Attila the Pun
Sunday, April 17, 2005
(tax) free speech

Glenn Milne on the recently proposed changes to the Government's environmental grants program

AS his July Senate majority looms, John Howard publicly makes much of avoiding hubris. But behind the scenes this Government is moving ruthlessly to lock in its political ascendancy, even at the cost of free speech. Thus it was that early last week Environment Minister Ian Campbell announced that in the future government grants to environmental lobby groups would be capped at $10,000, rather than the previous $80,000.

The spin offered by the minister was that this would allow his department to better spread the available environment funds across a wider range of groups. So if you're a member of the Gulargambone Eucalyptus Tree Planting Society, you'll now have a better chance of getting a grant.

Though I am not familiar with the Society's fine presumably fine work, this sounds like an excellent idea.

That is true. But the real political sting in the tail of the announcement was that the larger, national environmental lobby organisations will now lose money – and, therefore, effectiveness. And these groups are almost universally critical of the Government's policies on issues such as global warming and the Kyoto Protocol.

I am familiar with their work, and this isn't striking me as a bad idea either. Milne then turns to the issue of the tax deductibility of these organisations, and the Government's attack on it:

It began in March 2004 during the adjournment debate in the Senate when Mason rose to address the house on the apparently benign subject of charitable institutions. The speech was anything but. Mason had in his sights the tax deductibility of charity organisations, a status that is granted with one caveat: such organisations must not engage in political advocacy.

Then Mason came to the point: "There is nothing wrong with groups and organisations in the community engaging in the political process – lobbying and campaigning. The only question is why such groups and organisations should get the tax breaks to help them do so. If the aim is to effect political change, shouldn't these charity workers actually join political parties, where the maximum tax deductible threshold is $150? Or conversely, if lobbying should have tax benefits for charities, then why not for everyone else as well? If it's OK for koalas and the homeless, why isn't it for sugar farmers?"

Couldn't agree more. It is blatantly dishonest to engage in political lobbying and advocacy under the guise (and tax status) of an environmental charity.

But if you think it's only environmental groups that are likely to be affected by the Mason campaign, think again. How would Catholic Health Australia be feeling right now? Remember it? It was CHA's head Francis Sullivan who devised Labor's Medicare Gold policy at the last election and then publicly endorsed it, with the weight of the Catholic private hospital system behind him. You may have forgotten, but the Government hasn't.

Considering Labor's performance at the election, and the reception that Medicare Gold received (outside of the cheerleaders in the media), I think the Government would love to install CHA as Labor's full time Health policy think tank...

The ball Mason set rolling in March 2004 now has the potential to knock over some very big skittles. And they will all be judged on their attitude to the Government. So much for free speech.

Sorry, you lost me there. Have they proposed laws banning these groups? Threatened some form of prosecution for their lobbying activties? No? So where is the threat to free speech? Maybe he meant tax-free speech.

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