RETIRING Nationals MP John Cobb says a parliamentary committee inquiry into the register of environmental organisations and their eligibility for tax-deductible donations demonstrates why farmers should be wary of siding with “rabid left wing protesters”.
Mr Cobb was Chair of the House of Representatives Environment Committee examination which started in March last year and tabled a report last week which he said made two core recommendations relevant to farmers.
Mr Cobb said the first recommendation demanded registered groups spend no less than 25 per cent of the income they gained through tax free public donations on practical “on the ground” environmental remediation work.
The former Shadow Agriculture Minister said that 25pc of income must be spent on activities conducted by the groups themselves or outsourced through other organisations like Landcare or Greening Australia.
“At least 25pc of that money has to be spent on real on the ground work - actual remediation and helping the environment physically rather than just mouthing off about it,” he said.
Mr Cobb also highlighted the Committee’s call to introduce administrative measures and sanctions for groups that encouraged, supported, promoted or endorsed illegal or unlawful activity undertaken by employees, members, or volunteers linked to the organisations.
The report said stakeholders expressed concern about instances of illegal and unlawful activity carried out by individuals either associated with or supported by environmental groups who were eligible for tax free donations.
It said examples given in evidence to the inquiry included instances of trespass, damage and destruction of property, blocking access, maritime offences, and resisting and hindering police.
As an example, the report cited the destruction in mid-2011 of Genetically Modified crop trials at CSIRO in Canberra by two Greenpeace employees - listed as a deductible gift recipient – that saw charges laid and subsequent court convictions.
Mr Cobb said the Committee could not be “definitive” with its recommendations but stressed further political consideration was needed on how to best manage listed organisations that repeatedly break the law, or their staff, and how to invoke reparation for any offences.
“It’s quite outlandish what some of these organisations do and where they’ve been shown to be actually using money for teaching; basically for illegal reasons,” he said.
“There are organisations that without doubt encourage and even train people how to trespass, how to get in peoples’ faces, to commit civil disobedience and a lot worse.”
Mr Cobb said the Greenpeace employees destroyed a test crop that CSIRO was in fact using to assess agronomic, environmental and public health benefits, to provide expert advice to government and other agencies.
He said two Greenpeace employees trespassed on the CSIRO facilities and damaged the trial crops with a whipper-snipper because they feared the scientific research would successfully prove the safety and efficacy of the GM product.
Mr Cobb said that incident was “outrageous” given Greenpeace was a big organisation that attracted a lot of public money with tax deductibility status but yet the CSIRO research was proving-up environmental benefits, including outcomes for farmers.
“That was scientific research that the CSIRO was doing on a test crop – not John Cobb or a farmer - to make sure it wasn’t dangerous to other crops and to assess the environmental benefits,” he said.
Mr Cobb said the evidence in the inquiry showed that groups like Greenpeace and anti-mining outfit Lock The Gate had become “something farmers should steer away from”.
“When farmers join forces with the rabid left wing protestors and the like, not only do they not look like they’re thinking with any common sense, it also weakens agriculture’s whole stance,” he said.
“It’s always hard to get farmers to stick together because they have varied interests, from commodity to commodity and State to State, but there are no winners for agriculture by siding with the Greens - none at all - because every time we lose.
“It’s just a minefield for agriculture and siding with the Greens never works – there’s only short term gain for long term pain which is just madness.”
The Committee said its inquiry attracted a high level of public interest in taking over 685 submissions with most of the evidence originating from organisations currently on the register.
However, the report also contained a dissenting statement from Labor members who rejected the call for listed groups to spend 25pc of annual expenditure on remediation work, saying it was inconsistent with the “vast majority” of inquiry submissions.
“In our view, governments should be very slow to seek to define the bounds of legitimate non-government activity,” the dissenting report said.
“This goes to the heart of a functioning civil society, and a healthy democracy.”
The dissenting report also rejected the recommendation for penalties against groups on the register that are involved in any illegal activity.
“We condemn any illegal behaviour and note that laws already exist to deal with these matters,” the dissenting report said.
“The recommendations proposed would create unnecessary red tape, overlap existing laws and provide implementation difficulties.”
Australian Forest Products Association CEO Ross Hampton said registered environmental organisations were like many other not-for-profit organisations; entitled to receive tax deductible gifts and contributions to carry out useful conservation work.
But Mr Hampton said the Committee’s report detailed instances where a minority of groups were misusing tax-deductible donations to undertake unlawful or unsafe activities.
“The AFPA calls on the government to implement the effective reforms that will ensure transparency and accountability of the legal activities registered environmental organisations,” he said.
Anti-GM group Gene Ethics said the report’s recommendation to spend 25pc of funds on practical environmental work was “a Turnbull/Abbott ploy to curtail advocacy and campaigning to head off emerging environmental disasters, by gagging environment defenders”.
Friends of the Earth Australia said the report acknowledged environment groups were doing an important job protecting the environment but contained some “deeply flawed recommendations”.
The group’s Cam Walker said illegal activity sounded sinister but in reality the report was talking about peaceful protest and civil disobedience.
“These are tactics that have been used by the Australian environment movement for decades,” he said.
“The report contains some dangerous recommendations that will create an unnecessary, bureaucratic nightmare for the government and environmental groups, with costs being passed on to donors and, ultimately the taxpayer.”
The report said tax-deductible donations constituted the majority of income for some groups like Greenpeace Australia which doesn’t accept funding from corporations or governments.
It said Greenpeace submitted that 95pc of last year’s funding was raised via donations from more than 65,000 members of the public, while the Wilderness Society submitted that around 90pc of its income was raised from 45,000 public members.
The story Cobb: farmers beware of “rabid left wing protesters” first appeared on The Land.