Charity’s Illegal Acts Under Spotlight
4 June 2015 at 12:39 pm
An Australian Senator has asked the national charity regulator to investigate alleged criminal activity at one of the country's most well-known environmental organisations.
Liberal National Party Senator, Matthew Canavan, used a Senate Estimates hearing this week to publicly request that the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) conduct an investigation into whether Greenpeace Australia Pacific should retain its charitable status.
Senator Canavan quoted Greenpeace to show that the charity was actively breaking the law.
“Greenpeace are a registered charity and in a submission to Treasury, to Government, Greenpeace said ‘we have blocked train lines, we have occupied Lucas Heights, trespassed at The Lodge, illegally raised banners at Parliament House amongst many other activities. These activities have never been for any purpose except the public benefit and in furtherance of our core purposes and values’,” Senator Canavan said.
“So they’re obviously making a claim that they’re compliant under Division 3, but clearly they’re promoting, clearly they’re advocating illegal activities. They use the word illegal.”
Senator Canavan told ACNC Commissioner Susan Pascoe and Assistant Commissioner Murray Baird that Greenpeace’s own admissions meant that it should be investigated.
“Can I bring that to your attention Mr Baird and could you look at that? Because to me it’s clear that they do have a purpose of illegality,” he said.
“They are themselves promoting it. They say in their view that those illegal acts are to further their charitable purpose but I do think that it’s a little strange that you have organisations that themselves are deciding which laws they can comply with and which laws they should break, particularly those that are registered for charitable status.”
ACNC Assistant Commissioner Murray Baird confirmed that a charity could have its status revoked if it was proven that breaking the law was part of its purpose.
“If in fact they are serious offenses, under the Act there is a specific threshold for serious offences, that would be the grounds for a failure of governance and for revocation,” Baird said.
“Should the offence fall below that (threshold) the inquiry would be is this the purpose of the charity or is this something that occurred in the pursuit of a charitable cause.”
Baird said that to date no charities have had their status revoked for having a purpose which includes breaking the law.
Canavan said he would write to the ACNC to provide more examples of the charity breaking the law.
Head of Program at Greenpeace Australia Pacific, Emma Gibson, slammed Senator Canavan’s comments and said his agenda should be questioned.
“Senator Matt Canavan’s claims are another attempt to stifle criticism of the LNP’s anti-environment agenda,” Gibson said.
“It is deceptive given the LNP fails to mention or inquire into its tax free donations from the people who benefit most from these companies, the mining companies.
“You must question the motivation for Senator Canavan’s claims, given the LNP and mining companies are running a co-ordinated campaign of intimidation to protect their secret donations and environmentally destructive approvals.”
Senator Canavan, who represents Queensland, also questioned the ACNC about the Wilderness Society, which he said had advocated for people to vote against the LNP in the Queensland election.
Senator Canavan tabled a document which showed a flyer distributed by the Wilderness Society which called on voters to place the LNP last on their ballots.
During the hearing independent Senator Nick Xenophon also questioned whether the ACNC could play a larger role in fighting international terrorism.
“I note that the UK has been providing its own similar commission with additional funding to focus on terrorist activities or organisations being funded through charities,” Senator Xenophon said.
“With the appropriate funding and resources does the ACNC believe it could perform a similar role in Australia?”
“Undoubtedly… I wouldn’t want to inflate the role that we have because clearly the AFP and AustTrack and the security agencies are in the lead here, however, we have a dedicated knowledge base on the activities of charities and in addition to that we have very good international connections,” Commissioner Susan Pascoe said.
“Certainly from my experience at the Charity Commission of England and Wales, this has been a growing area of concern and it has been recognised by the Home Office there with significant additional funding,” Assistant Commissioner, David Locke, added.
“The funding was largely with regard to IT systems and intelligence data bases.”
Xenophon quizzed Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, who was also being questioned at the hearing, about why the Government would not commit more funding to the ACNC if it meant that the organisation could help in the fight against terrorism.
“Minister, if in the UK they have the IT resources to see whether money is being used for illegal purposes and being funnelled through charities in terms of terrorist activities, would you want the ACNC to have at least the same level of resources as their UK counterparts so that we can unearth any activity that could be terrorist related?” he said.
“The Government’s priority is keeping Australians safe and this is one way of keeping Australia safe.”
Cormann said that the Government did not view the ACNC as key to fighting terrorism.
“Obviously the ACNC has got the resources that the Government believes are currently appropriate in the context of a policy position that they not continue as an organisation,” Cormann said.
“I have never seen the ACNC as a lead agency in the fight against terrorism.”
Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Andrew Leigh, said after the hearing that the Government should commit to protecting the future of the ACNC.
“Streamlining charity laws would let Not for Profits spend less time filling in paperwork and more time doing what they do best: helping the Australian community,” Leigh said.
“Abbott Government ministers have styled themselves as slashers of regulation. Yet they are refusing to do the one thing that could make a real difference in the Not for Profit sector.
“The smoke signals sent by Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg about the commission’s future are not enough.
“If the Abbott Government is serious about reducing regulation, it must now commit to keeping the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission open permanently.”
Greens Senator, Rachel Siewert, also called for the ACNC to be protected.
“It is good to see the [ACNC] fulfilling their role as an independent regulator of charities in Australia,” Senator Siewert said.
“ACNC dealt with around 1300 complaints, after investigation and review they revoked the status of 10 charities.
“They gave advice to 586 charities on compliance or a request for undertakings.
“All up, about 1% of 56,500 charities on the register were investigated in more detail, this is what the ACNC was designed for.
“I look forward to seeing their hard work continue into the future. It is clear the vast majority of charities wish to be compliant and appreciate the guidance of this regulator.”