Submission to the inquiry into the register of environmental organisations
20 May 2015
Sustainable Population Australia
Patrons: Hon. Bob Carr, Dr Paul Collins, Prof Tim Flannery, Prof Ian Lowe, Dr Mary E White
Youth Ambassador: Ms Bindi Irwin
PO Box 3851
Weston Creek ACT 2601
Ph. 02 6288 6810
The Committee Secretary
House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment
PO Box 6021
Canberra ACT 2600
Submission to the inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations
Sustainable Population Australia (SPA) is a nationally-based Registered Environmental Organisation and was granted this status in April 1995. Our objectives as listed in our Constitution are:
- To contribute to public awareness of the limits of Australian population growth from ecological, social and economic viewpoints.
- To promote awareness that the survival of an ecologically sustainable population depends on its renewable resource base.
- To help promote policies that will initially lead to stabilisation of Australia’s population by encouraging near replacement fertility rates and low immigration rates.
- To promote urban and rural lifestyles and practices that are in harmony with the realities of the Australian environment, its resource base and its biodiversity.
- To advocate low immigration rates while rejecting any selection based on race.
- To help promote policies that will lead to the stabilisation, then reduction of global population.
In our submission we are addressing Terms of Reference (TOR) 2,3 and 4.
TOR 2: the requirements to be met by an organisation to be listed on the Register and maintain its listing;
As required by law, all donations to SPA are held in a fund that is separate to the operating fund of the organisation. We charge fees for membership, which are kept separately from donations, and from membership fees we are able to fund other activities which are beyond the terms of the legislated requirements.
Three trustees oversee the use of those monies, but play no part in the National Executive’s decision-making and prioritizing, although this degree of separation is not mandated under the Act. The Sustainable Population Fund trustees cannot be directed by donors as to how their donation should be used. The trustees require the Executive to submit written requests to them for release of any funds, demonstrating to them how the use of that money would advance SPA’s objectives, ensuring that it meets the requirements under the Act. If the trustees have any doubts about this the application is refused.
As also required by law we submit an annual return to the Department of the Environment. As a body incorporated in the ACT, we also submit an annual return to the Office of Regulatory Services.
Suggestion: If the Committee believes there is a need for greater transparency, perhaps a requirement for incorporation might be something to consider.
TOR 3: activities undertaken by organisations currently listed on the Register and the extent to which these activities involve on-ground environmental works;
In regard to an REO’s purpose the Income Tax Assessment Act 30-265 specifies that it must be for:
(a) the protection and enhancement of the natural environment or of a significant aspect of the natural environment;or
(b) the provision of information or education, or the carrying on of research, about the natural environment or a significant aspect of the natural environment.
This TOR is a very limiting one because on-ground environmental works are almost always about repair of damage rather than evasive or preventative action being taken to prevent damage being done in the first place. As an example, there is at least one group which propagates tree seedlings for planting on rural land to help stabilise soil, to provide wind breaks, to reduce salinity etc. This is extremely important in terms of mopping up the damage after the event but the importance of such groups would have been greatly minimised if environmental groups had existed when land was being originally cleared to argue against and prevent the wholesale clearance of native vegetation. Our nation is now fortunate that an environmental consciousness has developed and we have groups that advocate and argue this way, looking into the longer-term future and forewarning of potential damage.
It is therefore unclear as to why, in this particular term of reference, s.30-265(1) is referred to only to the extent of subsection (a). Does that lack of inclusion signify an intention to remove this sub-section and therefore create a mechanism by which many environmental NGOs will effectively lose a major and perhaps principal source of funding. Sometimes what is not said is as important as what is said, or even moreso, and that is certainly the case in relation to s.30-265 (b) and any determination by the Committee to ignore it.
One of the listed REOs plants trees in another country, indeed one that is not even in our region. Certainly this is on-ground environmental work, but surely this is not more laudable than a group that advocates for the preservation and protection of the Australian environment but which does not undertake on-ground environmental works?
Who represents the environment on which we are all totally dependent? Merely planting trees will not undo the damage that is done to the environment by those over-exploiting it. For instance, if a project involves the release of toxic chemicals into the environment, it is vitally important that the plans are tested and evaluated. Fortunately there are groups which advocate to ensure that this is done.
SPA believes that stopping the damage before it starts provides far better value for money for the taxpayer and that this can only be done by education and advocacy. Any suggestion of defunding groups that are making this vital contribution is playing into the hands of those who wish to damage our environment for personal, short-term gain.
TOR 4: reporting requirements for organisations to disclose donations and activities funded by donations;
In ABC Television’s “7.30 Report” of 10 April ‘15, Alex Hawke, the Chair of this committee, says “Green groups are not sacrosanct. They need to be subject to the same accountability and transparency as other sectors”. Unfortunately, this TOR does not expand in any way on the comparative basis of “other sectors” so it is difficult to ascertain quite what information is required by the committee, and in particular what sectors we should be comparing ourselves to.
SPA notes that later in that same interview it is pointed out that “the Institute of Public Affairs which campaigns against environmental protection on behalf of big business also has tax deductibility status”. Yet Mr Hawke’s response to that was that there was not a comparison because the inquiry is “specifically about the purpose of the environmental register”. Such mixed messages, given Mr Hawke’s earlier comment about environment groups needing to have the same accountability as other sectors” lead us to query what the comparison is that the Chair of the Committee is making.
Another Liberal MP, Andrew Nikulic, says that “People are legitimately concerned that that tax deductible status … is being used in ways that they wouldn’t accept. That is, to run down legitimate businesses, to engage in illegal activities at times”. SPA is not aware of large numbers of people having these concerns, nor of evidence of the 600 or so REOs “engaging in illegal activities”. But, should illegality occur, the usual methods of charges being made against the individuals or organisations can be employed. We doubt the truth of the allegation but if one group is found to be acting in this way it does not provide a basis for de-funding any of the others.
Subsequent to the above comments by Mr Hawke, on 14 May 2015 www.desmogblog.com published an article “IPA uses Australian tax breaks to help fund U.S. climate skeptics’ libel defence”. Its content ought to offend both Mr Hawke and Mr Nikulic because here we have Australian tax dollars being used unaccountably to the tune of $175,000 to publish a book which would damage a legitimate Australian industry, specifically the burgeoning renewable energy industry.
If the committee determines to compare different sectors, then it is important to recognise that the business sector is able to claim tax deductibility for many of its activities which damage the environment in the process. They are also able to claim tax deductibility for publicity campaigns to justify their activities even if those activities are environmentally damaging. An example is the massive spending by mining companies to defeat Aboriginal land-rights claims. Even when/if those businesses do pay taxes, the information required to be placed on the public record is not provided with the level of transparency and accountability being demanded of environment groups. It appears to us that double standards may be at work here.
Advocacy and education may result in the strengthening of environmental laws, and legitimate businesses will possibly incur extra costs – but that is not deliberately attempting to run them down as asserted by Mr Nikulic. And if there are extra costs as a consequence they will be passed on to consumers who in turn might well ameliorate their behaviour to reduce those extra costs. As an example, when people have paid extra costs for cigarettes as a consequence of price increases passed on from tobacco taxes, it has been demonstrated smokers cut back on the number of cigarettes they smoked, and with significant savings to the public health budget.
Why is this inquiry happening at all?
SPA is deeply concerned that this inquiry is taking place at all. The context of the inquiry is of itself strange. It has been done by referral of the Minister for the Environment, and hence no debate in parliament has occurred and therefore no explanation given of any need or justification for the inquiry. We have sought to understand why the inquiry is being conducted by listening to a Radio National breakfast interview on 1st April 2015 and viewing a “7.30” story which went to air on 10th April 2015.
The unstated agenda which does not appear in the Terms of Reference appears to be the reduction or even removal of tax deductibility for donations made to environment groups listed on the Register.
Donating to environment groups is an essential part of the democratic process. While businesses can donate large amounts of money to political parties with the aim of influencing their decision-making, the ordinary citizen does not have the same fire-power. Advocacy by individuals to create better environmental law cannot be purchased in the same way, but small donations to environment groups will allow those environment groups to undertake advocacy and education on their behalf. Reducing or removing tax deductibility would be a deliberate move to disempower Australian citizens who care about their environment.
Advocacy by environmental groups has become even more important with the current government’s defunding of Environmental Defenders’ Offices across the nation. Is it the intention of the committee to encourage the complete muzzling of the voices of those who seek the long-term protection of the Australian environment for all Australians, and indeed the world, for both current and future generations?
Hon. Sandra Kanck
Sustainable Population Australia Inc.