Environment groups face fight for their lives

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By the time polls close Saturday, tens of thousands of voters in marginal seats will have received 'election scorecards' from environment groups.

Advocate bound by green tape. Cartoon by Greg FoysterAlmost all will rate the Liberal Party worse than Labor or the Greens on a range of issues, from protecting the Great Barrier Reef to encouraging investment in clean energy.

Privately, some Liberal candidates will be seething — and, if the Coalition wins, they'll have the means for brutal revenge.

In March 2015, the Abbott government launched an Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations (REO), which lists about 600 environment groups eligible to receive tax-deductible donations. The inquiry's report, tabled in May this year, makes recommendations that would hobble the campaigning activities of these groups — especially any that oppose large coal or gas projects.

One recommendation limits political advocacy by requiring environment organisations to spend 25 per cent of their money on 'remediation' work like planting trees. Another suggests 'sanctions', such as the loss of tax-deductible status, if a group encourages, supports or even endorses protest blockades and other acts of civil disobedience.

Taken together, the message is clear: environment organisations should focus on cleaning up after destructive projects, not on stopping them happening in the first place. Instead of standing in the way of a bulldozer, they should obediently step aside and plant trees in its wake.

For groups that rely on tax-deductible donations for the bulk of their funding, the effect would be chilling: either abandon successful and proven tactics, or lose vital income.

So what's behind these suggested changes? They're mainly driven by hard-right conservative MPs in seats where environment organisations have protested against coal mining or logging.

 

"Far from being tamed at the threat to their funding, environment organisations have been more brazen than ever this election."

 

Liberal MP Andrew Nikolic is furious at the downfall of the forestry industry in his home state of Tasmania, while Nationals MP George Christensen and Senator Matthew Canavan are fuming over the strategic delay of mega-mines in Queensland.

Nikolic and Canavan wrote lengthy submissions to the inquiry, which was originally chaired by Liberal MP Alex Hawke. Christensen, who has called green activists 'the greatest terrorism threat in North Queensland', was on the inquiry committee. Early in the public hearings he tweeted: 'evidence points to them losing their tax deductibility status'. And as dissenting Labor committee members noted, the inquiry report's controversial recommendations relied heavily on the submission of Senator Matthew Canavan 'in preference to expert views'.

These politicians are angry because the environment movement has hampered big fossil fuel developments such as the Indian company Adani's massive Carmichael coal mine, following a strategy leaked to The Australian. When Attorney General George Brandis says environment groups are using the courts for 'lawfare', this is mainly what he's so incensed about.

If Tony Abbott were still leader, the Coalition might have already used the REO inquiry report to cripple the advocacy work of environment organisations. But Malcolm Turnbull, cautious to distance himself from the heavy-handed approach of his predecessor, hasn't responded. Nor has Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who is ultimately responsible for the register, and probably still has the REO inquiry report sitting on his desk.

After the election, the political costs of a crack-down will diminish. If the Coalition wins, there'll be massive pressure from conservative MPs to retaliate against the environment movement. They'll have plenty of fresh exhibits to draw upon. Far from being tamed at the threat to their funding, environment organisations have been more brazen than ever this election.

The most blatant example is 350.org Australia, which has published damaging and personal profiles of 30 conservative MPs it says are 'climate blockers'. 350.org can take the risk because it doesn't have tax-deductible status to begin with. But many climate change groups that do have this status are campaigning hard in marginal electorates, using the same tactics normally associated with unions and political parties — door knocking, face to face street stalls and volunteers at polling booths. The Australian Conservation Foundation, usually more risk-averse than the radical fringe groups, has been bold enough to put politicians' faces on massive mobile billboards in key electorates.

It's part of a trend across the movement towards grassroots 'community organising', based on the model of progressive campaigns in the US. Many conservative MPs will interpret these tactics as 'too political', even though the High Court has recognised that advocating for policy change is a legitimate charitable purpose in a representative democracy.

Early in the election campaign, Age political journalist Heath Aston had this to say about the environment movement: 'The sector has been so effective that the Abbott government, spurred on by the mining and gas lobby, began the process of stripping them of charitable status in a bid to dent their resources. The sector as a whole has been relatively quiet since Malcolm Turnbull took the leadership and put the Coalition's crusade against green groups on ice ...'

Not anymore. Environment organisations have stuck their necks out. If the Coalition wins, they'll be in for the fight of their lives.

 


Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is an environment journalist, an alumni of Centre for Sustainability Leadership, and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Cartoon by Greg Foyster

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, climate change, Great Barrier Reef, Greg Hunt

 

 

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Existing comments

I would just like to know who to attribute the quote "Far from being tamed..." in the middle of the article.
Glen Klatovsky | 30 June 2016


"Environmental groups eligible to receive tax deductible donations". I reckon every eligible, registered voter who turns out to vote should also be eligible to receive donations towards the cost of publicly expressing an opinion at the compulsory polling booth, tax deductible to the donator!
john frawley | 01 July 2016


A pretty daunting situation you present, Greg. Interesting that my social media has been bombarded by the environmental groups pre-election, so for the grassroots this is where we seek urgent action. I hope your prediction is wrong! I hope any new leadership will, as a priority, value tangible commitment to the sustainability of our environment and our planet, and to the groups that are working overtime to raise community consciousness.
vivien williams | 01 July 2016


Well said Greg, Scary but not too surprising, big money will always use its financial might to silence dissent to its profit making activities as they stuff up the planet in the process. I dread to think of the consequences socially or politically when the 'great unwashed' realise they have been duped- hopefully before the environment becomes too hostile for human life to exist .
Gavin | 01 July 2016


The commitment of environmental groups this election has been extraordinary. Their high visibility and energy makes it almost impossible for people to be ignorant of our future given the neoliberal cancer on the environment.
Tony Walters | 01 July 2016


I would support the Galilee Basin coal mines IF the coal lis to be sold to India to be used instead of impure Indian coal and IF India is to use it to generate power while they are changing over to environmentally morefriendly power generation, and IF the environmental benefits (to the world) of not using the dirty Indian coal outweigh the environmental damage of mining the coal and exporting it to India. Is this OK?
Gavan Breen | 01 July 2016


Mines like the Carmichael Mine in the Galilee Basin don't stack up economically and won't proceed unless they receive significant government subsidy, which was offered by the Newman Government but not by the new Qld Government. Coalition politicians who support new coal mines do so at their peril, as the tide of public sentiment has turned towards sustainability and against fossil fuels. As for poor Indians, their need is for solar lamps which they can afford to pay off. Even if the electricity grid reached them, they wouldn't be able to afford to be connected to it. There is no such thing as clean coal. Our politicians are 'muddying the waters' when they talk about our coal being cleaner than Indian coal. All coal, when burnt, produces greenhouse gases that cause the planet to get hotter. The Reef is dying, species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate, low-lying Pacific islands are going under, thousands more people are dying of heat stress in heat waves, and the world is experiencing more extreme and more deadly weather events. The big polluters are still donating millions to politicians and in effect writing their energy policies. Wake up Australia!
Grant Allen | 01 July 2016


The vindictive and petty nature of the conservative side of politics never ceases to amaze me. Its' migration into policy areas is becoming an increasing concern.
Deena Bennett | 01 July 2016


This article is a very important one because we know that the "Liberal", National and other extreme right wing parties get elected, they will carry out a bitter war of attrition against environmental groups. My understanding is that they have already been cuts to environmental groups. In addition, the Coalition has cut back funding to the CSIRO and as a result and we are now seeing the shedding of specialist environmental scientists in the ranks of this very important organisation. A voted for the environment and the people who are working to heal it is crucial in this election. The needs of people and the environment must be put before the profits of the large and polluting corporations.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 01 July 2016


I suppose it all boils down to what you believe about the environment and what you believe is legitimate action against those you feel might threaten it, if you feel it is threatened. The silent majority will be looking very hard at those who they think are 'extreme'. Whether these groups have tax deductible status or not, those who are judged 'extreme' - especially if they are considered to be allied to the Extreme Left in other matters - may find it harder to raise funds. It seems a great pity we seem unable to have a genuine intelligent national conversation on the subject which results in a sane national consensus. I noticed, in the ABC 4 Corners program on the federal seat of New England, many farmers were concerned about global warming. These are not necessarily people who would metaphorically jump into bed with Greenpeace. Perhaps the environmental movement, like Australian political parties, sees and behaves too much in an adversarial manner? Perhaps this is counterproductive?
Edward Fido | 01 July 2016


Thank you for this clear and explanatory light upon our politics Greg. Keep it up. keep writing and researching. Marie FMDM
Marie Bourke | 01 July 2016


Interesting that "promoting religion" is an almost unchallenged charitable purpose and the religious are not shy about doing so. In NSW we had no less than three outright theocratic parties as well. Perhaps time for a look at that advocacy in return?
Moz | 03 July 2016


why limit communication with your audience ? Misleading and deceptive representations, leading right up to election day 2nd July 2016, There is now clear evidence of fraud, misleading and deceptive conduct by members of Cabinet. This crookedness needs to be exposed. The sectional interests of our Government Ministers’ Corporate donors are taking precedence over the national interest, and the sustainability of financing for the Renewable Energy Industry. In 2015,Treasurer Joe Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann directed the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to exclude investments in household and small-scale solar from the $10 billion fund in the future. The draft investment mandate called for “mature and established clean energy technologies … including wind technology and household small-scale solar” to be excluded from the Corporation’s activities.  Interestingly, the authority to make such changes can only come from the Parliament, not the Executive. The Executive cannot change an Act of Parliament. The Parliament also authorises the Executive Government to spend public money (not the other way around). Any change such as the revocation of a part and/or a new investment mandate to the CEFC Act 2012 may only be modified by amendments made, requested or agreed to by the Senate. Stephen Keim QC has provided advice to environmental groups about the Government’s ability to direct the CEFC. He said the Government had the power to put in place an investment mandate but it had to “tread a fairly thin line”. During 1998, American Petroleum Institute (API), the USA’s largest oil trade association (member companies include BP, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, Exxon-Mobil and Shell) planned a “roadmap” for a climate of deception, including a plan to have “average citizens” believe that the realities of climate science were vague and uncertain.  Australians have been subject to fraudulent and misleading representations, regarding climate change over the past ten years by the people we elected.
John Ward | 21 September 2016


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