Concerns Raised Over Charity-Funded Trip For Bill Shorten
9 March 2018 at 1:46 pm
The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission has been asked to investigate the Australian Conservation Foundation, after the environmental charity funded a trip for opposition leader Bill Shorten to visit North Queensland.
The Australian reported on Thursday that the ACF funded a $17,000 tour of the Great Barrier Reef and Adani coal mine site for Shorten in late January, leading Liberal MP Ben Morton to ask for clarification if this was in breach of governance standards.
The ACNC confirmed it received a letter of concern from Morton – a member of the joint standing committee on electoral matters – regarding the ACF.
An ACNC spokesperson told Pro Bono News: “The ACNC can confirm that it has received a letter from the federal member for Tangney, Ben Morton MP, regarding registered charity the Australian Conservation Foundation.
“Due to the secrecy provisions in the ACNC Act, which is currently under review, we are unable to provide further information. The ACNC takes all concerns raised regarding registered charities seriously.”
Morton’s concern is that the ACF may be in breach of their charitable purpose and the provisions of their charitable status, by providing Shorten with a gift of private benefit.
Under ACNC regulations, a charity must ensure “their funds are used to further their charitable purpose, and not for any private benefit”.
But ACF CEO Kelly O’Shanassy has defended the charity-funded trip, and noted that “these types of trips are not uncommon”.
“In late January ACF hosted the opposition leader Bill Shorten on a trip in North Queensland. On this trip Mr Shorten met with independent scientific experts who explained the threat the Adani coal mine poses to groundwater, threatened species and our climate,” O’Shanassy said.
“These types of trips are not uncommon. Charities periodically take our elected representatives to areas of environmental damage, human suffering and communities of need.
“These are not holidays. They ensure that when our elected representatives return to Canberra to make laws and policies that affect us all they understand firsthand the high stakes of their decisions.”
O’Shanassy said that ACF was “funded by generous donors… who want our environment to have a strong voice in our country”.
“Ensuring our elected representatives understand the breadth of environmental damage occurring in Australia is a component of our work,” she said.
“ACF is confident we have complied with all relevant laws applicable to us. All ACF’s activities are in pursuit of an environmental protection outcome.”
Community Council for Australia CEO David Crosbie told Pro Bono News that exposing politicians to what was happening in the community was “one of the most important roles performed by charities”.
“As CEO of a large drug treatment agency, I would often invite politicians and policy makers to not only visit our service, but also talk directly with people who experienced drug problems,” Crosbie said.
“Increasing awareness of issues and better educating our policy makers is critical to the formulation of good government policy. I would find it very concerning if the charities regulator tried to restrict this activity in any way.”
Crosbie said “on the surface” it seemed that the ACF was not in breach of their charitable purpose because of the funded trip.
“While I am not in a position to comment directly on the behaviour of the [ACF] in subsidising environmental visits by politicians, it seems on the surface that this awareness raising activity is entirely consistent with the charitable purpose of the ACF,” he said.
“In fact, I would suspect it is exactly this kind of awareness raising activity that most supporters and funders of ACF would want and expect them to be engaged in.”
Under the ACNC’s compliance powers, the national regulator is able to provide regulatory advice, enforceable undertakings and directions to charities, and can ultimately revoke charity status.
This concern raised about ACF comes after the ACNC recently announced that the number of charity concerns received by the regulator grew by 42 per cent in 2017.