Bob Brown is concerned that under the Abbott Government the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment will become the most anti-environment environment group!
They are coming to get us! That is, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment is out to get, of all things, people working to defend, or wanting to donate to, the environment.
The committee is tasked to cut the tax-deductibility of donations from citizens to those green groups which annoy Tony Abbott or Eric Abetz.
The House committee is the most important and powerful environment group in Australia. Under the Abbott government it has also become the most anti-environment environment group.
Since the 2013 election it has held no hearings into environmental well-being. For example, it has ignored climate change, the threat to the Great Barrier Reef from new coal ports, the Tasmanian government’s transfer of Commonwealth money earmarked for forest protection to the loggers, and the rapid push to extinction of Australia’s two migratory parrots (the Swift parrot now down to fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs and the Orange-bellied parrot down to less than 50 individuals), let alone the Japanese whaling fleet’s intention to illegally harpoon 300 minke whales off Antarctica next summer.
Under Abbott, who has coddled Australia’s loggers dining at Parliament House with “you are the original conservationists … the ultimate conservationists … I regard you as friends of our environment”, the House Standing Committee on Environment has had just two enquiries: one on how to cut ‘green tape’ (laws to protect the environment) for developers and this one on taking tax-deductibility from green groups which engage in public ‘advocacy’ or political lobbying.
The game plan is overt. At last year’s Federal Council meeting of the Liberal Party, the member for Bass (Launceston) Andrew Nikolic, moved to disable action-oriented environment groups which have ‘DGR’ (tax-deductible) status for donations. The motion passed unanimously.
Back in parliament, Abbott’s Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, referred the matter to the Standing Committee on Environment. Nikolic made a submission to the inquiry which includes a jaundiced defence of the Malaysian logging juggernaut Ta Ann which processes logs from vital Swift parrot nesting sites on Tasmania’s idyllic Bruny Island.
There is no public evidence that Abbott’s right hand man in the Senate, Tasmanian Eric Abetz, played a key role in this attack on environmentalists, and Australia’s environment is too far off the press gallery agenda for anyone to have asked.
After the Committee’s Brisbane hearings, the Liberal National Party member for Dawson (Mackay), George Christensen, tweeted three prominent environmental witnesses: “Time to get the donations in. I can’t see it continuing longer once we report.”. This pre-empting of the enquiry outcome went viral and, a week later, Christensen apologised to the Committee but not the environmentalists. Nor has he apologised for calling other campaigners “gutless green grubs” and “terrorists”.
Along with a dozen other citizens I gave evidence to the Committee in Hobart. After this, Hawke told the media that he had been unable to find out exactly what the Bob Brown Foundation (which I established after retiring from the Senate in 2012) does. Presumably, if the chairman can find no evidence of inappropriate behaviour by the BBF, we are no longer a target. But don’t bet on it.
While one Coalition MP has also pre-empted the enquiry by announcing that 100 of the 613 green groups with tax-deductible status should lose it, another has been brazen enough to specify the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Wilderness Society and the Bob Brown Foundation.
The enquiry’s terms of reference, proposed by Minister Hunt, require it to look at overseas practice. That leads straight to the Harper government’s Canada which banned tax deductibility if more than ten percent of a group’s work is spent in ‘advocacy’. Harper allocated $8 million to track environmental groups and their ‘advocacy’. Harper’s ban led Canadian scientist and environmental advocate (and my friend) David Suzuki to resign from his own foundation’s board so that he could continue to speak up in the public arena without the foundation being bullied.
Which brings me to the end point of the environmental spiral down under Abbott. He has already cut government assistance to traditionally funded groups like Environment Defenders Offices and state-based environment co-ordinating groups. So, for example, after 40 years as regional environment advocates, the Launceston Environment Centre, in Nikolic’s home town, closed its doors last month.
Now Abbott is on course to blacklist the most outspoken and effective environment groups elsewhere and remove the choice for citizens who want to offer them tax-deductible donations. What next? Well, in Tasmania under the Liberals’ Hodgman government, people who peacefully stand in the way of a corporate chainsaw about to fell a 500 year old World Heritage rainforest tree will face four years in jail. If cutting their funds doesn’t work, jail them. Or, at least, threaten their freedom of speech with punishments no corporate CEO will ever need to worry about.
These are testing times, but Tony Abbott doesn’t get it. He can penalise green donors – including many Liberals – and claim that loggers are the true environmentalists but he has no hatchet committee or chainsaw brigade with which to match the human yearning to protect our living Earth.