25 September 2015
by Bianca Hall

Most oppose denying environmental groups charity status, says poll

Tony Abbott was scathing of legal wrangling by environment groups to delay a proposal for a huge expansion of coal exports through the Great Barrier Reef.

Voters have overwhelmingly rebuffed the government's so-called "vendetta" on green groups, with new polling showing 70 per cent oppose any move to deny charity status to environment groups.

Removing such groups' charity status, first proposed by key Tony Abbott backer Andrew Nikolic,​ could cost them hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-deductible income, and severely restrict their capacity to campaign on environmental issues.

Pressure has been building on the government to abandon the proposed changes, with Labor and the Greens flagging they will oppose any moves it makes on the matter.

Equipment at the Abbot Point coal terminal in Queensland.

Environment groups believe the proposal is designed to strip them of their ability to campaign against mining projects.

Mr Abbott was particularly scathing of legal wrangling by environment groups to delay a proposal for a massive expansion of coal exports through the Great Barrier Reef.

But new polling conducted by the Australia Institute shows 68 per cent of people support the right of green groups to conduct environmental campaigns and advocate policy changes, while also claiming charity status.

Green groups have accused the government of running a witch-hunt.

Just 27 per cent of respondents said environment groups had too much influence, while 38 per cent said they did not have enough influence.

Sixty-two per cent said big business had too much influence, and 58 per cent said mining companies had too much influence.

"Advocacy, whether on behalf of vulnerable children, Indigenous communities, veterans or the environment is an essential part of our democracy," said Australia Institute director Ben Oquist​, a former chief of staff to Greens leaders Bob Brown and Christine Milne.

The head of the Coalition-dominated inquiry into the changes, Alex Hawke, has been replaced by the Nationals' John Cobb,

Mr Hawke's office said his removal was simply a byproduct of his being promoted to Assistant Treasurer in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's cabinet reshuffle and had nothing to do with his handling of the committee process, despite complaints by green groups.

In March, Mr Hawke told The Australian Financial Review: "I think there is an argument mounting about what taxpayer concessions are being used for and if that money is being used for groups that are purely political who are claiming environmental work that is not being spent on the environment."

New inquiry chairman John Cobb said the inquiry was "not a witch-hunt on the environment, it's to find out whether the taxpayer and the organisations actually gel, and it's to find out what the activists undertake — what percentage of the work is real work".

He distinguished between activism and advocacy on the one hand, and "real work" on the other, saying "I'm a farmer and a practical person".

In July, committee member and Queensland MP George Christensen took to Twitter after public hearings to taunt the Australian Marine Conservation Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Fight For the Reef campaign with: "Time to get the donations in. I can't see it continuing longer once we report."

Green groups argued the taunts were proof the government was running a witch-hunt designed to silence opposition to contentious environmental decisions like the coal terminal at Queensland's Abbot Point. Former Greens leader Bob Brown described the inquiry as a vendetta.

Labor has described the inquiry as "a show trial" and shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh said if charities were doing the wrong thing, they should be referred to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.