Inquiry shouldn’t be used as a smokescreen for attack on environmental critics

Human rights lawyers have raised concerns that a parliamentary inquiry into charity tax law could be used to lay the groundwork for attempts to stifle important voices in the environmental movement.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s director of advocacy and research, Emily Howie, said given the political context, including hostile statements made by several MPs, she was worried the inquiry would be used as a smokescreen for government attacks on valuable democratic discourse.

“Advocacy by not for profit organisations, including environmental organisations, is an important contribution to Australia’s strong democratic system and is clearly legitimate under Australian charity and tax law,” said Ms Howie.

In its submission to the House of Representatives Environment Committee’s inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations, the HRLC has today defended the advocacy work of environmental groups seeking to hold governments to account for their impact on the health of the environment.

“This role is recognised and protected under international law, where freedom of association requires governments to create an enabling environment for civil society, including access to the necessary resources to discharge their functions,” said Ms Howie.

When it comes to the environment, governments wear multiple hats – they are often funders, regulators, policy makers, custodians and legislators. They also control the financial levers that are vital to the very survival of many charities and non-government organisations.

“Tax concessions such as allowing deductible gifts from private donors make a big difference to the ability of not-for-profit organisation to remain financially viable. An attack on such laws, would be an attack on the organisations themselves and would clearly impact on their important work. So it’s hard not to question the Government’s motivation in pushing this discussion,” said Ms Howie.

The submission also raised concerns about Government MPs seeking to distinguish organisations which they characterise as ‘doing good work for the environment’ from organisations that aren’t afraid of speaking out against government policy.

“Effective political advocacy and activism may be inconvenient for the government of the day, but it’s vital for our democracy. Based on how this inquiry is shaping up, there’s a real concern that it’s just another attempt to stifle criticism and undermine organisations that hold governments to account,” said Ms Howie.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s submission is available here.