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Environmental Groups Say They Are Under Attack From The Government And Big Coal

Coalition MPs say environmental organisations shouldn't be participating in political advocacy, but green groups say the mining industry is behind the parliamentary probe.

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When you give money to an environmental group like Greenpeace or the WWF, should you be able to claim it back as a tax-deductible donation?

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That's the question a parliamentary committee is trying to answer as it holds an inquiry into the definition of an 'environmental organisation' and investigates whether the government should remove the ability of green groups to claim charitable status if they participate in political advocacy.

Chaired by Liberal backbencher Alex Hawke, the inquiry's terms of reference are to "look at the Register of Environmental Organisations and its effectiveness in supporting communities to take practical action to improve the environment."

The Register contains a list of 600 environmental groups that have "deductible gift recipient" (DGR) status, which means people can donate to them and claim a deduction from their tax. But several government MPs and resources groups say this isn't fair, because some of these groups interfere with politics (and big mining projects) at the taxpayers' expense.

Environmental groups ranging from multinational organisations to volunteer grassroots campaigners say losing their tax-deductible status would see donations dry up and cripple their efforts to save the natural world.

The oil and gas industry says some environmental groups are abusing the system by using donations to subsidise illegal activism instead of doing "practical work to conserve and protect the environment".

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In its submission to the inquiry, the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association accused a group called CounterAct of running "activist training camps" that teach how to "blockade lawful development" and how to be "strategically arrested" by police.

CounterAct, an affiliate of Friends of the Earth, responded by saying their role is to provide training for grassroots groups, such as farmers defending their land, who feel as though they've been abandoned by the National Party.

For them, civil disobedience has long been a part of creating change.

"It is becoming increasingly obvious that this federal government has no interest in advocating for the environment - so it is left to community groups," Nicola Paris from CounterAct told BuzzFeed News.

"Of course they need to advocate for systemic change, not piecemeal tree planting projects. The damage is systemic, and so our response should be," she said.

The inquiry has seen industry groups clash with environmental groups. The NSW Minerals Council, representing the state's $21.1 billion mining industry went after the Lock the Gate Alliance in its submission.

Kate Dowler / Facebook: Lock.The.Gate.Alliance

"For the purposes of eligibility for Deductible Gift Recipient status, Lock the Gate is not an environmental organisation but rather a professional activist group whose objective is to disrupt and hamper the resources sector in NSW," the submission reads.

Lock the Gate describes itself on its website as a national grassroots organisation made up of farmers, traditional custodians, conservationists and urban residents. They were part of the so far unsuccessful campaign to stop a Chinese mine being built on Liverpool Plains farmland in NSW.

Queensland MP George Christensen has taken the accusations even further, branding environmental groups as "eco-traitors" and comparing their behaviour to a character from Lord of the Rings.

"What these eco-traitors really want to do is to shut down the coal industry completely and they do not care if it takes a World Heritage Committee label of 'in danger' to do it," Christensen said in March, speaking about the activist groups fighting to save the Great Barrier Reef

"They have got what they wanted, and yet they act like Wormtongue from Lord of the Rings, flying overseas and whispering in the ears of the decision-makers and diplomats who have anything to do with Unesco and the World Heritage committee, poisoning their minds on the state of the reef," he said.

During the inquiry's hearing in Queensland on Tuesday, Christensen fired off a tweet that outraged environmental groups.

@fightforthereef @AusConservation @AustMarConsSoc Time to get the donations in. I can't see it continuing longer once we report.

In a tweet to the Australian Marine Conservation Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Fight for the Reef Campaign, he said "Time to get the donations in. I can't see it continuing longer once we report."

Environmental groups have seen this as a threat, saying the MP is pre-empting the findings of the parliamentary committee even as it continues to hear evidence.

A prominent judge has disputed claims by Liberal MPs such as Christensen and Hawke, who say the work of environmental groups should be limited to nature conservation activities.

mgs.vic.edu.au

David Harper QC, a former Supreme Court judge, wrote "without effective environmental advocacy, some of Australia's greatest national assets...might never have been protected."

"I respectfully remind the committee that advocacy is not only lawful but an essential element of any democratic polity," he adds.

"Environment organisations provide a crucial counter-balance to the views of business lobby groups - a role that ultimately enriches our democracy. Stripping environmental organisations of tax deductible status would drastically reduce their income, and thus their ability to engage in public debate."

His views are backed up by a High Court case The Commissioner of Taxation v Aid/Watch (2010) that found a charity's activities could include advocacy aimed at political and legislative change.

Environmental groups say they are under attack from a government in the pocket of mining companies. They feel as though the fossil fuel industry gains far more money in tax subsidies than green groups.

David Hancock / Getty Images

There are plenty of other groups that enjoy tax-deductible status, including religious organisations, welfare charities and thinktanks such as the IPA, The Chifley Research Centre and Menzies House. The IPA receives a lot of its funding from mining companies and has supported Australian climate skeptics.

CounterAct's Nicola Paris says it is unfair of the government to zero in on the charity status of environmental groups while ignoring others.

"The people who donate to environmental groups are thoughtful, smart people," she said. "Why shouldn't they receive a tax benefit for protecting the environment, when the mining companies are rolling in billions of tax payer subsidies overseen by their mates who called this parliamentary inquiry?"

It's an issue that has seen industry groups go to war with environmental groups, but how much money are we really talking here?

resourceinfocus.com.au

The Environment Department estimates the government loses $45 million in revenue from money claimed back by people who donate to green groups. It isn't very much compared to the $1.2 billion in revenue foregone for all deductible gift recipient tax donations.

In comparison, the Queensland Resources Council took in more than $13 million in "membership fees and other income," which can be claimed as tax deductible business expenses.

Many of the groups who made submissions to the inquiry are small volunteer not-for-profits, who say they rely on tax deductible status to secure large donations from the general public.

Paul Kane / Getty Images

“Putting a tax on charity donations would be a restraint on our proud and open democracy," said Dermot O'Gorman from WWF Australia.

"Environmental charities give voice to Australia’s unique wildlife and natural wonders, and efforts to restrict them from speaking out would lead to poorer environmental economic and social outcomes and diminish Australia’s democracy," he said.

A WWF spokesperson told BuzzFeed News there could be "severe and unpredictable" impacts on their fundraising if the government was to change the regulations, because people may decide to donate to non-environmental charities so they claim it on their tax.

With the coalition government cutting federal funding and grants to environmental programs, including the Environmental Defender's Office and grants to voluntary environment sustainability and heritage organisations, environmental groups say the government is not just trying to make the taxation system more transparent, they are trying to destroy them.

"There will be a dramatic impact on environment groups across the country," Paris warns.

"This inquiry is absolutely intended to nobble the efforts of environment groups. We need all Australians who appreciate our natural environment, and efforts to protect it, to stand up and say this is not on."

Alexandra Lee is a politics reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.

Contact Alex Lee at alexandra.lee@buzzfeed.com.

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