Aidwatch oppressed by Howard Govt, and why our Ecology Action never bothered with tax deductibility status
Topic: human rights
Picture: Top left inset Lee Rhiannon, founder of Aidwatch, and later Green MP in NSW from March 1999. "1993 Lee co-founded AID/WATCH, an international monitoring body of Australia’s overseas aid program. Lee was Director of this group for six years and instrumental in establishing this independent organisation. It is now widely respected for its vigorous scrutiny of projects undertaken by the World Bank and AusAID." Top right, Environment Minister in 1996 Senator Faulkner. Headline in the Herald today, and below that the Friends of the Earth '$20K edition' of Chain Reaction newsletter of Friends of the Earth of July 1996 prefacing repeal of their federal govt admin grant for that ngo.
We rang the ABC radio this morning and gave some background on the politics of tax deductibility (TD) for non govt groups in relation to their story on Aidwatch (AW) non profit: Canberra's gagging us, say charities - National - brisbanetimes.com.au and locally here
Canberra's gagging us, say charities THE freedom of welfare, aid and environment groups to speak out about government policies has been called into question by a decision of the Australian Taxation Office to strip a voluntary watchdog of its charity status.
The guy carrying the can today is card carrying bleeding heart idealistic public intellectual Dr James Goodman.
First the notion of charity and non profit should be clarified. Charity is usually understood as social services like food, clothing, shelter, medical including mental health services. Non profits are a much more intangible public good like art, theatre, environment, civil society, democracy, human rights awareness. They both deserve and get TD for a better society and a better democracy, if you believe in those kind of things.
AW falls into the second class of TD but the conservative Howard Govt only believe it seems in the first class. Sad really. In this way the arts and theatre people should be very worried.
TD as we understand it is administered by the Australian Taxation Office but the gate keeper for TD are the relevant govt departments of the relevant ministerial portfolio - arts for those ngo groups, health for those ngo groups, environment same and on it goes. This is logical because those specific dept bureaucrats have expertise on which non profit ngos are fair dinkum community based and which ones might be bogus or fraudulent.
In 1996 Senator John Faulkner was Environment Minister (we on behalf of The Wilderness Society had months earlier been bushwalking with the guy and his two kids in the Blue Mountains with press man James Woodford in a pre election Pic Fac). I was working with Friends of the Earth Sydney in Bathurst St Sydney in 1996. Aidwatch was above The Wilderness Society shop in Liverpool St a block away fora a year or two (just back from Hungry Jacks today and opposite World Square, then a dead hole in the ground). AW was run by Lee Rhiannon, then a fairly unknown activist, and we had moved on from The Wilderness Society. Lee and I were both members of the Eastern Suburbs Greens (I'm non aligned since 2000.)
AW a recent startup were desperate for TD and requested a letter of support from FoE who were categorically a TD green group accredited by the Federal Dept of the Environment probably for decades like a constellation of groups including the Australian Conservation Foundation promoted by such as conservative Sir Garfield Barwick back to the 1960ies.
Being of a legal litigation experience and knowing how sharp Faulkner was, I knew blather wouldn't cut and AW would have to meet the obvious concern with AW getting TD under an environmental category: That they were busy on human rights and social justice concerns.
But FoE had a perspective on that with their slogan "environmental protection in a human rights context". This was the extra step from say ACF on environment, or The Wilderness Society again on environment per se. So I wrote a reference with a view to Faulkner in terms similar to:
'We are a well recognised green group who understand how the environment inter relates with human rights concerns such as tropical deforestation leaving villages ripped off and poverty stricken. Often as a result of corruption of govt process. Civil society rule of law and democracy are valid issues for a green group to fight for. So we are comfortable with such as AidWatch being characterised as an environmental group from human rights perspective"
Of course since then the concept of "environmental justice" cross over between environment and human rights/social justice has become mainstream like .....
- climate change refugees,
- Javanese villagers land being flooded by hot spewing mud from a bore hole,
- compensation concerns for nuclear test victims including army veterans, Indigenous etc
- racialised and socio economic siting of polluting industry generally including here in Sydney eg containers, dredging, poisons in Botany not Pittwater
AW contacted us way back then and were wrapped with our "great" letter. Well thankyou, all in a days work in fact. AW was indeed given TD. And so Lee Rhiannon's political career took another big step. Not the other way round as some might think today with Big Lee rampaging across the political landscape from Gulaga forest protest to coal mines in the Hunter.
The rest is electoral history with Howard's govt marching to power later in 1996.
We don't know whether the basis of AW TD has changed since 1996 but in the nature of these things we imagine its remained the same all the way back to 1996. Now it's all in the news today on AM show this morning 30th May 2007 with assistant treasurer Peter Dutton etc. No doubt the government figure such as academic Dr James Goodman of that group are "undesirables" given this image of the great and good James alternatively bearded and clean shaven at different times in his career
Indeed we wonder what possible expertise the ATO actually has in regard to portfolio related decisions as to valid community based ngo groups involved in art, health, environment, human rights etc. It's not an expertise that naturally fits with the bean counters in the ATO at first instance. It should be a portfolio ministerial discretionary advice based on the research of their officers in the relevant field.
Also the idea that such ngo's should not be part of political discourse or engage in political posture as somehow the ethical basis for cancelling TD is a joke at the expense of real democracy and civil society and to protect the govt from scrutiny. Everything is political from the choice you make at the supermarket to handing out at a polling booth.The idea public interest groups should not express a view in any forum is fundamentally fascist. The point is whether you want people with expertise to advocate on these public virtues whether charity, narrowly defined, or non profit social benefits more broadly.
The real question is whether the ngo is working for an appropriate topic known as a public good and worth supporting financially in a democracy, not where they do so. The real question is whether it is medical, human right, environment, art, social service, whatever not whether it is 'political'.
In the current context for AW to be promoting more direct hypothecation of govt aid expenditure to poverty alleviation for our neighbours, and the govt to argue sufficient nexus via indirect benefit to global budget of the beneficiary country is fair game, and fair play. Penalising AW for exposing that allegedly sly accounting of Treasurer Peter Costello is highly suggestive, with rumours now in crikey.com.au yesterday of corrupt developers in Africa via Indonesia tsunami.
If AW watchdog didn't exist today it would be necessary to invent it. The hypocrisy regarding the Coalition commitment to the Building and Industrial Commission quite fascist watchdog issuing $20K individual fines, but not mild mannered herbal ngos says alot. Here is that crikey item in the public interest from their subscriber material yesterday 29th May 07:
7. Tips and rumours
Our ever-alert DFAT mole has come up with some very interesting news emanating from, of all places, Lome, the capital of Togo. As Crikey was reaching for an atlas, the mole explained: Togo is nestled between Ghana and Benin and is under the control of a strict dictatorship and, like most African countries,is rife with corruption. We gather the mole has seen reports emanating from Lome -- he wouldn't identify the author, but as Australia is represented in Ghana it's not hard to guess. The message is that the building boom in Lome, which is of huge proportions, is being financed by some high-ranking Indonesian officials allegedly using tsunami relief funds. The mole says there's more to come -- and it's not nice. Crikey was reminded the Australian Government was a huge relief donor and this information might just explain why the rebuilding of the worst-affected tsunami areas is going at snail's pace.
All this underlines why in late 2002 we requested from the Environment Dept the tedious lengthy forms for TD for our ecology action australia network busy on green projects as such here and then decided no, it wasn't safe to deliver all that confidential personal information into the hands of this government. They couldn't be trusted. Better to proceed as a private non profit foundation. Such distrust, based on demonstrated experience of the ngo movement not least the FoE national organisation (whose admin subsidy had been cut already some years earlier for the newsletter pictured above). And so it has come to pass with AidWatch last October 2006 and in the news today, and other groups feeling the heat as reported in the Fairfax press today.
Make no mistake there is a creeping culture of fascism in this government just as this writer was blacklisted from blog reporting on the campus of Sydney University recently (a student anti govt rally), and Big Media have "drawn a line in the sand" on protection of journalists and their sources.
Bring on a change of government, democracy depends on it.
Postscript #1 Crikey.com.au writes today 30th May 2007
Former ATO auditor Chris Seage writes:
Allegations of politicising of the Australian Taxation Office have surfaced this morning in The SMH. It is alleged the charitable status of Aidwatch was revoked by the ATO because it has been "trying to procure changes in Australia's aid and development programs" and for being involved in political activities.
“This is a direct attack on free speech and on democracy” said Aidwatch Chair James Goodman. “Aidwatch is the only independent watchdog of Australian aid. We have to raise these issues publicly or else no one will. Charities exist for public benefit. How can we benefit the public if we keep silent?"
Aidwatch Co-director Flint Duxfield said “It’s clear that the government is using the ATO to target charities such as Aidwatch who speak out in the public interest against misguided policy.”
“The ATO Ruling threatens our very existence and sends an ominous message to all charities– question Government policy and you will lose your charitable status,” said Mr. Goodman. Aidwatch has lodged an appeal with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal.
In its decision the ATO recognised that Aidwatch objectives, as stated in its constitution, were entirely charitable. They observed that these objectives were fulfilled by Aidwatch through a range of different research and education activities, including through the provision of advice to governments in Australia and overseas.
However, the ATO cited three activities of the organisation that it believed were not consistent with charitable status:
(i) urging the public to write to the Government to put pressure on the Burmese regime;
(ii) delivering an (ironic) 60th anniversary birthday cake to the World Bank;
(iii) raising concerns about the developmental impacts of the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement.
The ATO alleged the three activities sat outside the ATO definition of 'incidental' political activities for a charity, and removed its charitable status.
In my view this decision is a crook one and needs to be examined by the external authorities. My advice to Aidwatch, along with their appeal to the AAT, is to lodge complaints with the Commonwealth Taxation Ombudsman and the tax office watchdog David Vos, the Inspector-General of Taxation. Vos is a rottweiler and is not frightened to stand up for taxpayers against the might of the tax office or government. In fact I think he would love to get his big paws on this.
It is not the first time the ATO have been accused of being politicised. Crikey readers will recall the infamous Robert Gerard tax fiasco where the ATO sliced $75 million dollars off the big liberal party donor’s tax bill. He was also provided a comfort letter personally signed by the former tax commissioner Michael Carmody effectively clearing him of any tax foibles which facilitated his promotion to the Reserve Bank Board.
I think this government may have been in power too long.
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Posted by editor
at 9:56 AM NZT
Updated: Wednesday, 30 May 2007 9:12 PM NZT