JOAN STAPLES. Environmental NGOs, Public Advocacy and Government

Jul 26, 2017

Environmental NGOs fear the Federal Government is moving to limit their public’ advocacy by requiring them to spend 50% of their income on practical environmental tasks such as tree planting.

The NGO sector, and particularly environmental organisations, are busy encouraging their supporters to respond to an ATO discussion paper on ‘reform opportunities’ for NGOs.  Responses are due on 4 August. The paper expresses concern that the advocacy of NGOs, particularly environmental NGOs, ‘may be out of step with the expectations of the broader community’.  It focuses on NGOs having tax deductible gift recipient status, and proposes environmental NGOs be required to devote half their annual expenditure on practical works such as planting trees, rather than advocacy. It moots a range of regulatory changes attractive to a government wanting to stop public debate. The paper was  noted in a recent contribution on this blogsite

The ATO interest in environmental remediation has now been echoed by the Commonwealth Environment Department.  Environmental NGOs received end-of-financial-year letters from the Department this year with an unexpected request. Instead of being asked to provide the total expenditure from their public fund, they were asked to break down expenditure into the amounts spent on ‘on ground environmental remediation’, ‘campaign and advocacy’, ‘research’ and ‘administration’. To have both the ATO and the Environment Department simultaneously raising the issue of ‘on ground environmental remediation’ suggests the proposal has wide Government support, and the request has been described as having ominous implications for limiting NGO advocacy.

The richness of our public sphere and the variety of our public debate is enhanced by the number of environmental NGOs now operating in Australia. Earlier proposals during the Howard Government to limit the advocacy of NGOs were aimed at all NGOs – social service, consumer rights, church groups, etc. The Abbott Government narrowed its focus to specifically targeting environmental organisations.  Conservatives such as Resources Minister Matt Canavan and MP George Christensen during an earlier inquiry argued that environmental NGOs should do only practical environmental works. This latest proposal covers various administrative proposals, but its bite is in attempting to dictate the type of work environmental NGOs should do. Many in the sector hoped a government led by the ‘moderate’ Malcolm Turnbull would not continue this theme.  Yet when I interviewed him for an academic thesis in 2008, Turnbull clearly stated to me that NGOs are not representative of the electorate and should not get tax deductibility if they criticise the government. It remains to be seen whether his claim at the time to also support free speech overcomes the current conservative push within the Government.

NGO Focus on Corporations

It is ironic that despite this Government’s initiative to restrict their advocacy, environmental NGOs have increasingly been focussing their efforts on corporations rather than on our elected representatives. The current sector-wide campaign to prevent the development of the Adani coal mine in the Galilee Basin has seen banks, superannuation funds and supporting businesses targeted by big and small NGOs – from the nationwide Australian Conservation Foundation to small local entities such as the Mackay Conservation Group. Their argument is that when governments will not act to implement policies consistent with international climate change agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord of 2015, then corporations should recognise their social responsibilities.

Effect of 50% ‘on ground environmental rehabilitation’

Many environmental NGOs focus largely on community engagement and mobilisation in an effort to develop awareness and action by citizens. Their history, culture and raison d’etre has not been primarily on direct rehabilitation of nature, but rather on policy and practices that damage our environment. This is particularly true of a number of newer dynamic organisations.  Lock the Gate formed in 2010 and Market Forces in 2012 are typical of these newer active organisations that use very small budgets and very few employees to support community engagement of volunteers and supporters.

Lock the Gate, with 250 local farming groups opposing coal and gas mining on their land, has run dynamic local campaigns canvassing local residents when mining proposals are first mooted and celebrating the number of people in the area who then declare the area ‘gas free’ or ‘mining free’. Lock the Gate claims this removes a company’s ‘social licence’ to proceed. With only one or two employees in each state, its resources are primarily its volunteer farmer members.  Income from donations goes to support its handful of employees.  Requirements to spend any percentage of their money for ‘on ground remediation’ would seriously damage the ability of the organisation to provide support to their members.  Market Forces places an emphasis on the role of banks and superannuation funds in financing fossil fuel developments. Their tiny team of about eight people relies heavily on volunteers and collaboration with other groups to disseminate the information they generate. The Adani campaign and various climate change campaigns aimed at reducing fossil fuel use have been assisted by their high quality research. Their strength is in research. To propose that they move into direct environmental remediation seems ludicrous.

It is apparently irrelevant to the Government that the Mining Industry Council, the IPA and most industry groups are given tax deductible donation status, no questions asked about their lobbying activities.  At the same time, the rest of the NGO sector is not being targeted in this way. Yet environmental organisations with relatively small financial clout must be reined in.  According to ACNC data, the 1,350 environmental charities have a total annual turnover of less than $1.5 billion each year, or around 1 per cent of the total income for all charities in Australia. They employ fewer than 10,000 staff, but have close to 200,000 volunteers. Approximately 1,000 of the 1,350 environmental charities have a total income of less than $50,000. The NGO environmental sector is clearly lean in comparison to the remainder of the NGO sector.  Its effectiveness has apparently hit a cord with the current Federal Government.


Dr Joan Staples was the ACF National Liaison Officer during the Hawke Government and is currently an Associate in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University.


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