A welcome inquiry into environmental status claims

March 31st, 2015

There’s an interesting Parliamentary Inquiry underway in Canberra that could cause significant issues for some activist groups, and help to shine a light on the world of activist funding.

The House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment has been asked to look at the operation of the Register of Environmental Organisations, with the following terms of reference:

“The House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment will inquire into and report on the administration and transparency of the Register of Environmental Organisations (the Register) and its effectiveness in supporting communities to take practical action to improve the environment.

The Inquiry will have particular regard to:

  • the definition of ‘environmental organisation’ under the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997, including under Subdivision 30-E
  • the requirements to be met by an organisation to be listed on the Register and maintain its listing
  • activities undertaken by organisations currently listed on the Register and the extent to which these activities involve on-ground environmental works
  • reporting requirements for organisations to disclose donations and activities funded by donations
  • the administration of the Register and potential efficiency improvements
  • compliance arrangements and the measures available to the Department of the Environment and the Australian Taxation Office to investigate breaches of the Act and Ministerial Guidelines by listed organisations
  • relevant governance arrangements in international jurisdictions, and exploring methods to adopt best practice in Australia”

So what is the Register of Environmental Organisations?

In short, quoting from the Department of the Environment:

The Register is a Commonwealth tax deductibility scheme for environmental organisations enabled under Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 (the Act) . It allows eligible organisations to be endorsed as deductible gift recipients by the Australian Taxation Office.

The Act requires that the Department of the Environment maintains the Register, and to add or remove environmental organisations and their public funds by direction of the Minister for the Environment and the Assistant Treasurer.

Donations to the public funds of these organisations are tax deductible from the date of their entry onto the Register.”

A quick look at the Register reveals genuine environmental organisations with a strong, clear and unquestionable commitment to environmental protection and environmental works.

A further examination reveals some well-known activist groups including the million dollar protest group Lock the Gate, as well as The Sunrise Project and Friends of the Earth – all of whom have mounted major activist campaigns against fossil fuels.

Given that one of the terms of reference is to examine ‘activities undertaken by organisations currently listed on the Register and the extent to which these activities involve on-ground environmental works’ we wonder if some groups will suddenly find a new interest in tree planting or erosion management?

The inquiry will also examine reporting requirements for organisations to disclose donations and activities funded by donations, as well as best practice in international governance.

Both of these issues are important, and long overdue for an examination – for too long some of the groups who constantly call for transparency have been sadly lacking in transparency themselves.

They are required only to furnish limited financial data, and it remains unclear where some of their funding comes from.

Compare that to the United States, where the requirements on reporting are much stricter, and as a consequence deliver more transparency to the not for profit and charitable sectors (check out the work of the Foundation Center to see what sort of information is available when reporting requirements are more transparent).

We’ll watch this inquiry with interest and keep you up to date as it progresses.

Watch for cries of outrage from activist groups asked to justify their inclusion on the list – but don’t be fooled by their protests. This is an opportunity to shine a light on activists, and to clean up the Register of Environmental Organisations.

 

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