Silencing NFP Environmental Groups No Surprise
21 April 2015 at 11:32 am
The Federal Government’s attack on political debate and Not for Profit advocacy comers as no surprise and won’t just be limited to environmental organisations, writes WA Greens Senator Rachel Siewert.
Unfortunately it will come as a surprise to no-one that members of the Government have started attacking charities and Not for Profits with the House of Representatives Environment Committee beginning an inquiry into environmental groups who are eligible to receive tax-deductible donations.
The Government wants to silence environment groups by attacking their tax deductibility status. The underlying notion is that any groups that receive the ‘gift’ of tax deductibility should keep quiet about big business deals, back-room handshakes and destruction that threatens the environment.
Almost 600 groups are on the register of environmental organisations. This entitles them to tax-deductible gifts and donations, which many need to survive.
While this inquiry is focused at environment groups at the moment, comments by Coalition members about environment groups could equally apply to other charities and Not for Profits such as social services organisations.
The chair of the Committee has assured environmentalists that the inquiry ‘is not a witch hunt’, but went on to say they need to ensure that tax-deductible donations (which are a generous concession from the taxpayer) are used for the purpose intended and expected by the community. I suspect he means what our conservative Government thinks the purpose should be.
When defending the upcoming inquiry, LNP Senator Matthew Canavan said that these groups are ‘engaging in political debate, not the environmental debate’. I’m sorry to break it to Senator Canavan, but those two debates are of course intertwined, and always have been.
Senator Canavan and his colleagues are either ignorant of or more likely choose to ignore the High Court ruling that groups with tax deductibility status have a right to advocate and engage in political debate. Further, the Charities Act 2013 includes advocacy as a lawful activity of a charity.
This attack on political debate and advocacy won’t be limited to environmental organisations. The conservatives have form when it comes to those pesky civil society organisations such as social justice and community service organisations, who seek to advocate and engage in political debate to improve policy for the most vulnerable in our community. We have seen efforts in the past to take away tax deductibility status, to stop secondary boycotts, to implement gag clauses. These organisations will be targeted into the future.
There are thousands of charities and Not for Profits that thrive in Australia. Many of these groups would cease to exist or have their activities restricted without their tax deductibility status.
It is the job of the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profit Commission (ACNC) to regulate and oversee the charities and Not for Profit sector. If an MP has a complaint about the sector they should take it to the ACNC, the very body that the Government (until recently) was trying to get rid of.
Tax deductibility should not apply solely to groups that fit the Government’s narrow and unfair agenda. Of course these Government members won’t see the irony in the Institute of Public Affairs having tax deductibility status when a significant amount of their work is advocacy and political debate, but yes I know the difference, it is on the conservative side.
We must stop the Government’s attack on environmental groups and other charities and Not for Profit organisations into the future. Tax deductibility is the life blood of many of these organisations; who often operate on a shoe-string budget. It should not be taken away because the Government of the day doesn't like something the groups is doing or has said.
These decisions should be determined by an independent body – not the Government who will be tempted to use it as a weapon to silence civil society.
This attack on the tax deductibility status of environmental groups amounts to an attack on democracy.
The narrative is clear: they’re coming for environment groups now but it won’t stop there.
A strong, healthy civil society is an essential part of a decent and fair community and we need to let the Government know we won’t stand by and let them undermine it.
About the author: Senator Rachel Siewert is the Greens spokesperson on Ageing and Disability Services and Chair of the Community Affairs References Committee which is currently holding an inquiry into the impact of the community service tender program by the Department of Social Services.