By Glen Klatovsky, Deputy CEO 350.org Australia
Ongoing and burdensome attacks on environmental and climate advocacy are part of an ideologically-driven program being rolled out by conservative governments across the world with a very clear intent of silencing the voices of advocacy organisations.
As has been said many times, first they start with the greenies and then they go for any community voices they do not like.
This is deeply concerning. Because advocacy by community organisations is a cornerstone of an effective democracy and a core element of modern Australian history.
Because advocacy, when combined with other charitable activities, lead to a multi-layered response by the community to major issues our society faces — from poverty to care to rights and substantial threats to society such as climate change.
And because strong, effective government should encourage public discussion about major issues.
But our current federal government signalled its true intent when it appointed Gary Johns to be the head of the ACNC last December. Gary Johns has dedicated decades to limiting charitable status, with a focus on restricting advocacy. In fact, handing the keys to the charity regulator to Gary Johns was launched with a media assault specifically identifying 350.org Australia as a target.
In recent weeks Gary Johns has, in his unique way, signalled his real intent in this role. He wants to redefine what a charity is under the federal Charities Act. In Australia, a charity is defined by its purpose. If your purpose is demonstrably for the public good then your organisation could meet the requirements of the Charities Act.
The Board and executive of a charity would then determine what activities would best be used to achieve the purpose of the organisation. For example, some organisations working to minimise littering will focus on cleaning up litter, some will focus on advocating for better government regulation of littering, some on businesses responsible for much of the littering and some will combine all three. As a society, we all benefit from the activities of all of these public good organisations.
Dr Johns wishes to shift that definition of charitable status to activities, not purpose. In the littering example above those anti-littering organisations whose primary focus was advocacy would likely lose their charitable status.
This makes our society a weaker democracy (and a messier society because of it).
350.org takes these attacks on charities and civil society very seriously. While we were being investigated by the ACNC we helped create the Hands off our Charities Alliance.
With a broad coalition of charities, the Hands Off Alliance has become a very effective defender of the right of civil society organisations, in particular, the right to advocate. The federal government has introduced three pieces of legislation over the last year that, in their original form, would have severely limited our democracy. These three pieces of legislation (the last of which will be introduced into Parliament next month) have been extensively modified for the better.
This demonstrates the power of working together and we encourage this alliance of civil society voices to continue to work to ensure Australian democracy is protected and strengthened in coming years. And we encourage the charities sector to speak out to our supporters and the public at large about efforts to restrict the important work of our diverse sector to ensure that we continue to play the important role we play in our democracy.
We are stronger together.
To find out more visit Hands Off Our Charities.