Divide and Conquer
22 June 2017 at 8:56 am
With environmental charities in the firing line over DGR status the sector must stay strong and not become divided, writes David Crosbie, CEO of the Community Council for Australia (CCA).
It took a lot of effort from many people over more than a decade to establish the Australian Charites and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC).
At the parliamentary launch of Regulating Charities: The Inside Story, edited by Myles McGregor-Lowndes and Bob Wyatt, Anne Robinson, the founding chair of the Australian Charity Law Association, briefly ran through a chronology of events that lead to the establishment of the initial ACNC Task Force, and the long struggle to build an effective regulatory body despite government opposition.
There have been some outstanding champions – none less important than Senator Ursula Stephens – but this achievement was the product of a sustained effort by hundreds of individuals and organisations committed to creating a better regulatory environment for all charities.
There were opponents to the establishment of the ACNC within the charities sector, but the Pro Bono Australia surveys of the sector highlighting 80 per cent support for the ACNC became a critical factor in arguments that sustained it through the difficult early years.
It was an open letter from over 50 leading charities that helped convince the Senate to support the continuation of the ACNC.
In recent weeks, the ACNC has again come under some pressure with the failure to reappoint the outstanding leader Susan Pascoe, but that is not all. Issues are now being raised about the role of charities, the need for greater monitoring, fundraising reform, election campaigning by charities that receive foreign donations, Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status and charity advocacy.
While all these issues are important and require careful responses, it is this last issue that appears to have the greatest potential to divide the sector. The government have made it very clear that a primary target of their proposed reforms to DGR status is the environment movement, particularly charities that campaign against mining and other development.
There may be many reasons why the government is seeking to audit environmental organisations and restrict their advocacy, but there is no doubt that lobby groups representing the mining industry are going to be active players in responding to the Treasury DGR discussion paper.
In a recent newsletter, the Minerals Council of Australia have asked mining companies to make submissions in response to the Treasury DGR paper, providing the address and some suggested content. In part, this newsletter suggests the following:
Greenpeace, Lock the Gate and groups like them currently receive Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status which means that donations to them are tax-deductible. This assists them to raise funds for illegal protests.
You can help by making a submission to the government. Your submission doesn’t have to be long. A simple WORD document with your contact details is all that’s needed.
You might like to cover the following points:
- All environmental charities should be regularly reviewed to make sure they are abiding by the law.
- Any environmental protest group that breaks the law should immediately have their DGR status revoked. Taxpayers should not subsidise illegal protests by anti-mining groups.
- To be eligible for DGR status, the primary purpose of an environmental charity should be “on-ground” work that improves the local environment.
According to ACNC data, environmental charities have a total annual turnover of less than $1.5 billion each year, or around 1 per cent of the total income for all charities in Australia. They employ less than 10,000 staff, but have close to 200,000 volunteers. Approximately 1,000 of the 1,350 environmental charities have a total income of less than $50,000. Interestingly, 57 per cent, or 770 of these charities, have DGR status.
The experience gained through the process of establishing the ACNC shows that strength is unity.
There are 770 environmental charities being targeted within the proposed reforms for DGR, but what happens next if we allow these organisations to face ongoing audits of their activities and restrictions on their advocacy?
I would expect many in the mining industry will take the time to put in a submission outlining how terrible it is for the economy and jobs when environmental organisations disrupt their activities.
I am not sure how many charities will put in a submission saying how important it is for them to be able to advocate (as is their legal right under the definition of charity 2013), or the harmful impact of regular activity auditing.
I do know we should never allow our voices to be silenced. To be silent is to deny what is important to the communities we serve.
The mining industry and others would like to divide and conquer. They are hoping the broader charities sector will distance itself from environmental charities, and be content with these changes knowing most charities are not yet directly in the firing line.
One measure of unity would be if non-environmental charities made more submissions than those charities whose purpose is to protect and enhance our environment.
Even if we cannot achieve this, surely more charities will make submissions than mining companies?
If we are going to create the Australia we want, if we are to become a stronger movement for building and sustaining flourishing communities, we cannot be divided.
You can make a submission in response to the Treasury DGR Discussion paper here.
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including five years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.