The House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment’s Inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations came to Adelaide on 1 September 2015, as part of the process to hear from organisations which may be impacted under their terms of reference.  Details of the Committee’s Terms of Reference and membership can be found at its home page.

One of the main items being investigated is the eligibility of Environmental Non Government Organisations (eNGOs) to have and retain Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) status – that is, donations given to them being tax deductible for the giver of the donation.  In addition, activities undertaken by the eNGOs and the extent to which these activities involve on-ground environmental works are also being investigated in the inquiry.

The Norwood Resource (TNR) was one of the 600 odd groups which responded to the call for submissions, and TNR was subsequently asked to attend the Public Hearing in Adelaide on 1 Sept.  A summary of TNR’s submission can be accessed by clicking this link.

TNR’s submission to the Committee primarily focussed on the deceptive and misleading conduct and misinformation employed by some eNGOs to further their political agenda rather than applying funds to on-ground environmental projects.  That is, while advocacy is an accepted and legal function of eNGOs, TNR’s view is that there are some (certainly not all) eNGOs who prey on a caring and giving society to elicit support (by way of general support, volunteers, cash and in kind donations) by using their funds collected from donors primarily for advocacy and activism and very little (and perhaps in some cases nil) is actually applied to on-ground works for the environment.

As a consequence, TNR argued that many eNGOs (which are in fact money making businesses) should be subject to the same kind of rules that all Australian businesses are subjected to through the Australian Consumer Law (ACL) which are actively enforced by the ACCC or an equivalent organisation.

In the case of Australian Business, if a company engages in false and misleading representations, including through advertising and marketing in all mediums (including the internet and comments on twitter), it is in breach of ACL and liable for prosecution.  TNR argues that eNGOs should not be permitted to engage in this sort of conduct without impunity, as they seem to be currently doing.

Bruce Holland (Secretary) and John Hughes (Public Officer) attended the Adelaide Public Hearing, and put TNRs case to the Committee, which received a fair hearing.  TNR stated the following in its opening to the Committee:

1 TNR was formed as the founders were astounded by the misinformation, scaremongering, pseudo science and outright lies about the impact of oil & gas exploration and production upon the environment appearing regularly in the media.

2 While some industry associations were rebutting this misinformation, there seemed to be a huge vacuum in that the facts were either being dismissed and/or ignored in the media (conventional and social).

3 Over the last two years it appears the frequency, breadth and depth of the scaremongering, misinformation and hyperbole from some eNGOs has increased.

4 This increase seems to be from a core group of activist eNGOs of which a number appear to have close links to such international groups like the Sierra Club,, Rockefeller Foundation, Friends of the Earth, IFAW, Greenpeace etc.

5 Funding seems to be plentiful, for these groups – the Queensland Resource Council recently reported the ‘top’ 12 or so eNGOs, which seem to specialise in advocacy and activism, had donor funds close to $90m between them, and they are organised and coordinated.

6 Sharing of advocacy initiatives, and propaganda, is evidenced by some articles/pictures/assertions being common on a number of eNGO (and their affiliates) web sites.

7 TNR’s view is many eNGO groups put fund raising/advocacy first, environment second and facts/evidence last.

8 TNR’s view is many of the eNGO assertions and stories are fiction and not substantiated by evidence.  When facts are brought to their attention, they are dismissed using fallacious arguments and the people introducing the facts and science into the discussion thread are vilified.

9 TNR asserts that facts and evidence cannot be ignored in environmental debates

10 Our view is that, as all Australian business organisations are subject to Australian Consumer Law, so too should all eNGOs be subject to similar laws and, in the absence of appropriate laws/regulations, the ACL.

11 The eNGOs are advertising and marketing themselves to their customers (consumers of their articles/assertions) to elicit support by way of general support, volunteers, cash and in kind donations.

12 If eNGOs’ advertising and marketing about themselves or organisations (either those that they support or those that they do not support or target) cannot be factually or scientifically verified and is potentially false and/or misleading, then they need to be taken to task. An Australian business cannot operate on this basis – it would be open to prosecution if it did!

13 ACL applies to all forms of advertising including all mediums, including the internet (ie ‘social” media).

14 The activist eNGOs’ claims and tactics actually tarnish the reputation of ethical eNGOs and therefore tarnish the whole eco-charity “industry”.

15 Many activist groups use pretty & emotive pictures of the environment or seals, whales or rounded headed doggies etc with captions that they are at risk due to various reasons.  This is designed to elicit support from the readers and potential donors (customers?).  For example the ludicrous assertions that offshore seismic surveys are five (previously has been claimed to be 100) times louder than a jet engine.

16 Activist claims are broad and unqualified, and they use these to elicit support and donations.  TNR’s view is that these claims need to be scrutinised for authenticity.

During discussion with the Committee, TNR furnished evidence of criminal, false and deceptive conduct and misinformation engaged in by some eNGOs. Examples can be found on TNR’s website by clicking the following links for onshore and offshore issues.

TNR’s representatives were impressed by the four Committee members in attendance, and particularly the Chair Alex Hawke MP, and Tony Pasin MP, who expressed that perhaps the application of ACL to the eNGO sector may be a little bit of a far reach, but there may be an opportunity to have a closer regulatory and compliance oversight through the Department of the Environment which is instrumental in granting DGR status.  For example if an eNGO is not performing functions toward its Principal Purpose or engages in false, deceptive conduct and misinformation, which has no scientific substance, then sanctions can be applied.

If anyone is aware of an eNGO using false/misleading information and tactics they can report this to the Department of the Environment (DoE).  This has apparently been the case for years as, given that DoE grants DGR status, it is also DoE that will investigate whether or not DGR status should be retained/cancelled.  This was the first time TNR’s representatives had heard about this avenue of complaint.  Ironically, despite all the false/misleading information and tactics that has been promulgated by eNGOs over the years, there have been NO complaints made to the Dept of the Environment.

Perhaps TNR may just be the first to submit a complaint!

The findings and recommendations of the Committee are anticipated by Christmas 2015.

In the meantime, the Committee moved on to WA for a Public Hearing on 3 September.