The Australian Charity and Nonprofit Commission has fired warning shots at the Australian Conservation Foundation, asking environmental groups to “read the guide on political advocacy immediately” and consider withdrawing open complaint letter about Angus Taylor’s lack of action on climate change.
In correspondence seen by Guardian Australia, ACNC has raised its objection to the climate change open letter to Scott Morrison published in early November on the ACF website.
The document was signed by the ACF as well as by thousands of doctors and health and medical professionals. Matter also runs as an advertisement in Australian newspapers.
The open letter brokered by the ACF urged Morrison to exclude Taylor from his emission reduction portfolio because he “failed in his ministerial duties in three critical ways”.
The three ways specified in the open letter are to continue to “allocate public money for gas and other polluting fossil fuel projects while overseeing a 50% national decline in large-scale renewable energy investment from record highs in the 2018-19 financial year”; “Failure to reduce Australia’s emissions in accordance with our international obligations”; and failing “to tie Australia to its net zero emissions target by 2050, isolating the federal government from state partners, businesses, farmers and civil society and Australia from the international community”.
The ACNC compliance division contacted the ACF in writing on November 13. The charity watchdog told ACF they were “coming [their] concern “that the organization” has engaged in activities that appear to be against political candidates “.
Guardian Australia understands that several other groups involved in drafting the open letter have also been approached by the commission.
ACNC told ACF: “While a registered charity can advocate for issues related to its charitable goals, it cannot aim to promote or oppose a political party or candidate.
“It’s not limited to candidates during the election period – this includes current lawmakers.”
The ACF has rejected the assessment and told the commission that there is no justifiable basis for repeal the open letter on climate change.
The ACF chief executive, Kelly O’Shanassy, had told the commission that the open letter was entirely “an exercise in advocacy to advance the ACF’s charitable cause”.
O’Shanassy pointed out that ACF is a registered charity for the advancement of the natural environment.
“The ACF regularly conducts advocacy related to climate change and, in particular, prevents catastrophic climate change on a scale that will destroy rather than protect our natural environment,” the ACF chair said in a letter returning to the commission on 27 November.
“As a charity for the advancement of the natural environment, it is of course very appropriate for the ACF to provide public comment on whether the minister for emissions reductions is successful in reducing Australia’s harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
“All such comments are completely in line with our charitable cause.”
The ACF noted the open letter did not mention any political parties, and it indicated that Taylor was a sitting MP, not a candidate for political office.
“In calling for minister Taylor to be removed from his ministerial post, the ACF has made no comment on whether he should remain a member of parliament,” O’Shanassy said, adding the letter “relates only to minister Taylor’s role as emission minister.”
ACF said it believes it fully complies with the requirements.
However the commission has warned the ACF “the right to register as a charity is based on continued compliance with obligations under the Australian Charities and Non-Profit Commission Act 2012 (ACNC Act) and the Australian Charities and Non-Profit Commission Act 2013 Regulations (Regulations) .
“The Australian Conservation Foundation Incorporated must ensure its activities advance its charitable goals and that boards exercise their powers and obligations with the reasonable care expected of them.”
Charities are allowed to take part in public debate, and oppose or support government policies, laws, or practices, as long as it is relevant to their charitable cause. But they are not allowed to directly promote or oppose political parties or candidates running for office.
Commission publicly warned in 2017 it will crack down on inappropriate political advocacy in the sector, citing a growing number of complaints about charities – benefiting from significant tax concessions – engaging in political advocacy. Reports on that year found that Australian charities shun political advocacy and “silence themselves” for fear that dissent will attract political retribution.
The ACF has been audited by the commission during the electoral cycle but complaints about open mail are unusual.
O’Shanassy has responded to the organization’s request to read political advocacy guidelines by saying: “Thank you for your recommendation that the ACF should familiarize itself with ACNC’s guidelines on political advocacy.
“The board and staff are aware of this publication and have benefited greatly from it. We remain focused on these important issues, consistent with the good governance practices of the ACF. “