The Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission has fired a warning shot at the Australian Conservation Foundation, asking the environment group to “immediately read the guide on political advocacy” and consider withdrawing an open letter of complaint about Angus Taylor’s lack of action on climate change.
In correspondence seen by Guardian Australia, the ACNC has expressed objection to a climate change open letter to Scott Morrison published in early November on the ACF’s website.
The document was signed by the ACF as well as by thousands of doctors and health and medical professionals. The material also ran as an advertisement in the Australian newspaper.
The open letter brokered by the ACF urges Morrison to remove Taylor from the emissions reduction portfolio because he is “failing in his ministerial duties in three critical ways”.
The three ways specified in the open letter were continuing to “allocate public money to gas and other polluting fossil fuel projects while overseeing a nationwide 50% decline in large-scale renewables investment from a record high in financial year 2018-19”; “failing to reduce Australia’s emissions in line with our international obligations”; and failing “to commit Australia to a 2050 net zero emissions target, isolating the federal government from its state counterparts, business, farmers, and civil society and Australia from the international community”.
The ACNC’s compliance division contacted the ACF in writing on 13 November. The charities watchdog told the ACF it had “come to [their] attention” that the organisation “has been engaging in activities that appear to be opposing a political candidate”.
Guardian Australia understands some other groups involved in crafting the open letter have also been approached by the commission.
The ACNC told the ACF: “While a registered charity can advocate issues that relate to its charitable purpose, it cannot have the purpose of promoting or opposing a political party or a candidate.
“This is not limited to candidates during election periods – it includes current members of parliament.”
The ACF has rejected that assessment and has told the commission there is no justifiable basis for the climate change open letter to be withdrawn.
The chief executive officer of the ACF, Kelly O’Shanassy, has told the commission the open letter was entirely “an exercise in advocacy in furtherance of the charitable purpose of ACF”.
O’Shanassy points out that the ACF is a charity registered for the advancement of the natural environment.
“ACF regularly undertakes advocacy in relation to climate change and, in particular, preventing catastrophic climate change on the scale that would destroy rather than protect our natural environment,” the ACF chief says in a letter back to the commission on 27 November.
“As a charity for the advancement of the natural environment it is of course entirely appropriate for ACF to make public comment about whether the minister for emissions reduction is succeeding at reducing Australia’s emissions of harmful greenhouse gasses.
“All such commentary is wholly in line with our charitable purpose.”
The ACF notes the open letter makes no mention of any political party, and it points out that Taylor is a sitting member of parliament, not a candidate for political office.
“In calling for minister Taylor to be removed from his ministerial position, the ACF makes no comment about whether he should remain as a member of parliament,” O’Shanassy said, adding the letter “relates only to minister Taylor’s role as minister for emissions reduction”.
The ACF says it believes it is fully compliant with the requirements.
But the commission has warned the ACF “entitlement to registration as a charity is based on continued compliance with the obligations under the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act 2012 (ACNC Act) and Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Act Regulation 2013 (Regulation).
“It is important that Australian Conservation Foundation Incorporated ensures its activities are furthering its charitable purposes and that the board is exercising its powers and duties with reasonable care expected of it.”
Charities are allowed to take part in public debate, and oppose or support policies, laws, or government practices, as long as it is relevant to their charitable purpose. But they are not allowed to directly promote or oppose a political party or a candidate running for office.
The commission warned publicly in 2017 it would crack down on improper political advocacy in the sector, citing a growing number of complaints about charities – which benefit from significant tax concessions – engaging in political advocacy. A report in that year found Australian charities were avoiding political advocacy and “self-silencing” out of a fear that dissent would attract political retribution.
The ACF has been audited by the commission during election cycles but the complaint about the open letter is unusual.
O’Shanassy has responded to the demand the organisation read the political advocacy guidelines by saying: “Thank you for your recommendation that ACF should familiarise itself with the ACNC guide on political advocacy.
“The board and staff are already familiar with the publication and receives great benefit from it. We remain focused on these important matters, in accordance with ACF’s ongoing good governance practices.”