Environmentalists demand end to government attacks

Tony Abbott's attacks included threatening to legislate to restrict environmentalists’ influence.

Australian governments have always encouraged extractivist industries, particularly coal mining. These industries now face a well-organised environment movement, which is challenging environmentally damaging projects and calling for an end to coal mining.

The federal government took attacks on the environment movement to a new level, by introducing legislation to restrict environmentalists’ influence.

Following a successful legal challenge to the Carmichael coalmine by Mackay Conservation Group, the federal government announced its intention to restrict legal challenges by environment groups. However, the Senate inquiry into this has now been postponed, and the Malcolm Turnbull government may drop it.

But this is not the only attack on the environment movement. The government also wants to limit groups’ ability to raise funds. Many environment groups run on tax-deductible donations from supporters. Tax deductibility status is often essential, because many philanthropic trusts require that organisations have this status for larger donations to be made.

The federal government instigated a parliamentary inquiry into what activities are being funded by these donations. The apparent intention was to allow tax-deductibility only for “on-ground environmental works”, like tree-planting and remove the tax-deductibility status from environmental groups involved in advocacy. In other words, any environmental group that lobbies and engages in public debate is under threat.

The inquiry has received more than 9000 submissions and is conducting public hearings across the country. Environmentalists rallied outside the Melbourne hearings on September 21, calling for an end to what many have labelled a witch-hunt.

Many submissions from the general public — and one from the Victorian government — have been in support of environment groups. However, a small number from industry bodies such as the Minerals Council of Australia and the Queensland Resources Council have made many often unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct.

While accusations of “illegal activity” have been made against some groups —under cover of parliamentary privilege, which protects submissions and witnesses from libel lawsuits — many of the accusations were that groups were engaging in public advocacy, electoral commentary and public interest lawsuits and not limiting their activities to tree-planting.

Such attacks on the activities of NGOs are not new. In 2006, the John Howard government because it had criticised the government’s overseas aid policy. However, in 2010 the High Court ruled that political advocacy is a legitimate activity for charities.

These attacks are consistent with neoliberal ideology, which regards advocacy organisations as just another “interest group” trying to advocate for their own narrow interest. But it is nonsense to apply this to non-profit environmental organisations that advocate for the common good.

As Friends of the Earth spokesperson Cam Walker told the inquiry in Melbourne: “The idea that charitable groups should restrict themselves to ‘on-ground’ activity suggests that government and the free market can inevitably resolve all environmental problems. This proposition would not pass the most basic credibility test.”

Environmentalists are hopeful that Turnbull will call off this attack. Newly-appointed cabinet secretary that there would be “an end to the idea that the environment and development have to be at loggerheads”.

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