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National Parks Association 

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Silencing Environmental Organisations

A controversial federal government report released last week is recommending that the federal government draconically dictate the terms of purpose for environmental Not-For-Profit organisations – that of supporting ‘practical environment work in the community’.

The House of Representatives Committee inquiry into the tax deductibility of environment organisations recommends that such organisations lose their tax deductibility status for public donations, unless a quarter of donated funds is spent on remediation work, such as tree planting, weeding, controlling pests or wildlife rehabilitation (The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment: Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations).

This arbitrary figure would be applied to all current NFP environmental organisations that have DGR (deductible gift recipients) status, regardless of the purpose for which they were established, eg. advocating for the protection of the environment, education, research, law reform or reporting wildlife crimes. Many environmental organisations do not undertake any on-ground work, concentrating on preserving nature, not attempting to replace that which has been destroyed.

This politically motivated inquiry, which has the support of the mining industry, failed to uncover any evidence to justify the removal of the charitable status of any environmental organization.  The inquiry was established by Environment Minister Greg Hunt in 2015, following a Liberal federal council vote in favour of a motion from Tasmanian MP Andrew Nikolic that green groups be stripped of their charitable tax status in 2014.

The report recommended that sanctions and fines be applied to DGR environmental organisations 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 organization”.

In his dissenting statement, LNP MP, Jason Wood stated that “..it should be noted that it was due to environmental activists, through their efforts and through the use of a blockade, that major environmental disasters have been prevented. An example would be the Franklin River in Tasmania, where many activist groups openly supported campaigns to stop the damming of the river. These protests, which were actively supported by environmental groups, would be prohibited under this recommendation and history would now show that, if it was not for these protests and national awareness, the World Heritage Franklin River would have been dammed.”

Further, the Committee recommended stricter reporting and compliance requirements – above that of other charities.

The basis of their argument is that environmental groups ‘disrupt the economy’, and some of the key recommendations are a blatant attempt to muzzle opposition to projects destined to destroy our environment.  

Environment organisations undertake a wide variety of work to protect and conserve Australia's unique natural environment. As within any other charitable sector, advocacy plays as important a function as on-ground work (for example, advocating for children's rights and implementing actions to safeguard children), as does education or research.

Unfortunately, in many circumstances, advocacy is the only means available to redress an imbalance and provide a vehicle for community members to engage with often complex legislative, institutional and policy decision making. This improves the functioning of government and the outcome for the environment, as well as the community.

Advocacy contributes to the achievement of sustainable development, increases the enforcement of environmental laws, promotes good decision-making, provides a focus for public debate and highlights issues of community concern. This also in turn, leads to funding and policies for on-ground nature conservation efforts.

In many instances, it is due to past advocacy efforts by charitable environment organisations, that Australia's natural environment contributes to the multi-billion dollar tourism industry today.

There is little logic to the argument that only on-ground works benefit the environment and society, as the cost of planting a tree and the years it takes to grow, hardly offset the value of mature or old growth tree saved from the bulldozer by the efforts of passionate individuals or dedicated organisations.

Some also argue that on-ground works, are in fact the least efficient method of protecting the environment, and in some cases, are a way of cost shifting environmental repair to volunteers from what should be core responsibilities of corporations and government.

It is also worth considering the sociological impact. DGR status currently acts somewhat as a 'choke' on political action by environment organisations, who by and large maintain non-partisan positions and, in many instances, work constructively with governments of all political orientation. By removing DGR status, there is the likelihood that some sections of the community would become disenfranchised and potentially increasingly radicalised in their efforts to express concerns about environmental issues.

As are other charities, environmental organisations are currently legally permitted to undertake either or both on-ground and advocacy activities in accordance with their purpose - in this instance, to protect and enhance the natural environment. As in other charitable sectors, both actions contribute to the achievement of tangible outcomes.

As a democratic nation, advocacy in the environmental sector is essential to encourage all sides of debate on environmental issues, and ensure freedom of speech. The High Court has recognised the implied freedom of political communication in the Constitution - what is proposed is tantamount to a restriction on political speech. Environmental issues are matters of public importance, and may not be so easy to dismiss constitutionally. Citizens also have a right to donate equally to the charity of their choice.

685 submissions were made to the inquiry, with the majority objecting to any plans to impose stricter terms on environmental organisations than other charities. The National Parks Australia Council (of which NPAQ is a member) made a submission to the inquiry.  

However, the Committee choose to ignore these submissions, preferring to rely on ideology rather than evidence. The Labor members of the committee, found “…. it extraordinary that government members have recommended to, in effect, constrain the capacity of environmental organisations to engage in advocacy work. We completely reject this undemocratic proposition. Citizens should be supported to question government decision-making and corporate power, not manoeuvred into silence by legislative and administrative action.”

Pause for a moment, and contemplate how many of your favourite national parks in Queensland are the result of advocacy: Lamington, Girraween, Fraser Island (Great Sandy), Cooloola (Great Sandy), Daintree, Tamborine, Bunya Mountains, Springbrook, Barron Gorge, to name just a few.

All achieved through the commitment of people supported by the commitment of communities – advocating for the conservation of nature.

Download a copy of the report.

Michelle Prior, NPAQ President