MIKE SECCOMBE

The govern­ment is wag­ing a mul­ti­fac­eted cam­paign to re­duce the in­flu­ence of char­i­ties, re­quir­ing dis­clo­sure of how dona­tions are spent, seek­ing to ban elec­toral cam­paign­ing if over­seas funds are re­ceived, and choos­ing not to re­new the ten­ure of the re­spec

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It’s called the Sta­tis­ti­cal Re­turn of Tax De­ductible Dona­tions, and every year at this time the fed­eral en­vi­ron­ment de­part­ment re­quires Aus­tralia’s about 600 reg­is­tered con­ser­va­tion groups to fill it out. But this year it was dif­fer­ent.

In pre­vi­ous years, it sim­ply asked them to re­port the to­tal ex­pen­di­ture from their pub­lic funds. This time, though, the govern­ment wants to know a great deal more. Among other things, it is de­mand­ing de­tails of where the money was spent – whether within Aus­tralia or off­shore, how much went to cam­paign­ing and ad­vo­cacy, how much to le­gal ex­penses, and how much on “on-ground en­vi­ron­men­tal re­me­di­a­tion”.

The new de­mands are more than an ex­er­cise in try­ing to tie up pesky en­vi­ron­ment groups in a great deal more red tape, although they are do­ing that.

They are a fish­ing ex­er­cise – not backed by any leg­is­la­tion, yet – to lay the ba­sis for strip­ping tax de­ductibil­ity from green groups the govern­ment deems too po­lit­i­cally ac­tive.

And they are part of a broader, mul­ti­fac­eted at­tempt to nob­ble the ad­vo­cacy ef­forts not just of en­vi­ron­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions – although they are a fo­cus of the Turn­bull govern­ment and its big donors, par­tic­u­larly the min­ing in­dus­try – but the whole of Aus­tralia’s char­i­ta­ble sec­tor. Moves also are afoot to cut off sources of funds, to si­lence them dur­ing elec­tion cam­paigns, and re­make the body charged with reg­u­lat­ing the sec­tor.

There have been grow­ing calls within the con­ser­va­tive par­ties to have green groups stripped of their taxd­e­ductible sta­tus. In June 2014, for ex­am­ple, Tas­ma­nian right-wing MP An­drew Nikolic brought a mo­tion at the party’s fed­eral con­fer­ence to do just that, ar­gu­ing that ma­jor green or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing the Australian Con­ser­va­tion Foun­da­tion, Wilder­ness So­ci­ety and state en­vi­ron­men­tal de­fend­ers of­fices, “en­gage in un­truth­ful, de­struc­tive at­tacks on le­git­i­mate busi­ness and un­der­take po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism, which shouldn’t at­tract those very gen­er­ous con­ces­sions from the tax­payer”.

The mo­tion passed unan­i­mously. At the same time, other play­ers closely as­so­ci­ated with con­ser­va­tive pol­i­tics, in­clud­ing right-aligned think tank the In­sti­tute of Pub­lic Af­fairs and the Min­er­als Coun­cil of Aus­tralia, were urg­ing sim­i­lar ac­tion.

In 2015, the govern­ment ini­ti­ated an in­quiry by the house of rep­re­sen­ta­tives stand­ing com­mit­tee on the en­vi­ron­ment into whether green groups should lose their De­ductible Gift Re­cip­i­ent sta­tus if they en­gaged in ad­vo­cacy or protest.

The com­mit­tee went through the mo­tions of tak­ing sub­mis­sions and ev­i­dence, but the re­sult was a fore­gone con­clu­sion. Indeed, some mem­bers of the com­mit­tee trum­peted their find­ings be­fore the in­quiry be­gan. Dur­ing one in­quiry hear­ing, Queens­land Na­tion­als MP Ge­orge Chris­tensen tweeted about can­celling tax-de­ductible sta­tus: “Time to get the dona­tions in. I can’t see it con­tin­u­ing longer once we re­port.”

Sure enough, a ma­jor­ity of that com­mit­tee rec­om­mended in May last year that the ad­vo­cacy of these groups should be lim­ited and at least 25 per cent of the bud­gets should be fo­cused on “on-ground” en­vi­ron­men­tal re­me­di­a­tion work.

In other words, they should con­cen­trate on clean­ing up en­vi­ron­men­tal messes rather than lob­by­ing to pre­vent them hap­pen­ing. As David Cros­bie, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Com­mu­nity Coun­cil for Aus­tralia, the peak body rep­re­sent­ing non-profit groups, puts it: the change would see them “pick­ing up the dead fish in­stead of ad­vo­cat­ing to stop the poi­sons go­ing into the stream”.

The deputy pro­gram di­rec­tor at Green­peace, Su­san­nah Comp­ton, at­tacked the pro­posal as an at­tempt to “turn en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cates into a clean-up crew for fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies and the govern­ment”. She said it amounted to “a dou­ble hit” for tax­pay­ers.

“First the govern­ment sub­sidises large fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies through tax ex­emp­tions and grants that cost the tax­payer hun­dreds of mil­lions,” she said. “Then they try to force char­i­ties to use the money given to them by the com­mu­nity … for clean­ing up the fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies’ mess.”

Sub­se­quent to the par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee, the govern­ment com­mis­sioned an in­quiry by the Trea­sury into the De­ductible Gift Re­cip­i­ent sta­tus of other char­i­ties, not just en­vi­ron­men­tal ones, which also rec­om­mended they be re­quired to de­vote more re­sources to on­ground ac­tiv­i­ties rather than ad­vo­cacy.

“Indeed, the Trea­sury pa­per steps it up and talks about 50 per cent,” says Dar­ren Kind­ley­sides, di­rec­tor of the Marine Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety, who passed on to The Satur­day Pa­per the en­vi­ron­ment de­part­ment’s let­ter de­mand­ing in­for­ma­tion from his or­gan­i­sa­tion. “It amounts to an at­tack on free speech, to democ­racy.”

There is in­ter­na­tional prece­dent for this. In Canada, the right-wing Harper govern­ment at­tempted to close down en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy by au­dit­ing char­ity groups and in­sist­ing they spend less than 10 per cent of their time and re­sources on po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy. It was ef­fec­tive in mut­ing the voice of civil so­ci­ety, but his Con­ser­va­tives still lost the last elec­tion in a land­slide.

Be­yond these changes, is the sec­ond front in the Ab­bott/Turn­bull govern­ment’s ef­forts to nob­ble char­i­ties: the changes to the op­er­a­tion of the Australian Char­i­ties and Not-for-prof­its Com­mis­sion (ACNC).

The com­mis­sion was es­tab­lished nearly five years ago by the pre­vi­ous La­bor govern­ment as a watch­dog on the sec­tor, which turns over more than $130 bil­lion a year. It was a badly needed re­form. Be­fore the com­mis­sion, there was no ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion of how many char­i­ties and non-prof­its Aus­tralia had, or how ac­tive they were.

With ad­vent of the com­mis­sion, how­ever, char­i­ties were much more closely reg­u­lated. They were re­quired to re­port on their ac­tiv­i­ties, to dif­fer­ent de­grees de­pend­ing on size. The com­mis­sion has, ac­cord­ing to al­most all in the sec­tor, been a great suc­cess. It has re­moved red tape and made it eas­ier for le­git­i­mate char­i­ties to be es­tab­lished and to op­er­ate, al­lowed po­ten­tial donors more trans­parency to see where their money is go­ing, and has closed about 19,000 mori­bund, and in some cases crooked, char­i­ties. Sec­tor lead­ers give much of the credit for that to an ex­cep­tional bu­reau­crat ap­pointed to head it, Su­san Pas­coe AM.

But not ev­ery­one liked it. There was vig­or­ous op­po­si­tion to the es­tab­lish­ment of the com­mis­sion by con­ser­va­tive el­e­ments of the Catholic Church, led by Car­di­nal Ge­orge Pell, who ob­jected to the idea of a sec­u­lar in­sti­tu­tion hav­ing in­sight into the op­er­a­tions of the church. There was op­po­si­tion also from trust com­pa­nies that ad­min­is­tered char­i­ta­ble be­quests from the rich, be­cause it would re­veal the size of the fees they took for their work.

Un­der Tony Ab­bott, the Coali­tion op­posed the com­mis­sion’s es­tab­lish­ment and, once in govern­ment, tried to abol­ish it, a move strongly driven by the very con­ser­va­tive Catholic min­ster for fam­ily and hu­man ser­vices, Kevin An­drews.

The at­tempt at abo­li­tion was de­feated in the se­nate. The govern­ment fi­nally aban­doned its com­mit­ment to abol­ish­ing the com­mis­sion in March last year, but re­la­tions have re­mained frosty.

The cur­rent min­is­ter with re­spon­si­bil­ity for the com­mis­sion – the fifth since its in­cep­tion – is the as­sis­tant min­is­ter to the trea­surer, Michael Sukkar.

“Michael Sukkar is of that right-wing part of the Vic­to­rian Lib­eral Party, along with Kevin An­drews, that op­posed the very no­tion of the ACNC,” Cros­bie says.

“Sukkar re­fused to meet the ACNC for six months after he was ap­pointed.”

In June, it was an­nounced that Pas­coe would not be reap­pointed at the end of her term as com­mis­sioner on Septem­ber 30. Her de­par­ture will co­in­cide with a re­view of the func­tions of the com­mis­sion.

The news came as a shock to the sec­tor. Pas­coe was keen to stay on for at least an ex­tra year, to see the or­gan­i­sa­tion through the re­view. The com­mis­sion’s ad­vi­sory board wanted her to stay. Its chair­man, Tony Stu­art, who also is chief ex­ec­u­tive of UNICEF Aus­tralia, did some vig­or­ous be­hind-the scenes lob­by­ing.

This was to no avail.

“Scott Mor­ri­son was not op­posed to her stay­ing on,” says the Rev­erend

Tim Costello, chief ad­vo­cate for World Vi­sion Aus­tralia. “It was Sukkar and the An­drews/Ab­bott right-wing push that wanted her out. Hav­ing failed to de­feat the com­mis­sion, they want to change its terms.”

Within a week of the an­nounce­ment, more than 100 or­gan­i­sa­tions, work­ing in ar­eas as di­verse as the arts, med­i­cal sci­ence, the en­vi­ron­ment and for­eign aid, and in­clud­ing vir­tu­ally all of the big char­i­ties, had signed a let­ter to the prime min­is­ter protest­ing the re­moval of Pas­coe and ex­press­ing fears for the di­rec­tion in which Sukkar was tak­ing the com­mis­sion.

“Fail­ing this reap­point­ment,” it said, “we would like you to en­sure there is a trans­par­ent, fair and con­sul­ta­tive process

to ap­point the best pos­si­ble re­place­ment. Given what has hap­pened with Com­mis­sioner Pas­coe, it is very dif­fi­cult for the sec­tor to have any con­fi­dence that the new ap­point­ment process will re­flect the need for a strong, ef­fec­tive, in­de­pen­dent char­i­ties reg­u­la­tor.”

The ev­i­dence to date has not al­layed those fears.

“When they ad­ver­tised the po­si­tion, they had 25 ap­pli­cants, in­clud­ing her two deputies and some other out­stand­ing ap­pli­cants,” Cros­bie says. “They de­cided the field wasn’t big enough, so they have ex­tended the process.”

The sus­pi­cion is that the ap­pli­cants were deemed po­lit­i­cally un­ac­cept­able, which is un­der­stand­able, given that Sukkar is one of the hard­est of right-wing war­riors in the govern­ment.

To the ex­tent that Michael Sukkar has any pub­lic pro­file, it is largely neg­a­tive. He made head­lines in June for pub­licly at­tack­ing judges of the Vic­to­rian Supreme Court as “hard-left ac­tivist judges” who were “soft on ter­ror” and whose at­ti­tudes to the law had “eroded any trust that re­mained in our le­gal sys­tem”. He sub­se­quently is­sued a grov­el­ling apol­ogy, in the face of pos­si­ble con­tempt of court charges.

Sukkar also made news for invit­ing Tony Ab­bott to ad­dress his lo­cal Lib­eral branch, which Ab­bott used as a plat­form to at­tack Mal­colm Turn­bull.

A few months ago, he was caught up in con­tro­versy around his in­volve­ment, along with others in the Vic­to­rian right of his party, in­clud­ing Kevin An­drews and the min­is­ter for en­vi­ron­ment and en­ergy, Josh Fry­den­berg, in a body called the Deakin 200 club.

Fair­fax Me­dia re­ported in March on con­cerns that the “fundrais­ing club linked to the hard-right of the Lib­eral Party is ob­scur­ing its donors by fail­ing to make dis­clo­sures to the Australian Elec­toral Com­mis­sion as re­quired by law …”

The story went on to note: “With mem­ber­ship about $200 a year, the club also hosts reg­u­lar fundrais­ing events, at­tract­ing lu­mi­nar­ies such as busi­ness­woman and foot­ball iden­tity Su­san Al­berti.”

Last week Al­berti was ap­pointed to the board of the ACNC.

Char­ity lead­ers have ex­pressed con­cern about that, but of greater worry to the sec­tor is a sec­ond ap­point­ment, a for­mer tax part­ner with PwC, Peter Ho­gan.

Sukkar’s me­dia re­lease noted Ho­gan re­mained “ac­tively in­volved on boards of listed cor­po­ra­tions …”

It failed to men­tion what types of cor­po­ra­tions. It omit­ted, no­tably, that he was chair­man of a fos­sil fuel com­pany, Car­bon En­ergy, which spe­cialised in min­ing un­con­ven­tional gas and the tech­nol­ogy of un­der­ground coal gasi­fi­ca­tion, now banned for its pol­lu­tion of ground­wa­ter, soil and air.

“So,” says Cros­bie, “now we have a di­rec­tor of a com­pany which is a mem­ber of the Min­er­als Coun­cil, which is driv­ing the cam­paign to close down ad­vo­cacy, with in­flu­ence in­side the com­mis­sion.

“What con­cerns us is that they are plan­ning to re­pur­pose the ACNC to close down ad­vo­cacy.”

Says Costello: “What they’re do­ing – stack­ing the board as va­can­cies arise – is re­ally quite ter­ri­fy­ing for those of us in the sec­tor. We want trans­parency, not the clos­ing down of ad­vo­cacy or the nasty Min­er­als Coun­cil agenda.”

So to the third prong of the govern­ment’s at­tack: mooted changes to the Elec­toral Act. In re­sponse to le­git­i­mate con­cerns about the in­flu­ence of for­eign dona­tions to po­lit­i­cal par­ties, the govern­ment has promised leg­is­la­tion to out­law them.

But the Coali­tion wants to ex­tend the re­stric­tions on for­eign money be­yond po­lit­i­cal par­ties to in­clude civil so­ci­ety groups. And many of the ma­jor char­i­ta­ble or­gan­i­sa­tions, not only in the en­vi­ron­men­tal field, but more par­tic­u­larly work­ing with the pro­vi­sion of over­seas aid, are in­ter­na­tional.

“We seek to raise pub­lic aware­ness about the value and im­por­tance of Aus­tralia’s aid pro­gram. We get over­seas fund­ing to do that,” says Marc Pur­cell, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Australian Coun­cil for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment.

Con­versely, he says, “you have groups cam­paign­ing in over­seas ju­ris­dic­tions, us­ing Australian money to try to ef­fect change”.

“They want to cur­tail over­seas dona­tions to try to limit ad­vo­cacy. Once you get to try­ing to con­strain char­i­ties on the ba­sis of their ac­tiv­i­ties, I think it’s a slip­pery slope.”

In any case, Cros­bie says, char­i­ties are “al­ready more con­strained and ac­count­able than any other ad­vo­cacy groups”.

The Char­i­ties Act for­bids them from par­ti­san po­lit­i­cal cam­paign­ing: they can take their ar­gu­ments to the pub­lic on is­sues within their re­mit, but they can­not tell peo­ple how to vote.

“If a green group hands out a how to vote card, you can com­plain and have it stopped,” he says. “But you can’t com­plain about the Min­er­als Coun­cil telling peo­ple how they should vote, much less stop them.”

That is not suf­fi­cient for the con­ser­va­tives.

“Our un­der­stand­ing is that the changes be­ing drafted will say that if you re­ceived any over­seas dona­tions you won’t be able to cam­paign dur­ing an elec­tion pe­riod,” Cros­bie says.

“The flow-on from that is that every or­gan­i­sa­tion in­volved in any ad­vo­cacy dur­ing an elec­tion cam­paign would have to be au­dited to show their sources of in­come and what their ac­tiv­i­ties were.”

Once again, he says, there is over­seas prece­dent. Be­fore the most re­cent Bri­tish elec­tion, the govern­ment passed a law to mon­i­tor any­one in­volved in elec­toral ac­tiv­i­ties, broadly de­fined, in­clud­ing ad­vo­cacy. Then their spend­ing was au­dited. The civil so­ci­ety groups were re­quired to show all sources of in­come and de­tail all their ac­tiv­i­ties and spend­ing.

“It had a very chill­ing ef­fect,” Cros­bie says.

Which, of course, is ex­actly what the govern­ment in­tends to achieve. It does not want char­i­ta­ble ad­vo­cates out there, par­tic­u­larly at elec­tion time, high­light­ing swinge­ing cuts to the aid bud­get, or the en­vi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences of coalmin­ing, or the in­ad­e­quate support for the un­em­ployed, home­less, refugees, you name it.

But it is not, on the avail­able ev­i­dence, what the pub­lic wants. An Es­sen­tial poll of what the peo­ple ex­pected of the char­i­ties to which they do­nated showed 70 per cent wanted them to en­gage in ad­vo­cacy.

“Peo­ple who give to char­i­ties do so partly be­cause they are a voice for a cause dur­ing elec­tions,” Cros­bie says. “You want those groups to be ad­vo­cat­ing for the com­mu­ni­ties they serve.”

In a way, the Coali­tion govern­ment’s mul­ti­pronged ef­fort to si­lence the char­i­ta­ble sec­tor is a back­handed com­pli­ment to their in­flu­ence. The wealthy vested in­ter­ests on whose be­half the govern­ment is work­ing re­alise they are los­ing the de­bate on cer­tain is­sues, par­tic­u­larly en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, and so de­mand the rules be changed.

“It’s not how much money they’ve got, it’s how much support they’ve got. It’s called democ­racy,” Cros­bie says.

“The bot­tom line here is that char­i­ties are more trusted than politi­cians, that peo­ple see them as work­ing for good. And that is ex­actly why the govern­ment is try­ing to close down their voices.”

The whole is­sue is freighted with irony and hypocrisy: that a govern­ment al­legedly com­mit­ted to re­mov­ing red tape for in­dus­try is in­tent on bur­den­ing civil so­ci­ety groups with more of it; that a govern­ment that ad­vo­cated the right of racists and big­ots to free speech is try­ing to cur­tail the rights of civil so­ci­ety groups; that a govern­ment try­ing to pre­vent char­i­ties from ad­vo­cat­ing to po­lit­i­cal ends im­poses no such re­stric­tions on the likes of the Min­er­als Coun­cil or other cor­po­rate in­flu­encers.

But this isn’t about con­sis­tency or prin­ci­ple. It’s about monied in­ter­ests,

• power and po­lit­i­cal sur­vival.

“WHAT THEY’RE DO­ING – STACK­ING THE BOARD AS VA­CAN­CIES ARISE – IS RE­ALLY QUITE TER­RI­FY­ING FOR THOSE OF US IN THE SEC­TOR. WE WANT TRANS­PARENCY, NOT THE CLOS­ING DOWN OF AD­VO­CACY OR THE NASTY MIN­ER­ALS COUN­CIL AGENDA.”

MIKE SECCOMBE is The Satur­day Pa­per’s na­tional cor­re­spon­dent.

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