Tales of Australian Democracy

by Hungry Charley

Charitable? Climate denialists use not-for-profit status to perpetrate antiscience.


Two notable Australian right wing think tanks argue against the scientific consensus of the climate change emergency. Isn’t that against the public interest? Why then, have they obtained 'Not-for-profit' status?  

28 November 2020

The Prime Minister’s recent comments on the rights of individuals to undertake actions, such as boycotts, that may adversely affect "secondary" company interests raises questions of free speech and public interest.

But the increasingly shrill advocacy for climate denial in the public sphere in this country has reached a stage where it seems that substantive scientific arguments regarding future Earth scenarios are being drowned out. The debate has descended – thanks in no small part to Murdoch media and political pundits – so that now it’s a "conspiracy" by the Bureau of Meteorology and NASA, or it’s "sun-spots", which will initiate a new "ice-age". Even the line, "We must take a balanced view" provides anti-science advocates with a platform.

Which raises the clear question: Is climate change denial of benefit to our community? Or, to put it another way, if some are still arguing against the scientific consensus on the climate change emergency we are confronting, isn’t that against the public interest? As it turns out, not if you are a "charity" or a  'not-for-profit' organisation registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC).

More recently we see the ACNC has warned the Australian Conservation Foundation for asking a minsiter to resign on climate change grounds. The insinuation being, no registered not-for-profit can interfere in elections or against sitting politicians, presumably as this is not in the public interest. Yet the ACNC allows the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) and the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) through their registered not-or-profits, to promote climate denial and anti-green rhetoric, which is of supposed benefit to the community.

What does it take to be a Charity?

When talking about climate denialist organisations, key among those in Australia is the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). Both have generated substantial public communication, which is "climate sceptical" in nature and at deviance from the consensus scientific view. Yet both organisations – particularly the IPA – and through their front groups such as the Australian Environment Foundation, have been at the forefront of promoting the idea that global warming is a conspiracy. Examples include a the recent book published by the IPA and edited by Dr Jennifer Marohasy who is working on releasing a further editions.

The CIS, while not recently being a loud advocate of climate scepticism, has certainly hosted talkfests which have articulated these views.

Both organisations are also within the international Atlas Network, which channels money into groups around the world that seek to further the climate denialist and libertarian agendas. And both have registered not-for-profit status with the Australian Charities and Not-For-Profits Commission (ACNC). The IPA’s registered not-for-profit is called the Trustee For Institute Of Public Affairs Research Trust, it is  registed under the Income Tax Act as being a research body, while the CIS has registered a charity under the name of, The Centre For Independent Studies Ltd, not a trust but a listed company, acting like a trust.

But hang on, what is a charity/not-for-profit and what is the purpose of becoming one? The ACNC does have specific requirements, one of which is that you must be "charitable".

"Charitable purpose" under the Charities Act 2013 has a legal definition, which has been developed over the years by the courts and parliament. These purposes have changed over time and now include the following 12 categories: advancing health; advancing education; advancing social or public welfare; advancing religion; advancing culture; promoting reconciliation, mutual respect and tolerance between groups of individuals that are in Australia; promoting or protecting human rights; advancing the security or safety of Australia or the Australian public; preventing or relieving the suffering of animals; advancing the natural environment; promoting or opposing a change to any matter established by law, policy or practice in the Commonwealth, a state, a territory or another country (where that change furthers or opposes one or more of the purposes above); and other similar purposes ‘beneficial to the general public’ (a general category).

While the IPA is not strictly a 'charity' the conditions governing what determines what is a charitable purpose still apply, as was clarified by a ACNC review in 2014.

When looking at whether organisations seeking registration as charities have a charitable purpose, it is assumed the ACNC should have inspected the organisation’s governing documents, as well as documents relating to an 'organisation's activities, annual reports, financial statements and corporate documents'. The disclaimers the ACNC provide however are that while some activities may not seem to be charitable, they can be included if they are to 'further a charitable purpose'.

As well, '... purposes that the law recognised as charitable before the Charities Act came into effect will continue to be charitable. The charity subtypes of public benevolent institution and health promotion charity also continue[d] to be recognised.'

As both not-for-profits were registered just prior to the new Act coming into force, the IPA as a ‘public benevolent institution’ was accepted by the Charities Commission. But further clarification was required it seems. The ACNC website states that in 2012, the Commission deemed that the IPA met the requirements of being 'another purpose beneficial to the community', this beneficial purpose was updated in 2014 to be 'analogous to, or within the spirit of, any of the other charitable purposes'.

But this confirms that the IPA is still required to demonstrate a charitable purpose.

The CIS was similarly assessed as having “another purpose beneficial to the community” when registered in 2012, but the January 2014 assessment of whether it complied with the new Act determined that the CIS also met requirements for "advancing social or public welfare” and “Advancing the security or safety of Australia or the Australian public". The second category would probably be due to the CIS’s focus on promoting public debate on international and security issues. A topic cherished by its current president Tom Switzer on his weekly ABC Radio National program.

Of benefit to the public.

Let’s leave aside the other policy areas which the IPA pursues and focus on the key IPA issue du jour — that of climate change.

After looking at the various ideas the IPA and its Environment Foundation have been pursuing on this important issue for all citizens of the world, they can be summarised broadly thus:

- we shouldn’t trust the science;

- scientists can’t agree;

- science doesn’t have to be precise; and

- data concerning climate science is being routinely manipulated by  government agencies and the United Nations to pursue an agenda of public control and manipulation.

Okay, so people are allowed to have a point of view, right? Democracy is supposed to encourage free speech. What is wrong with holding these views and saying so in public?

Well, apart from being factually challenged views, none of course, but is this consistent with a charitable purpose under the law? Given the high public profile the organisations pursue, it is difficult, if not impossible, to place the climate denialism they pursue into one of the 12 charitable purposes. The last general catch-all category, of being "beneficial to the public" also does not work. After all, how could climate denialism and the lack of action on tackling the issue, which these ideas seek to do, be of benefit to the public?

Both charities claim they are benefiting the “general community of Australia”. However, given the difficulty in matching a climate denialist agenda with a supposed community benefit, this simply does not stack up anymore.

Indeed, a stronger argument could be that such an agenda is, in fact, harmful to the public. If we accept the view that scientists – the vast majority of whom agree on the threat of climate change – do know what they are talking about, this would certainly be the case.

How much money do the two organisations receive through their charities? Here it gets interesting because the amounts received and the purposes of that money are quite different between the two.

Follow the money

The amounts and purposes of income derived through these think tank's not-for-profits is quite different.

The IPA receives only about ten to 20 per cent of its annual income through its not-for-profit, most of which is spent each year, with income amounting to some $996,000 in 2018-19. Figues below show the income over the last few years, an increase in donations clearly evident. This income are nearly all classed as "donations" under the ACNC disclosure requirements — though of course "donors" are not required to be identified.

Interestingly, there was a switch in how the IPA described the use of these moneys from 2015-16 when it was issuing "grants", to the ambiguous category of "other" in 2016-17 — an apparent disclosure loophole under the Act. IPA annual reports show the bulk of its money is received as donations from individuals and membership fees, using their company’s donor gift recipient (DGR) status making it all tax free.

The CIS receives much more money through its charity and, given that "wages" comprise the bulk of its expenses, it seems its charity receives most of the money required to run the organisation.

The CIS has been running on a budget of $3-5 million for the last six years, with a record of over $4.5 million in 2018-19. Most of this has been in the form of "donations", though a not insignificant proportion is described as "income from other investments".

Coincidentally, both charities were registered at the same time, 3 December 2012, just prior to the new Commonwealth Charities Act coming into force the following year.

New Management

The reviews by the ACNC in January 2014 of the charitable status of these two organisations, in this light, needs to be reviewed again. This is particularly so of the IPA with its increasing focus on spreading climate misinformation, whihc seems to have stepped up since it received its not-for-profit status in 2012.

There are also other issues which need clarification in order that better transparency occurs within the ACNC, such as better definitions of income and expenditure, the question of influence by foreign entities and perhaps what is key: whether charity funds being used by these organisations is for a purpose that may be deemed as being of detriment to the community. Charitable or tax-free status should be relinquished under these circumstances.

A more recent change of management, a new commissioner, who is guiding the ACNC on it path is ex-Labor and ex-IPA notable, Gary Johns

Johns first camer to public life as a the member of the House of Representatives for the Labor Party between 1987-1996. He served as parliamantary secretary for a number of roles including for the Treasury and Industrial Relations. Ironically, he served on the inaugural board of Volunteers Australia and the Productivity Commission between 2002-04. 

Johns then became a senior fellow with the IPA between 1997 and 2006, where his role was to investigate issues relating to the non-government sector, in particular, NGOs which camaigned against corporations. He then worked as a consultant for ICL Tasman between 2006-09 and then associate professor of public policy at the Australian Catholic University. He was also president of the Bennelong Society, a right wing think tank dedicated to inhibiting sovereign rights for indigenous people in Australia. He also did a recent stint at another right wing policy think thank , the Australian Institute for Progress to lobby on behalf of vaping, including attacking the World Health Organisation.

But it was his appointment to the ACNC as its commissioner which raised eyebrows. In 2017 Malcolm Turnbull appointed Johns as Commissioner for the ACNC. Lobbying on behalf of big tobacco and being a critic of charities and NGOs, nothing tells you more that this is the man for the job! But as some have suspected his appointment looks more like an effort to hamstring political dissent from the not-for-profit sector.

Going back to 2003, while Johns was with the IPA, they received a $50,000 grant to investigate the relationship between Australian Government Departments and NGOs, and to also develop a ‘trial protocol’ for public disclosure of NGO standing with Government. Then after a high-court decision in 2010  in which the court backed the charity Aidwatch against being de-registered, Johns was quoted as saying, "The Abbott government promised to abolish the Charities Act 2013, which includes advocacy as a charitable purpose. It must make good that promise in a way that makes it clear to the High Court that advocacy is not a charitable purpose."

His recent actions against the ACF must be seen in this light. While he sees it wrong that some charities advocate for political outcomes to assist their cause, he sees it OK for the IPA to engage in spreading disinformation, that will casue immense harm to this community.

The IPA is Gary Johns' ideological home it seems to this day. He doesn't like people running charities it seems, a wholly inappropriate appointment to this organisation as many including the Pro-bono and not-for-profit community strenuously pointed out in 2017.  Now, it is overdue, he must step down.