Australian MP moves to strip environmental advocates of charitable tax status

Environmental protesters occupy heavy machinery near the Maules Creek coal mine in Leard State Forest, NSW. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, 2014

Environmental protesters occupy heavy machinery near the Maules Creek coal mine in Leard State Forest, NSW. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, 2014

In Australia, the fightback against divestment and other successful environmental campaigns is escalating from proposed bans on secondary boycotts, with a conservative MP pushing draconian measures to strip environmental groups of their charitable status.

At a meeting of the Federal Liberal Council on Sunday, Andrew Nikolic, the Liberal Party representative for the Tasmanian electorate of Bass, raised a motion to yank the rights allotted to charities—including tax-deductible donations—away from environmental organizations, alleging that organizations like the Wilderness Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), and the Bob Brown Foundation are engaging in “illegal activities.”

The motion states that “eco charities be treated as corporations under consumer and competition law” and “should not be eligible for deductible gift recipient status when advocating political issues.” It would affect 13 environmental groups.

In his remarks at the meeting, Nikolic made few attempts to disguise his disgust toward organizations that have worked to protect the iconic Great Barrier Reef and ensure the integrity of Tasmania’s World Heritage forests. Nikolic said:

I moved the motion because I think the activities of these groups has been enormously damaging to our state of Tasmania, I think we’ve seen for far too long these groups undertaking activities like boot camps and engaging in political activism, illegal activism.

We are a free society, where people can protest and have their say, but too often these groups attract concessions and donations, then engage in illegal activities. It’s just not right.

Given that Nikolic is in favor of scrapping Australia’s carbon tax his baseless attacks were far from unexpected. In view of Australia’s rapidly growing environmental movement, though, his remarks were also incredibly tone deaf.

As Prime Minister Tony Abbott continues to operate under the belief that it is his country’s “destiny” to bring cheap and dirty coal to the world’s furnaces, ordinary Australians are pushing back against the government’s extreme agenda.

Coalitions of environmentalists, farmers, and concerned citizens have organized unprecedented and historic environmental protests against fossil fuel companies, and used peaceful resistance tostop companies such as Whitehaven coal from bulldozing forestland for a coalmine expansion.

The movements to protect critical Australian habitats persevered even as industry used underhanded tactics—like hiring spies to infiltrate activist networks—to undermine community opposition.

Polls show that Australians have many reservations when it comes to the nation’s influential fossil fuel industry. 75 percent of New South Wales votes oppose coal seam gas exploration on agricultural land, while 64 percent of all Australians oppose the billions in subsidies that flow into the mining industry’s coffers each year.

Nikolic’s comments prompted the Australian Conservation Foundation to threaten legal action against the MP.

Elizabeth McKinnon, general counsel for ACF, said that her organization would ask Nikolic to withdraw his remarks. If he refuses, he could be on the hook for defamation. McKinnon told Guardian Australia:

To say that ACF has been involved in illegal activities is a very serious allegation and not one we can leave standing. This kind of attack isn’t something that environment groups are unfamiliar with, but this is very serious and potentially damaging to our reputation. It could cause us loss.

Lyndon Schneiders, campaign director at the Wilderness Society, also pushed back against Nikolic:

Andrew Nikolic hopes he will cripple us. Removing tax-deductible donations would have a short-term impact but we would see our membership swell within days. Every time the conservatives try to shut down the community sector, we get new members. It will backfire on them because it will make us stronger.

In addition to his support of the repeal of the carbon tax, Nikolic has also come out in favor of a new bill introduced in Tasmania that will set mandatory prison sentences for people who disrupt workplaces.

The bill, which has passed Tasmania’s Lower House, is widely viewed as targeting environmental activists and has been criticized by civil liberties advocates, unions, and activist groups.

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