Inquiry Into Advocacy Not a Threat
23 July 2015 at 10:59 am
A Parliamentary Inquiry into the advocacy undertaken by environmental organisations poses little threat to their charity status, a leading voice in the Not for Profit sector has claimed.
The claim by Community Council of Australia CEO, David Crosbie, comes despite the national charity regulator, the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC), issuing timely advice that sets out the rules around advocacy.
The ACNC issued a guidance paper defining when participating in advocacy could see a charity lose its status.
“A charity can promote or oppose a change to any matter of law, policy or practice, as long as this advocacy furthers or aids another charitable purpose. However, a charity must not have a ‘disqualifying purpose’,” the guidance paper said.
“The two purposes which will disqualify an organisation from being a registered charity are:
engaging in, or promoting, activities that are unlawful or contrary to public policy, and
promoting or opposing a political party or candidate for political office.”
In her most recent briefing to the Not for Profit sector, ACNC Commissioner, Susan Pascoe, said the rules around advocacy were often difficult to understand.
“Many charities are involved in advocacy and campaigning, and it is important that people are aware how these activities work as a charitable purpose,” Pascoe said.
“Unlike some of the other more common charitable purposes, advocacy can be a little unclear and difficult to understand.”
The Federal Standing Committee on the Environment was ordered by Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, and has set out to determine if environmental groups that are eligible for tax deductions are using their donors' funds to bankroll illegal activities and political campaigns.
Environmental campaigners, including former Greens leader Bob Brown, have called the inquiry a “vendetta”.
But David Crosbie said the inquiry had little clout and organisations should not be worried about losing their charity status.
“The current Parliamentary inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations is mostly a politically motivated waste of time. It is also based on a false assumption about the connection between charitable status and organisational activity,” Crosbie said.
“The most important point to remember in any discussion about charitable status is that it is the purpose of an organisation, not its activities, that decides whether it is a charity or not.
“In the case of environmental groups, their charitable status is not threatened when they engage in a range of activities to achieve their purpose. The fact that some of their activities may be considered political or even commercial is not a significant factor in determining their charitable status, provided they are pursuing a charitable purpose.
“There is absolutely no threat to charitable status simply because a charity informs people that the policies of one political party are preferable to another. As with all charities, if an environmental organisation is pursuing their charitable purpose in a legal way and meeting the ACNC reporting and governance requirements, it is almost inconceivable that they could be putting their charitable status at risk through such activities.”
Crosbie said should an organisation be trying to get a particular political party or politician elected as a primary purpose, it would not be eligible for charitable status and similarly, if a charity established a pattern of repeated law breaking, it may mean they can lose their charitable status.
“The current inquiry into environmental groups reflects some of the attempts to silence environmental campaigners in countries like Canada where the tensions between miners, developers and environmental groups are not dissimilar to the situation in Australia. It is important to note, however, that the political activities of charities are restricted in Canada, unlike in Australia,” he said.
“Given the current definition of charity (that many in the sector including CCA fought to have put in place) and the numerous legal precedents in relation to charitable status, the current inquiry will probably do little more than reflect the political views of those involved. It is a platform for political rhetoric, including criticism of environmental groups from those supporting the fossil fuel industries.
“Thankfully the inquiry is based on false legal assumptions and ultimately poses little threat to an environmental charity operating legally in pursuing their charitable purpose.”
A spokesperson for the ACNC said there had not been a noticeable increase in the number of inquiries around advocacy.
Crosbie said that CCA had made a submission to the inquiry but had not yet been asked to provide evidence.