Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations

By: Esther Abram, Giving Green Manager, Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network

Did you know that philanthropists played an important role in steering the Charities Act 2013 through the Federal Parliament? The passage of the Charities Act was incredibly significant for so many reasons, not least of all the fact that it moved us on from the definition of charity as enacted by the Statute of Elizabeth in 1601.

The new statutory definition of charity was also a huge advance in certainty around the issue of advocacy (which includes research, developing policy solutions, community development and education, communications and marketing and working to influence government and business decisions) for funders and charitable organisations alike. But fast forward two years and there is fear that we are about to take a step backwards. The Federal Parliament’s House of Representatives Environment Committee has announced a new Inquiry looking into the Register of Environmental Organisations.

There are some worrying signs the Inquiry is aimed at restricting the types of environmental groups that can get deductible gift recipient status (DGR) and the activities organisations on the register can undertake. It appears to be implicit in the terms of reference for the Inquiry that ‘on-ground environmental works’ should be the main activity that DGR environmental organisations can conduct.

However, the AEGN believes that there are many different approaches which philanthropy and the charities it supports needs to adopt in order to protect and enhance our natural environment. ‘On-ground environmental works’ are certainly important. However the provision of information or education, carrying out research, and undertaking advocacy are equally important and depending on the environmental problem seeking to be addressed, they may be a more suitable practical approach to adopt than focusing on ‘on-ground environmental works’.

With public comments suggesting a large number of groups could lose their DGR status, based on their activities beyond ‘on-ground work’, environmental organisations are understandably nervous.  But the impacts of this go far wider than the organisations on the Register. 

Funders too will be impacted by any changes and the prospect that grantmakers could have their choices further limited are not welcome. The Register includes fewer than 600 environmental organisations and there are thousands of groups without DGR, many of them doing useful environmental work, that can’t be funded directly by PAFs or PuAFs. Nor is the idea of more red tape attractive to grantmakers. Most importantly, organisations that conduct activities beyond ‘on-ground environmental works’, including those that use advocacy activities are often the most effective groups to fund to achieve environmental protection. Losing these organisations from the Register would significantly diminish the ability of philanthropic funds to effectively protect and enhance Australia’s natural environment.

It is very important that grantmakers respond to the Inquiry and defend the ground gained by the Charities Act 2013. This legislation gives charities (and philanthropy) confidence to use (or fund) advocacy to further their objectives, by incorporating the 2010 High Court of Australia decision on Aid/Watch v Commissioner of Taxation. The High Court ended years of debate when it found that activities that aim to change government laws and policies are charitable. This is because our democratic system relies upon freedom of communication between government and the community.

The Charities Act makes it clear that charities can engage in a wide range of advocacy activities to further their charitable purpose. It also clarifies the fraught area of advocacy during election campaigns.  Charities are not allowed to have a purpose of “promoting or opposing a political party or a candidate for political office”, but they are allowed to distribute information or advance debate about the policies of candidates or political parties.

As members of the philanthropic community you are well aware that Australia has a complicated tax framework for deductibility. A submission to the Inquiry could help to prevent it being further complicated by changes to the environmental register. The Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network and Philanthropy Australia will both be making submissions to the Inquiry. If you would like to make one, please contact esther@aegn.org.au at the AEGN or Krystian Seibert at kseibert@philanthropy.org.au.

May. 15, 2015

 Tags: research & information, policy, environment

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