requirements for organisations to disclose donations and activities funded by donations;
• the administration of the Register and potential efficiency improvements;
• compliance arrangements and the measures available to the Department of the Environment and the Australian Taxation Office to investigate breaches of the Act and Ministerial Guidelines by listed organisations; and
• relevant governance arrangements in international jurisdictions, and exploring methods to adopt best practice in Australia.
The above terms of reference appear to establish a distinction between advocacy activities and ‘on-ground’ or ‘practical’ environmental works. Reinforcing this, Committee Chair Alex Hawke told the 7:30 Report that ‘the environment register is for groups to do actual practical environmental work or some education and other purposes’.
This is a misunderstanding of the relationship between advocacy and practical work. The truth is that one cannot exist without the other. Both are needed to improve our environment and safeguard our natural heritage.
We are concerned the Inquiry is an attempt to limit environment group’s freedom of speech by curtailing their advocacy activities, or worse, removing their tax deductibility.
Full details of these arguments are included in our submission.