Opinion: want taxpayers to subsidise your sales? Just register for it

June 5th, 2015

A Parliamentary review of the Register of Environmental Organisations now underway may help to educate a lot of people — and shed some light on the dubious practices adopted by some organisations on the Register.

Most taxpayers are probably not even aware they subsidise political activism.  But they do.  And while there are genuine environmental charities and local groups doing great work, there are   others on the list of 600 groups on the Register that would struggle to demonstrate how their work contributes to environmental outcomes.

The Register of Environmental Organisations has been in place for a long time and was established for good reason:  to give a helping hand to groups which did good work in communities to improve the environment.   The helping hand comes in the form of tax deductibility of donations — making it more attractive to people to donate.

Over the years, however, the type of organisations on the Register and the type of activities they undertake has changed dramatically.  A new breed of political activist groups have made their way onto the Register, and it is this which makes a review well due.

The most conspicuous of the ‘new’ entrants on the Register are activist groups such as Lock The Gate, who show little interest in doing anything at all in the physical environment – in fact, by their supporter’s protests, sabotage and vandalism of property and facilities, actually cause  community harm rather than good.  Their operations are often commercial and their supporters routinely undertake activities that break the law.   A deliberate tactic is to try to drive a wedge in communities by use of doorknocking and statically overstated  push-polling

These ‘new’ activist groups are all about political influence, and commercial success. They lobby MPs, support political candidates and oppose others and campaign at election time.  They attack companies which they see as the ideological enemy and urge others to so the same.  And this is where the commerciality kicks in.

They are deeply involved in divestment campaigns against, for example, fossil fuel companies.  But their activity does not stop there – they actively urge redirection  of superannuation funds and customer power utility accounts away from some companies and into others, securing a lucrative commission along the way.

Another common practice among the activist groups is what is known as ‘auspicing’ – where an organisation on the Register accepts tax-deductible donations and then passes these to another organisation which is not on the Register.  On what ground can this practice be defended?  Any organisation is entitled to donate money to another, but it is an overt perversion of the rules to openly accept donations and channel them to a non-registered organisation in order to maximise the tax deductibility, thereby denying the public purse.

Earlier this year, the anti-gas activist film, Frackman The Movie, was launched in NSW.  It is a film about events in Queensland, but the producers chose to launch it in NSW.   Why?  For maximum political impact.   The melodramatic central claim of the movie, that the end of the world is nigh, if hydraulic fracturing in gas wells is not stopped, was promoted as a ‘vote changer’ in the NSW election.

In their successful pitch for public funding from Screen Australia, the Frackman producers described their main aims as causing a Royal Commission and changing the way people vote.  The call to arms was not environmental, but overtly political.

In the movie, vandalism and dangerous interference with roads and machinery is celebrated.  And who are the movie’s supporters? Among others,  Lock The Gate. So the taxpayer was stung twice:  once by Screen Australia (and two similar State film funding bodies) and then again in the tax-deductible donations made to Lock The Gate as the film went on its political roadshow through Sydney and regional NSW in the run-up to the State election.

Is that really what most taxpayers want to see their donation spent on?

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