GREENPEACE Australia Pacific’s eligibility for tax-free donations has been interrogated in light of an illegal protest that damaged publicly funded Genetically Modified (GM) crop research.
Senior Greenpeace officials appeared at the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment’s inquiry into the environmental organisations register in Sydney last week.
The Committee inquiry was established by Environment Minister Greg Hunt in March and has held public hearings in Perth, Brisbane, Hobart, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Bowen with a brief, final hearing due in Canberra, today.
At the Sydney hearing, NSW farmer and National Party MP John Cobb asked why the group’s written inquiry submission named several environmental campaigns but ignored a publicity stunt in July 2011 that saw GM wheat trials destroyed at CSIRO Canberra.
During the incident, Greenpeace protestors trespassed on the CSIRO facilities and whipper-snippered the scientific crop trials.
They then distributed media statements, visions and images of the protest while denouncing GM crop safety and future development of biotech wheat products.
But a significant public and political backlash – including from farm groups – resulted from the activists destroying publicly funded scientific research designed to establish the technology’s efficacy and potential health or environmental benefits.
Two Greenpeace volunteers were subsequently charged over the trespass incident and received suspended prison sentences and a $280,000 fine.
NSW women Jessa Latona and Heather McCabe both pleaded guilty in the ACT Supreme Court to one charge of damaging or destroying Commonwealth property.
Queensland Nationals Senator Matthew Canavan has told the inquiry he believes Greenpeace should be struck-off the Register of Environmental Organisations due to the CSIRO incident and other groups engaging in illegal and organised protesting.
At the Sydney hearing, Greenpeace Australia Pacific CEO David Ritter said his group championed environmentally responsible and socially just solutions, including scientific and technological innovation.
He said various Greenpeace campaign successes included stopping whaling in the late 1970s and achieving national illegal timber legislation in 2012 “as a vital step towards global forest protection”.
However, Mr Cobb said Greenpeace officials “squirmed” under direct questioning about the CSIRO incident and whether an organisation should remain on the Register, if its members act outside the law.
In response, Mr Ritter said: “You are asking a general and somewhat hypothetical question”.
“There is a system that exists to regulate all environmental organisations and I have trust in that system of governance”.
Mr Ritter said he was unable to provide firsthand knowledge of the CSIRO incident because it occurred before he commenced employment with Greenpeace Australia Pacific.
But he said a full investigation dealt with the matter and was “an example of the system working”.
Mr Ritter said on multiple occasions he’d also “ruled out an activity of that kind in the future”.
“I might also just put on record the admiration that I have and that my organisation has for much of the work that is done by the CSIRO,” he said.
“The CSIRO has, for example, been one of the finest organisations in Australia in keeping the Australian public informed about the dangers of climate change.
“I would like to see a lot more independent funding and support for the CSIRO.”
Mr Ritter said it was a matter of public record that his organisation paid the fines issued against the two Greenpeace protestors - but he rejected Mr Cobb’s suggestion paying the fine then condoned the illegal activity.
Mr Ritter said “It is certainly not condoning illegal activity as a kind of blanket statement”.
“What I believe it was doing in that instance was supporting those two individuals in what they had engaged in, with the intention being the protection of the environment,” he said.
“The intention was not to break the law - the intention was to protect the environment.”
Mr Ritter said Greenpeace had also scrutinised its records back to 2008 and “as far as we can ascertain on the basis of all available records, there is no shortfall in non-taxed deductible derived income against all expenditure in relation to non-violent direct action across every year in that period”.
“So, on that basis, there can be no suggestion that even a cent of supporter money that attracted tax deductibility has been spent in relation to non-violent direct action and that includes but is not limited to court fines, lawyers’ fees and so on,” he said.
But WA Liberal MP Nola Marino expressed concerns with Greenpeace supporting the destruction of CSIRO GM research due to “the significant biosecurity risk”.
“Greenpeace supported that action by paying for the court action - that concerns me greatly,” she said.
“It surprises me that Greenpeace would actively support this unlawful activity and then put the rest of the environment and our growing environment at risk as a result.”
Ms Marino also asked NSW Environmental Defenders Office (NSW EDO) executive director Jeff Smith whether organisations should be able to achieve and retain DGR status if they are engaged in illegal activity.
Mr Smith said if their principal purpose is within the terms of reference of their charitable status, “then whatever that unlawful activity is - that is not necessarily tainted by the activity”.
The NSW EDO’s Policy and Law Reform Director Rachel Walmsley said the current system was “working well and there are checks and balances in place for unlawful activities”.
“We understand there have not been complaints about environmental organisations that are listed on the register,” she said.
Mr Ritter said his organisation had “great respect for the industry of producing things from the land”.
“It has been my honour and pleasure to stand side by side with members of the New South Wales farming community deeply concerned about the threat of coal and gas to their land,” he said.
“Specifically in relation to that (CSIRO) incident, I need to say that there was a thorough, as I understand it, investigation conducted by the competent authorities.
“The matter was closed and I have publicly ruled out anything of that kind occurring again.”