Mining in­dus­try body re­treats from hard­line stance on char­i­ties

The Guardian Australia - - News - Michael Slezak

Aus­tralia’s mining in­dus­try has stepped back from its hard line on try­ing to limit the char­ity sec­tor’s lob­by­ing on en­ergy and cli­mate change is­sues.

The Min­er­als Coun­cil of Aus­tralia says it does not sup­port poli­cies re­quir­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties to de­vote most of their re­sources to on-the-ground re­me­di­a­tion, de­spite pre­vi­ously writ­ing sub­mis­sions to gov­ern­ment call­ing for it to con­sider such poli­cies.

Al­though the new stance seems to con­tra­dict ear­lier state­ments, the MCA in­sists there has been no change in its po­si­tion.

The move comes amid frac­tures be­tween the MCA’s mem­ber­ship over the tough ap­proach, with BHP re­cently pub­licly dis­tanc­ing it­self from the MCA’s po­si­tion on ac­tiv­ity re­quire­ments for en­vi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties.

“They’ve over-reached in bash­ing-up on civil so­ci­ety, coal and cli­mate and en­ergy is­sues,” said Rod Camp­bell from the Aus­tralia In­sti­tute, who pres­sured the MCA to clar­ify its po­si­tion. “They’ve gone rogue and they’re be­ing pulled back – and that’s a good thing.”

Most re­cently, in Au­gust this year the MCA pub­lished its sub­mis­sion to fed­eral Trea­sury’s in­quiry into re­form of tax-de­ductible gift re­cip­i­ents. In the sub­mis­sion, it said Trea­sury’s pro­posal to al­low en­vi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties to only spend 50% of their ex­pen­di­ture on po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy was “sound in prin­ci­ple”, but urged Trea­sury to con­sider lim­it­ing it fur­ther to just 10%, writ­ing:

The push, which had con­tin­ued for years, was taken up en­thu­si­as­ti­cally by the Coali­tion, with a Se­nate in­quiry in 2015 rec­om­mend­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal groups de­vote at least 25% of their ex­pen­di­ture to “en­vi­ron­men­tal re­me­di­a­tion work”. (A Min­er­als Coun­cil of Aus­tralia sub­mis­sion to that in­quiry also sug­gested that par­lia­ment con­sider lift­ing that to 90%.)

Sim­i­larly, in a re­port by Lib­eral mem­bers of the joint stand­ing com­mit­tee on elec­toral mat­ters, the Lib­eral mem­bers re­ferred di­rectly to the MCA’s po­si­tion and con­cluded “that reg­is­tered en­vi­ron­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions are en­dorsed by the Aus­tralian Tax Of­fice (ATO) to re­ceive tax-de­ductible gifts and con­tri­bu­tions, but only for the prin­ci­pal pur­pose of pro­tect­ing the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, or un­der­tak­ing re­lated ed­u­ca­tion or re­search.”

Other sec­tions of the mining lobby have been even stronger in call­ing for a strict limit to the ad­vo­cacy activities of en­vi­ron­men­tal char­i­ties. This year, the NSW Min­er­als Coun­cil wrote:

But amid pres­sure from its share­hold­ers, the MCA’s big­gest mem­ber, BHP, agreed to re­con­sider its mem­ber­ship of the lobby group over con­cerns about the hard­line ap­proach the MCA had taken with char­i­ties, and on en­ergy pol­icy in Aus­tralia.

And then, ear­lier this month, the Guardian re­vealed BHP had openly dis­tanced it­self from the MCA’s call to re­strict ad­vo­cacy of en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, say­ing it did not sup­port any such move.

Now, in a let­ter to Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional, the MCA has un­equiv­o­cally said it does not sup­port the moves it pre­vi­ously ap­peared to ad­vo­cate for, writ­ing:

The let­ter came af­ter Rod Camp­bell, from the Aus­tralia In­sti­tute, urged the MCA to clar­ify whether the ac­tiv­ity of the Ex­trac­tive In­dus­tries Trans­parency Ini­tia­tive (EITI), which is an ini­tia­tive the MCA has been a part of, is po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy.

The is­sue ap­peared to re­veal an in­con­sis­tency in the MCA’s po­si­tion, and opened up a po­ten­tial con­fronta­tion with BHP on the mat­ter. The MCA and BHP had sup­ported char­i­ties be­ing in­volved in the EITI. But if the work they did there was con­sid­ered “ad­vo­cacy”, then the MCA’s pre­vi­ous po­si­tion ap­peared to make it dif­fi­cult for those groups to con­tinue the work there.

The Aus­tralia In­sti­tute, Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional and other mem­bers of the EITI could then have raised the is­sue at an up­com­ing meet­ing, po­ten­tially in­flam­ing an al­ready dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship be­tween the MCA and BHP on the is­sue.

The word­ing the MCA used in its writ­ten sub­mis­sions was usu­ally am­bigu­ous, never di­rectly rec­om­mend­ing that en­vi­ron­men­tal groups should have their abil­ity to ad­vo­cate lim­ited, but re­peat­edly call­ing for the gov­ern­ment to con­sider it, and de­scrib­ing the idea as “sound”.

David By­ers, who is act­ing as chief executive of the MCA, said there has been no change in the MCA’s po­si­tion.

“Rather, the MCA’s po­si­tion is that char­i­ties should com­ply with the Char­i­ties Act’s ex­ist­ing pro­vi­sions re­quir­ing them not to pro­mote or op­pose po­lit­i­cal par­ties and not to en­gage in un­law­ful activities,” By­ers said.

Camp­bell says they’re try­ing to have it both ways.

“Ba­si­cally, they’re try­ing to walk both sides of the street. Say­ing the gov­ern­ment “should con­sider adopting” a limit, but the MCA “does not sup­port” adopting such a limit on ad­vo­cacy,” Camp­bell said.

“This en­ables the MCA to help the hard core of the LNP such as Barn­aby Joyce to attack de­ductible giftre­cip­i­ent en­vi­ron­ment groups, but then say they sup­port no such thing to their im­age-con­scious mem­bers like BHP and Rio.”

The MCA has also been cam­paign­ing for all char­i­ties who re­ceive for­eign dona­tions not to be al­lowed to take part in po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy dur­ing elec­tion cam­paigns. The Coali­tion has said it will in­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion be­fore the end of the year that will do that.

Yes­ter­day 25 char­i­ties launched a cam­paign to fight any such changes.

Min­er­als Coun­cil move comes amid frac­tures be­tween mem­bers, in­clud­ing BHP, over its tough stance. Pho­to­graph: Joe Cas­tro/ EPA

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