Attorney-General Christian Porter targets Market Forces in push against environment groups

Greenpeace members protesting at Newcastle port in 2017, calling on the Commonwealth Bank to stop investing in coal.
Jaz Kaelin

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has the activist group Market Forces squarely in its sights as it considers ways to stop environmental organisations persuading financial and other businesses to boycott companies in the mining sector.

It is also targeting funders of class actions, in its proposed crackdown on those running climate change campaigns that hit firms.

Attorney-General Christian Porter singled out Market Forces in a Monday statement that said he was co-ordinating advice across several portfolios on what could be done to protect resource businesses from such activism.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday condemned “an escalating trend towards a new form of secondary boycotts” which had potentially serious economic consequences, especially for regional economies.

“Environmental groups are targeting businesses and firms who provide goods or services to firms they don’t like, especially in the resources sector,” Morrison told the Queensland Resources Council.

Market Forces was launched in 2013, and is affiliated with Friends of the Earth. The organisation’s website says it “exposes” institutions, such as banks, superannuation funds and governments that are financing environmentally destructive projects.

Market Forces has lobbied heavily against Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine in central Queensland. Its website lists the companies it says have links to the project, and asks supporters to contact those companies to demand they cut ties.

A 2017 protest against the Commonwealth Bank over its then-links to mining giant Adani.
Tracey Nearmy/AAP

The organisation’s chief executive Julien Vincent hit back at the government on Monday, saying that where it saw something it did not like “its response is to get it shut down”.

“We simply allow people to make informed decisions on who they do business with,” Vincent said.

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“That’s a right that we thought, until recently, that this government was prepared to uphold”.

But Porter said it was “simply not OK” for any Australian business to be targeted by groups seeking to do it financial harm “when all they are doing is working in an industry like mining and resources that a small number of domestic and international activists have an ideological objection to.

“There are a growing number of examples where we have seen radical activist groups like Market Forces that try and impose their political will on companies across the country through widespread, co-ordinated harassment and threats of boycotts,” he said.

The government was looking at multiple options, across portfolios, Porter said, and the work would be prepared urgently.

Attorney-General Christian Porter has announced the government will try to prevent activist groups from initiating boycotts against companies.

The government was also considering regulatory action against “the growing presence of litigation funders who are receiving disproportionately large shares of payments in class action litigation which is becoming increasingly politicised by a focus on companies that operate in the mining and resources sector”.

Casting the net even wider, Porter said the government would consider other areas of activists’ “lawfare” which was “designed to delay, frustrate and cause unnecessary expense to mining and other legitimate commercial projects and businesses”.

Secondary boycotts are already outlawed under the competition and consumer legislation but there is an exemption where the dominant reason is for environmental or consumer protection.

An obvious course for the government would be to seek to remove the exemption.
Another option would be to remove the tax deductibility status of groups.

Labor has accused Morrison of “virtue signalling” in his planned attack on activist groups.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Why has BHP distanced itself from legal threat to environment groups?

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

Australian environment groups this week found an unexpected supporter in BHP, the world’s largest mining company.

BHP has defended green groups’ right to receive tax-deductable donations, in the face of a concerted push from both the federal government and the Minerals Council of Australia.

Given the influential role of the environment movement in Australia, and the legal precedent that NGOs and charities can be political, the big Australian evidently sees value in defending them.

Environment groups’ tax status

Environmental organisations in Australia have traditionally been able to claim tax-deductible status under both the Income Tax Act and the Charities Act, in recognition of the fact that the work these groups do has a clear public benefit. But this status has now come under threat.

The federal government issued a report in 2016 entitled Tax Deductible Gift Recipient Reform Opportunities, examining the administration and transparency of the environment groups. The ostensible aim of this report was to ensure that tax-deductible donations to environmental organisations were being used properly.

Among its key recommendations was that environmental organisations would be required to seek tax-deductible status directly from the Australian Taxation Office (ATO), and that they be registered as environmental charities in order to qualify. The report also recommended removing the list of environmental groups set out under the Income Tax Act.

Read more: Government inquiry takes aim at green charities that ‘get political

Controversially, the report also recommended that the ATO require environmental charities to spend at least 25% of their donation income on “environmental remediation work”, as opposed to campaigning or other activities. The government has subsequently indicated that it is considering increasing this percentage to 50%.

But the Minerals Council of Australia argues that environmental charities should be forced to commit 90% of their resources to on-the-ground environmental remediation, education and research, leaving only 10% for political advocacy.

Support within the LNP

Federal resources minister Matt Canavan has indicated his support for removing tax-deductible status from environmental organisations. In 2015 he stated:

…there are a large minority [of environmental groups] who are clearly engaged primarily in trying to stop fossil fuel development in Australia and I don’t think it’s right that Australian taxpayers, including people who work in the mining industry, be asked to fund those activities.

The Minerals Council of Australia has also backed the removal of tax-deductible status from environmental organisations, claiming that many of these groups are “not environmental organisations but rather professional activist groups whose objective is to disrupt and hamper the resources sector”.

The Minerals Council issued its own report documenting environmental organisations that is claims have committed or encouraged unlawful or unsafe activities or sought tax-deductible donations to support politically partisan activities.

The report specifically refers to activities by organisations including Greenpeace, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Nature Conservation Foundation of NSW, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and Australian Marine Conservation, arguing that their activities are against federal law.

It is also important to note that environmental organisations are not the only groups to receive tax-deductible status. Other groups, such as the Institute for Public Affairs, which often campaigns on behalf of large organisations to remove environmental protections, also has this status.

Environment groups can be political

Legally speaking, there is no doubt that environmental charities and other NGOs do engage in political activities in addition to their focus on public welfare and the environment. This does not prevent them from being treated as charities.

Indeed, in the landmark High Court decision of Aid/Watch in 2011, the court specifically stated that where it is clear that public welfare is a primary motivation, the fact that the organisation also has political purposes is irrelevant.

On this basis, an environmental organisation can engage in activities to promote political change while still maintaining as its principal purpose the conservation or improvement of the natural environment.

Read more: Australia needs politically active environmental groups

Even BHP agrees. In response to the Minerals Council report, BHP announced that it holds a different view. It argued that environmental organisations should not be stripped of their tax-deductible status, because these organisations perform important advocacy roles for policy development in a democratic society.

Subsequently, 100 BHP shareholders have put forward a shareholder resolution through the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility calling on the company to leave the Minerals Council of Australia. They argued that the Minerals Council’s position is directly at odds with “our company’s long-term financial and strategic interests”.

BHP has agreed to review its membership of the Minerals Council of Australia. It is not alone. In 2016, one of Australia’s largest emitters of greenhouse gas, AGL, left the Minerals Council, citing material differences in their respective policies on climate change and energy.

Environment groups should be allowed to do their work

At a time when we are facing a rapidly transitioning energy landscape – with the acceleration of climate change, renewable energy production, new technologies for unconventional gas extraction, and increasing concerns regarding groundwater depletion and contamination – environmental protection is a major public concern.

It’s hardly surprising that in a democratic framework, environmental organisations have become more politically active. They are striving to ensure that the research and education they conduct with respect to the environment is appropriately reflected within the Australian legal framework.

The ConversationThis work ultimately benefits all Australians. These organistions are constantly seeking to improve and protect the natural habitat in which we all live. In a democracy like ours, the work of these groups should not be drained of funding through changes to the taxation system.

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia needs politically active environmental groups

Susan Laurance, James Cook University and Bill Laurance, James Cook University

Should environmental groups that engage in public debate lose their tax-free status?

That’s the focus of a hotly disputed inquiry currently being considered by the Australian government — specifically, by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment.

Many green groups rely on tax-deductible donations from private citizens and small donors to sustain their work. In Australia, some 600 groups on the environmental register currently qualify. This is comparable to schemes in Europe and the United States, and was initiated to allow citizens and corporations to fund organisations that engage in issues of public interest.

Those who initiated the inquiry, such as the committee’s chair, Liberal MP Matthew Hawke, evidently have no problem with groups that do “on-the-ground” activities, such as planting trees and saving baby flying foxes. But they apparently see red when pondering groups such as Greenpeace, The Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth, who openly decry some government policies.

Particularly rankling for some conservatives have been campaigns to stop coal developments in Australia.

Bad idea

From our perspective as professional conservation scientists, the government’s inquiry is a bad idea wrapped in naïveté.

For starters, almost all environmental decisions made in Australia have been the result of community advocacy. Dating back to the 19th century, community organisations have pushed governments to legislate for the protection of wildlife and natural habitats. For instance, the NSW Bird Protection Act 1881 was passed because of the Zoological Society of NSW. When it comes to environmental protection, governments have rarely acted in the absence of community pressure.

Furthermore, fair and balanced public debates require input from all sides of an issue. Industry has a long history of funding advocacy groups to promote their agendas — often under the aegis of “community organisations” that actually are little more than industry mouthpieces.

Such environmental wolves in sheep’s clothing include the Australian Environment Foundation – which is on the register of environmental organisations – but has a distinctly anti-environmental agenda. Major corporations such as Dow Chemical, Chevron, the pre-merger Exxon and Mobil, and Philip Morris Tobacco have contributed to scores of other groups with pro-growth, anti-environmental agendas as documented by Sharon Beder in her book Global Spin.

Legitimate environmental groups, however, often achieve their funding via donations from thousands of individuals and the occasional philanthropic donor, rather than a few wealthy natural resource-exploiting corporations (although some environmental groups do partner with corporations in an effort to effect positive changes in their behaviour). Tax-free status is essential for such green groups.

There is also a clear legal precedent for the status quo. In 2010 the High Court of Australia determined in the Aid/Watch Case that advocacy activities aimed at policy or legislative change do not exclude an organisation from being classified as a charity. Such activities were held to contribute positively to public welfare.

Finally, the Australian public is overwhelmingly opposed to the proposal to strip environmental groups of their charitable status. The House Committee solicited public comments to their inquiry, and we assessed every one of them. Of 9,588 submissions, 9,539 (99.5%) were against the proposal, whereas just 28 (0.3%) were in favour (0.2% were neutral or ambiguous). Around 9,000 of the submissions were various types of form letters, although each was submitted by a different individual.

To us, the consensus against the proposal seems obvious. So, why is the government wasting the committee’s time on this inquiry when we have far greater environmental concerns that require bipartisan leadership?

Nick Kim

Dangerous trends

In fact, the committee’s inquiry is merely one facet of a broader effort by conservative politicians in Australia to hamstring environmental groups.

As well as moves to curtail green groups’ political activities, reported previously on The Conversation by Peter Burdon, this effort also includes the attempt by Liberal MP Richard Colbeck to ban environmental boycotts, moves to insert gag clauses into the contracts of community legal centres, the defunding of voluntary environmental and heritage organisations, and the drafting of anti-protest laws in states such as Western Australia. Added to this list is the potential prosecution by the Victorian government of a green group that exposed illegal logging practices.

As Burdon emphasises, even if such efforts don’t result in legal changes, they force poorly funded green groups to waste precious time and resources defending themselves.

Notably, this war of environmental attrition isn’t just confined to Australia. There are alarming changes happening all over — most notably in the Asia-Pacific region.

In China, for instance, activists are often hounded while a new law restricting independent organisations is being drafted. Cambodia’s rulers are threatening to “handcuff” any group that stirs up political trouble, while lands-rights activists in Lao are similarly harassed.

India is becoming a poster-child for anti-environmental fervour. A new law there is imposing tight restrictions on activist groups. A leaked report by the country’s Intelligence Bureau claimed — ridiculously — that public campaigns against coal, nuclear and hydroelectric projects, and genetically modified crops were costing the economy 2-3 percentage points of growth a year. And in January a Greenpeace campaigner was prevented from leaving the country because she planned to testify to the British Parliament about coal mining in India.

No brainer

In the coming decades, Australia and the world will face true environmental challenges. These include climate change; dwindling water, forests, biodiversity, and natural resources; and an extra 2 billion to 4 billion people to feed and support. We need real leadership and long-term policies to protect the imperilled ecosystems we all rely on.

Australia is certainly part of the global environmental crisis. We are among the world’s highest per-capita emitters of greenhouse gases — even without counting all the coal we export for others to burn. Our parks and protected areas are being seriously diminished. Forest and woodland destruction has recently accelerated. And in northern Australia, many native wildlife species are experiencing dramatic and mysterious population declines.

Criticism can be uncomfortable for policy makers but it has a crucial role in science and democracy. If governments attempt to limit censure of their policies or of industries, then where is our democratic right to freedom of speech? How do we stand morally above corrupt or authoritarian states that cause so much suffering in the world today, if we advance policies that are clearly intended to stifle self-criticism?

The Conversation

Susan Laurance is Associate Professor & ARC Future Fellow at James Cook University.
Bill Laurance is Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate at James Cook University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

BUSH HERITAGE AUSTRALIA – Update September 2008

One of the groups I have a lot of time for in Australia and one which I am planning to support in a more active way in the New Year (once I get back on my feet so to speak) is Bush Heritage Australia.

Bush Heritage Australia is actively seeking to protect 1% of Australia by 2025, ensuring the protection of our unique flora, fauna and wild places. This is done through purchasing land by money donated to it by those wanting to protect the Australian environment and natural heritage. Bush Heritage currently owns some 1 million hectares, meaning it needs to acquire a further 6 million hectares to obtain its 2025 goal.

In September 2008, Bush Heritage Australia purchased the 8 100 hectare Edgbaston Station, 140km north-east of Longreach in Queensland for 3.5 million dollars. In doing so, Bush Heritage has ensured the survival of Australia’s most endangered and smallest freshwater fish species, the Redfin Blue-Eye Fish. This region is the only location in which this fish species now lives.

But it is not only the Redfin Blue-Eye Fish that will be protected by the purchase of this property as this region and the springs found on the property is the only known habitat for several other species of fish, snails, plants and a crustacean.

The springs on Edgbaston Station are located in the upper catchment of Pelican Creek which flows into the Thompson River and Lake Eyre. There are some 50 artesian springs on the property, supporting a large diversity of life.

The 3.5 million dollars required for the purchase of Edgbaston Station included 1.324 Million dollars from the Australian government’s Maintaining Australia’s Biodiversity Hotspots program and donations from the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Water and the Queensland Department for Sustainability, Climate Change and Innovation.

Bush Heritage will be working alongside of the Iningai people, who are the traditional owners of the land on which Edgbaston Station is located, to manage the property.

For information on what you can do to assist Bush heritage Australia or to get more information on any of the reserves managed by Bush heritage Australia visit the web site below.