Activists should pay taxes

Australian governments subsidise “charities” that want to stop development. Stopping development is against the public interest. So why is the government spending the public’s money against the public interest?

This year is the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal. It was the greatest engineering feat of its time. It is now being widened and deepened to cope with larger ships, and more ships, that queue at each end of the canal.

The canal cuts the journey between New York and California by 12,000km. It cuts the journey between China and Africa and Europe and the US east coast by similar amounts.

Nicaragua has announced that a Chinese company will start work this month on a second canal to parallel Panama’s.

This is the real world, this is progress and this is what will happen, with or without Australia.

So why do Australian governments subsidise charities that want to stop Australia’s part in world development?

In part because they were asleep when the High Court, in the name of free speech, stole power from the Australian taxpayer.

As a consequence of a decision of the High Court in 2010 in Aid/Watch Incorporated v Commissioner of Taxation, charities are free to lobby government and do little or no charity work. The High Court decided that a charity engaged in “lawful means of public debate concerning the efficiency of foreign aid directed to the relief of poverty is a purpose beneficial to the community”.

Justice John Dyson Heydon, in the minority judgment, found that “Aid/Watch did not have the goal of relieving poverty. It provided no funds, goods or services to the poor.” Justice Susan Kiefel, in the minority, said Aid/Watch’s “pursuit of a freedom to communicate its views does not qualify as being for the public benefit”.

The Aid/Watch solicitors said the High Court decision “overturns 90 years of Australian law, swinging the pendulum quite to the other end, in that it recognises that engaging in public debate is a public benefit in itself”.

Since 1917, charities in Australia have been required to be circumspect about their political activities. Charities have had to ensure that political activity is ancillary to charitable purposes. That is no longer the case.

Australia’s equivalent of the Panama Canal is coal: the world needs it. The Environmental Defenders Office Queensland, a charitable institution with deductible gift recipient status, wants to stop coalmining.

The Queensland and federal governments, in the past two years, have removed its public funding. It relies on private donations from individuals and charitable trusts, and work from legal aid. But it retains tax deduction status, which means that the taxpayer subsidises its work.

Part of its sales pitch is “The Galilee Basin (is a) carbon time bomb.” It declares in its advertising, “The climate change science debate is over and global temperatures are rising. Yet according to the Prime Minister Tony Abbott ‘coal is good for humanity’.”

And “Premier Campbell Newman seems to agree and thinks we should have one of the world’s biggest coalmines.”

The EDO opposes the Adani Carmichael underground and open-cut mine, railway and port project, which includes building Australia’s largest thermal coalmine, in the Galilee Basin in central Queensland.

Apart from the fact coal revenue in Queensland raises between $2 billion and $3bn a year, many taxpayers disagree with the notion that coal should be stopped. So why should they be forced to subsidise the views of a minority who are anti-progress?

Bjorn Lomborg, the “sceptical environmentalist”, observed recently that the US has lowered its carbon dioxide emissions and made money by privately investing in fracking for gas. Europeans have lowered emissions hardly at all and lose money on renewables. The US relied on innovation, the Europeans on ideology. Which camp would you rather join?

The Queensland EDO will wheel out the free speech defence, should it lose charity status, but no one has threatened its free speech, and no taxpayer should have to subsidise its participation in public debate.

The Abbott government promised to abolish the Charities Act 2013, which includes advocacy as a charitable purpose. It must make good that promise in a way that makes it clear to the High Court that advocacy is not a charitable purpose. It should deny charity status to the enemies of progress, lest the world leave Australia behind, all the poorer, stranded in a dry canal.