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The Environment Under Pressure

Jill Reichstein on the three truths our politicians need to hear.

Environmental charities are made up of people incredibly committed to giving a voice to Australia’s natural world. They cover communities at the forefront of conflict over access to natural resources, including forests, marine environments and rivers. They include indigenous communities, grieving the loss of the plants and animals they shared their lives with for thousands of years. They are filled with young people deeply concerned about the legacy of insufficient action on climate change which they will be left to deal with.

Despite the good work they do, the environment movement is currently under pressure, with their mission being questioned and their Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status under threat. As the Chair of the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network (AEGN) and as a funder with considerable experience supporting environmental campaigns, I’m concerned that the environment may be at risk of losing its most passionate and effective voices.

A great strength of philanthropy is our independence and hence our ability and responsibility to tell truth to power. Let me tell you about some of those truths.

The first truth is that Australia’s environment is facing unprecedented threats and challenges, across most environmental indicators.

Earlier this year the AEGN annual conference profiled the 2016 State of Environment Report, produced every five years by the federal government. The results were distressing to hear, with continual loss of precious native species and dangerous climate change making existing problems worse.

Therefore, it is not surprising that environmental charities are campaigning harder than ever. The issues of climate change; biodiversity loss; species extinction; soil erosion and degradation; and polluted air and water are urgent and have implications for every person on this continent.

The second truth is that there are powerful vested interests also campaigning hard to retain their ability to exploit and degrade the natural environment.

In recent years, they have stepped up efforts to sideline or silence campaigns and organisations they perceive as threatening their interests.

For instance, the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) is advocating for changes to the DGR regime that are designed to reduce philanthropic giving to environmental charities that undertake advocacy. They support Treasury’s proposal to compel environment groups to direct up to 50% of their donation income to environmental remediation – like tree planting and weeding – plus ‘legitimate’ education and research activities.

The MCA also proposes consideration of a new tax concession regime based on one installed by the former Progressive Conservative government in Canada, which limits advocacy to a small threshold (like 10% of an organisation’s resources) and compels charities to do onerous administration, classifying and recording every financial transaction in order to comply with this limit. With the election of the Trudeau Liberal government last year, Canada has recently abandoned this approach, however some lobby groups such as the MCA wish to see it exported to Australia.

The Minerals Council is a powerful organisation. It has ready access to key state and federal decision makers and there is a continuing cross-fertilisation of people between the mining lobby and politics. Fossil fuels have advocates in Canberra and the state capitals in ways that threatened species, waterways, bushland and Indigenous and rural communities do not. There is good reason to be concerned that legislation may soon be in front of Parliament that will have an existential impact on advocacy for the environment in this country.

The final truth is that charity law in Australia, through judgements by the High Court and Acts passed in our federal Parliament, supports environment charities and philanthropists who undertake environmental campaigns.

For this to change, a majority will be required in the House of Representatives and the Senate. All of us can inform our political leaders about the significant outcomes that environmental advocacy has achieved, including great national parks on the land and in the ocean; majestic old growth forests; healthier rivers and wetlands; and cleaner cities and towns.

There is great pleasure and pride to be had when a campaign you have supported preserves our unique fauna and flora and retains the wilderness and natural beauty of Australia for future generations. Recently I joined with philanthropic leaders and local communities to prevent unrestricted tree clearing in Queensland that will save tens of millions of native birds, animals and reptiles annually. I’d love you to join us.

Jill Reichstein is Chair of the Australian Environmental Grantmakers Network (AEGN) and the Reichstein Foundation.

This article features in Generosity Magazine.