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Standing Committee on Environment - 17/11/2015 - Register of Environmental Organisations
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BRENNAN, Mr Matthew, National Director, Operations, The Wilderness Society Inc.

SCHNEIDERS, Mr Lyndon, National Campaigns Director, The Wilderness Society Inc.


CHAIR: I welcome the representatives from the Wilderness Society. As you heard me say before, we do not require you to take an oath, but you should be aware that this is a formal and legal proceeding of parliament and it will be treated as such. We have a written submission from you. Do either of you wish to make a statement before we begin?

Mr Schneiders : Yes, we would love the opportunity to have a tag team effort. Firstly, I just want to acknowledge the traditional owners of this country on which this meeting is being held and their forebears and ancestors. Matt runs our operations. The organisation is a federation. A bit like COAG, it has a national office and state offices. I will invite Matt to briefly walk through how the organisation works and what we are. Then I would like to talk a little bit about what it is we do—how we do our business in meeting our charitable purpose. I would also like to flag and address some of the issues that have come up in a number of the submissions, and I think also in the hearings previously. That would be helpful and would give a perspective. I will talk about where we came from and then hand over to Matt.

The Wilderness Society is an Australian organisation. We were formed in June 1976 in a small cottage in Liffey, south-west of Launceston. We were formed solely and primarily to stop the construction of the Franklin River dam. Some 18-odd people came into that tiny little cottage eventually over a weekend. They had all been involved in a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to protect a beautiful place called Lake Pedder from a rather large hydro scheme. We came out of the wilds of Tasmania, and the Franklin dam was a defining issue for Australia. A number of major political figures came out of that campaign and that issue—High Court rulings and what have you—and that river still runs free to this day as a result of that campaign.

But a long time ago we turned into much more of a national organisation. We have a spread across the whole of the continent now and have members and supporters across Australia. Matt, do you want to talk about what we look like?

Mr Brennan : Yes, I would. As a federation, the Wilderness Society is eight separately incorporated entities represented by an umbrella organisation called the Wilderness Society Australia. Through each of those entities, we have campaign centres embedded in communities in all the major state capital cities of Australia, and one in Newcastle as well. We have quite a presence around the country, and each one of those has its own management committee and members. We represent around 34,000 Australian members, who contribute to our governance regime through electing our various committees of management, and they are involved and engaged in a number of aspects of the work that we do, through questioning, through meetings and so forth. Our purpose is to protect, promote and restore wilderness and ecological processes for the ongoing evolution of life on earth. We have some quite deeply held organisational values. Those are passion for our purpose, the power of people to make change, organisational independence and integrity, compassion, and commitment to success in protecting the environment.

Regarding our finances, we are supported by the donations and subscriptions of around 45,000 Australians—about 34,000 members and 10,000 or 11,000 other people who give us money each year. These are mums and dads and individuals in Australia—we receive no corporate or government money—and each of those is probably giving an average of around $250. Through that, we receive about $11 million to $12 million a year on average, and about $1.2 million of what we receive is non-deductible through bequests, income from investments and membership subscriptions. That gives about $10 million or $11 million which is going through the Deductible Gift Recipient register, or the REO.

The Wilderness Society Inc. has DGR status and collects all of the moneys raised. The Wilderness Society Inc. has a committee of management of eight people. We annually report our audited financial statements. In the interests of transparency, our financial statements are on our website, and we also do an annual review, which serves the purpose of letting our members know what impact we had during the year, but we also use those financials and annual review for our compliance—essentially for the ACNC and the Register of Environmental Organisations.

Mr Schneiders : Thanks, Matt, for giving that overview. I hope that is helpful for the committee. Kicking off, I firstly wanted to acknowledge the great work that the committee system does in the Australian parliament, both in the Reps and in the Senate. I think it adds real depth to public policy debate, so we are really pleased to be here and to be able to contribute to this particular issue. We note, for the record, that obviously this inquiry did receive a lot of attention. I think there were something like 650-odd written submission, of which it seems that all but a handful were highly supportive of the activities of the environmental groups.

I want to talk a little about how we do our business and how we meet our charitable purpose. We are a campaigning organisation. We undertake advocacy activities, we run public awareness and public opinion campaigns and we regularly have opinion pieces in The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. We participate in the community debate, and we help and train Australians to get involved in public policy debates. We have a deep focus on community organising, and we undertake research and lobbying. We work with industry, and we also work deeply with affected communities where there are matters» of environmental significance.

I want to briefly talk about a couple of campaigns, just because they give an indication of the sort of spectrum of the work we do. One of my proudest moments as an advocate—and I have been in this game since I was a young fellow, when, back in 1993, I started with The Wilderness Society—was the involvement in the negotiations that led to the Tasmanian Forest Agreement in 2013. I think all of the committee would be very well aware that the disputes over the protection of the Tasmanian native forests and the development of a sustainable timber industry had been incredibly heated in that state for some 20-odd years, with seemingly no resolution in sight. However, I was very fortunate to be part of a series of negotiations with the Tasmanian timber industry, headed up by the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania; the trade union movement, represented by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and Timber Communities Australia; the Contractors Association; The Wilderness Society; ACF; and Environment Tasmania.

It started in 2011, when we all got together and said, 'Something has to change. We can't keep ripping apart the Tasmanian community. We have to find some common ground.' We very specifically said that that time to government, 'Please stand outside and facilitate these negotiations for trying to find common ground, but let us try to work it out.' We then spent 2½ years negotiating together to find a solution that would protect the high conservation value of forests, put the Tasmanian timber industry on a genuinely sustainable basis, and take the industry to a point which it desired greatly—Forest Stewardship Council certification of the native forest timber operations.

That was an incredibly difficult process, and it involved deep research. As a group, we had to call in some of the best scientists and ecologists to really try to resolve some of those long-standing issues regarding the protection of forests, which forests could be logged and which ones should be protected. We brought in the economists to look at market trends, where the international timber market was heading and the basis of financial viability for the timber industry in Tasmania.

After an incredibly hard amount of work together, in very late 2012 we landed an agreement. That agreement was subsequently ratified by the Tasmanian parliament, but in the election of 2014 the new Tasmanian government—for their own reasons—chose to walk away from that agreement. But what is notable about that is that the industry and the conservation groups continue to honour that agreement.

That is the sort of work that happens amongst the advocacy groups. We tend to get characterised sometimes in some of the public commentary as being a bunch of ratbags who are running around and making a few outlandish statements. I would cite the experience from the Tasmanian forest process as one that indicates the depth of the work that we do, together with industry and affected communities, in trying to find solutions that work for all Australians. That is what we want. We want an Australia that is sustainable, we want an Australia that is prosperous and we want an Australia that protects nature.

At the other end of the spectrum, I will bring in a very topical example from developments today. All of us have great concerns about proposals by BP and Chevron to start drilling for oil in a frontier basin in the waters of the Great Australian Bight. We have great concerns about the high level of risk associated with drilling in the bight. These are wild waters, and they will be drilling down some three or four kilometres deep. We have seen from the Gulf of Mexico spill—the Deepwater Horizon tragedy—that things can go wrong with oil drilling, and we have been very vocal in recent times about our concerns about BP's drilling.

We commissioned some research to look at what would happen if we had another event like that of Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. We drew on some of the best expertise from around the world on oil spill modelling and understanding what would happen if the oil leaked—where it would spread into the waters of the Great Australian Bight. We have been very forceful in putting our views that in fact the government-appointed regulator, NOPSEMA, should be looking much more closely before approving a series of exploration developments. Today NOPSEMA just announced that they would in fact be seeking much more detailed information from BP about the oil drilling operations, largely as a result of the work that we did in highlighting some of the risks. I wanted to give those examples to highlight to you the breadth of work that our members enable us as advocates in the Wilderness Society to do.

I wanted to very briefly touch on some of the issues that I think have already been raised in these committee hearings. One was around the idea of separation between practical environmental advocacy and 'ratbag' advocacy, for want of a better word. My strong view is that this is a false dichotomy, and I think you have heard that from some of the folks who have come from the more practical, on-ground end of the environmental movement. Without strong public policy and without the frameworks in place to make the on-ground activities work, the great efforts of hundreds of thousands of Australians can be wasted. I cite as an example the vast amount of public and human investment in tree planting over the past 20 years through a whole range of activities, from the International Year of the Tree back whenever it was—1989—onwards, in which Australians from all walks of life have been going out and putting in the hard yards, putting trees in the ground in recognition of the impacts of deforestation. I contrast that with the weakening of regulations in places like Queensland, for example, with the weakening of tree clearing laws, which allowed, in the most recent records, some 300,000 hectares of bushlands to be knocked over in the year 2013-14. I cite that as an example of why you need advocacy to supplement practical, on-the-ground work. We need regulations and we need public policy in place that helps support the work that happens on the ground with people putting trees in the ground.

Ms CLAYDON: Thanks, Mr Schneiders and Mr Brennan, for your evidence this morning. We have heard, as you noted, from a number of witnesses about the need to have the practical, on-ground work informed by good policy and indeed requirements to even have community campaigning and lobbying when you need to change legislation in order to get effective outcomes. I want to say thank you for reinforcing that message this morning.

You are on the Register of Environmental Organisations. You are also registered with the ACNC. I asked this question of the previous witness too. There has been considerable evidence given to the committee about the complexities involved with the existing DGR processes. One view that has been put to the committee is that it might be a useful mechanism if people are registered under the ACNC and there are higher thresholds and reporting mechanisms required under that umbrella and that this might be a way of, dare I say, getting rid of some red tape within the current system. I am wondering if the Wilderness Society has a view on whether that might be a workable means of reducing some of the burden, perhaps, on NGOs and charitable organisations and enabling you to meet your purpose and fulfil requirements—whether that one umbrella would be a helpful idea. The proposal was that people who make the cut into the ACNC would be given tax-deductibility status.

Mr Schneiders : Yes, thanks for that. We did comment in our submission, maybe obliquely, on the options for reform. I note that one of my former employees in fact rocked up to your Canberra hearings and strongly put the case for the ACNC. That was Dr Greg Ogle, who has been deeply involved in the whole sort of regulatory framework around the charity sector for some 15 years, so I have a lot of respect for his perspective. In our submission we certainly had a view that said the existence of something like four separate DGR registers across civil society certainly did not make much sense.

Our experience of ACNC has been that we welcomed the establishment of ACNC when it was put in place. We had quite a lot of involvement with the Australian tax office during the 2000s when they were looking at the tax deductibility of environment groups post the changes around the definitions of charity that came with the introduction of the GST. We certainly thought that the ACNC being an independent body and having clear powers and a compliance culture were something that we would support, and we publicly supported it at the time.

So I do not think we have any opposition to the idea that the ACNC should become effectively the regulator of the whole sector. Obviously there needs to be a process to understand what that would mean, and that is partly, I guess, what your committee is doing as well—to look at any unintended consequences that would come from that. But our support has always been that the ACNC was a good institution. It made a lot of sense. It held expertise. It was based on international best practice. So I cannot see us having any major issues with that.

Ms CLAYDON: Thank you for that response, firstly, because you are not the first to point out the curious nature of having multiple registers and the complexities that people and not-for-profits are being asked to navigate their way around through that process. So thanks for your evidence.

Ms MARINO: Thank you for your submission and for your evidence. Taking that one step further—you have mentioned the ATO—should the ACNC take on that role, how would you envisage the ATO's engagement beyond that?

Mr Schneiders : As a vehicle I have not thought about it at all; I am sorry. I am happy to take it on notice.

Ms MARINO: If you do, I would be interested, and I think the committee would find it useful if we understood how you view the role of the ATO in a changed structure. I think that would be useful.

Mr Schneiders : Okay, we will take that on notice. As I said, we had the experience of inputting into the various tax rulings that were made during the mid to late 2000s, and then I think there was a final one in 2011. That seemed like a pretty messy old process. Obviously the tax office have a high level of expertise around certain things—

Ms MARINO: Yes, absolutely.

Mr Schneiders : so you would imagine that they would have to be involved in some form.

Ms MARINO: Yes. A second one: given your DGR status, do you have any auspicing arrangements? Do you provide funding to any other organisations? If you do, how do you manage that, and how do you ensure that, for those who donate to you and who support you, your principal purpose is reflected in the activities of those that you are supporting?

Mr Brennan : It is always bound by our constitution, and our committee is bound by our constitution, which says that any money that we spend must be spent on purpose. So essentially, whatever we do, whether we are buying paper or anything like that, our committee is making a decision based on budgets or contracts or agreements, which binds us by our purpose, which is the binding purpose of our registration with the REO as well.

Mr Schneiders : So we do not. The short answer is that we do not auspice. I guess on one level internally we do because we are a federation. The money comes through the national organisation because the national organisation is on the register, and then we have state offices, and the state offices gain their funding. But, again, they are bound by the constitutions of the organisation. Perhaps because of our unique origins in the heady days of the 1970s, we have quite a heavy culture of internal democracy. Our members are very active in our operations, and our bosses are our members. Our committee gets elected each year. We have consensus written into our committee, so that is a unique and unusual way of doing business. So, yes, I think there are a lot of internal checks and balances in our organisation, and those checks and balances are reflected in our actions. It is one of the reasons why doing things like auspicing just practically would be incredibly difficult.

Ms MARINO: Thanks.

Mr VARVARIS: You mentioned that your organisation was formed in 1976, yet you were only registered on the Register of Environmental Organisations in 1993. You have also stated in your submission on page 7 that your ability to continue to pursue your purpose is intrinsically linked to your ability to receive tax-deductible donations. Can you explain, if you are so heavily reliant on tax-deductible donations now, what the difference has been in your funding model from 1976, when you were not receiving tax-deductible donations, to 1993 onwards?

Mr Schneiders : My understanding was that there was a new regulatory system put in place in the early 1990s, and that is where all of the environment groups—with the exception, I think, of a couple that were specifically named in the legislation—came from. My understanding was that most of the groups listed came on around that period because the then national government chose to create such a thing as a register. That was my understanding; I could be held wrong on that. I do not know if Matt has any other information.

Mr GILES: If I could assist, that is my understanding too.

Mr Schneiders : There is no practical reason. And then, looking at the Wilderness Society in 1976 compared to the Wilderness Society in 2015, we are just fundamentally different beasts. Again, the 1970s were obviously a hectic and quite an interesting time of social change in Australia. Most of the organisation's works were largely done by volunteers. Let us be frank: one of the main things the Wilderness Society did in the Franklin campaign, aside from raise community awareness, was to organise Australia's then biggest community disobedience campaign, where some 2,000 Australians went and got arrested at the shores of the Franklin River to stop construction happening. The organisation then compared to the organisation now was quite a different beast.

It is a much more complex organisation now. Our membership is significantly bigger. I think Matt said 34,000 Australians, and when I think about the spheres of other people who are involved in our organisation there are probably another 10,000 or 15,000 people who give us money or provide us support who are not members. We are a big, complicated organisation now, so we have quite a different culture, and it is a culture around compliance.

Mr GILES: I have a couple of questions, if I may. Thank you, Mr Brennan and Mr Schneiders, for your submission and for your evidence today. If I might start with another way of looking at the question Mr Varvaris put to you: in the early nineties, when you did acquire status on the register and the benefits it confers, I would imagine that you had similar objectives as you have today?

Mr Schneiders : Yes. I think our constitution is almost identical to the one that was put in place in the early 1980s when we first incorporated in Tasmania. I think our purpose was slightly expanded to take on a couple of issues that were essentially driven by scientific understanding. The protection of wilderness per se was probably not enough to put in place nature conservation, so there is some wording in our constitution around the protection of natural processes. But otherwise we are looking much the same. As far as the constitution goes, the constitution is the same.

Mr GILES: So, as at the time you were admitted to the register and obtained the benefits, it was pretty clear that your ambit of activities went beyond so-called on-ground activities?

Mr Schneiders : Absolutely. I would like to hope—you do not know how the wider public always views you, but I would like to hope—that the Wilderness Society is quite a well-known Australian organisation. I would like to hope also that the Australian community understands that we are a voice, that we are a strong voice and that we are always there for nature and for the communities that depend on nature.

Mr GILES: I guess the point I am trying to make is that we would generally be loath to take action which has retrospective effects—

Mr Schneiders : Yes. I understand.

Mr GILES: and to draw that out.

Mr Schneiders : I do not think anyone fought with Landcare—as much respect as I have for Landcare—in 1993.

Mr GILES: Very briefly, if I may, I have two further questions. You talked about the internal democracy, and I am just wondering whether now or perhaps in a supplementary submission, if that is more convenient, you could draw out the extent to which you keep your members and donors advised as to the activities of the group.

Mr Schneiders : I am happy to do so.

Mr GILES: I know Nola has questions and we are running out of time. Your submission touches, I think helpfully, on the Canadian law changes. Any comments you have on the impact in respect of environmental advocacy, environmental outcomes and indeed the impact of civil society over there I think would be helpful for the committee.

Mr Schneiders : Yes, I am happy to respond to that, particularly in the framework of contemporary history and what has happened in Canada in recent times. Obviously Canada shares some similarities with Australia in terms of our shared traditions around parliamentary democracies. We also have some similarities in the structure of our economies. Clearly, in Canada the mining lobby is a very significant influencer on public policy in that country, and clearly the former Harper government was also a very strong supporter of the mining industry.

We would note that the culture of what I would argue is heavy-handed compliance seemed to be incredibly strong in Canada over the last several years. It went from beyond—in my view—a reasonable requirement of government to want to make sure that organisations were operating professionally, operating with integrity and being consistent in their purpose to one which was clearly, I think on any basis, there to disrupt and to tie up the environmental sector in an endless cycle of auditing and compliance. We spent quite a significant period of time talking to our colleagues from other organisations in Canada who were discussing the reality of their working life, spending somewhere between 20 and 40 per cent of their time not doing the activities that their members were asking them to do but simply meeting an almost constant barrage of compliance and auditing requests from the various Canadian government agencies.

Mr GILES: That does not sound very agile.

Mr Schneiders : I do not think it was very agile. It may well have had the purpose of keeping a whole bunch of greenies quite distracted. But I think, in thinking about a culture of compliance and also a culture of best practice regulation, it also created an environment in which a lot of Canadians understood that perhaps the government was going too far and perhaps the government was not operating with an even hand. I note that a number of the environment groups in fact found that their support base grew after a steady period of this sort of constant compliance and auditing. I would also note that there is quite a bit of commentary that one of the reasons why the Harper government in the end lost the election was the sense that they were in fact too close to certain sections of Canadian society, and particularly perhaps the mining sector operating out of Alberta. I think it is also noteworthy that earlier this year, for the first time in some 40 years, the Conservative Party of Alberta lost government, again with what appeared to be, according to the commentators, a general revulsion at the close links between the Alberta provincial government and the tar sands industry. Having spent several months of my life in Canada over the last 10 years, I do not think, fortunately, that in Australia we have that culture, and I certainly think that is a culture that we would want to be avoiding. I do not think it actually meets anyone's interests, neither the environment community nor the regulators.

CHAIR: I have a question myself. Senator Matthew Canavan made a submission, and in it he refers to your involvement in two state elections recently, in Victoria and Queensland. I think your own submission says that around 90 per cent of your funding is done under the tax deductibility status. How would you have funded the activities I assume you had in those elections?

Mr Schneiders : As you would be aware, both the tax office and the ACNC have spent quite a lot of time over the last 10 years exploring and investigating the issues surrounding the activities of charities in «electoral contests. They have made a number of rulings. We have been quite closely involved in those. We do not have any sort of special fund. We use money that is provided to our campaigns arm to be involved in election campaigns.

CHAIR: That was my simple question.

Mr Schneiders : Yes, absolutely.

CHAIR: That money would have been used in the election?

Mr Schneiders : Totally, and I would simply state, to finish that answer, that those activities as far as I am aware are not being called into scrutiny by the ACNC. The ACNC have guidelines around that. The ACNC, as you know, are particularly concerned about the purpose of the organisation's activities. They have quite an extensive section on the sorts of activities that they agree are charitable activities and consistent with purpose during elections. Elections are quite important times.

CHAIR: I was just asking the question. I have one other question, and it is one that I asked Greenpeace: when you are protesting or when you are involved in a particular instance, do you make an attempt to talk to the locals who will be affected as to the practical effect on them?

Mr Schneiders : Absolutely. I am really pleased that you have asked this question, because one of the reasons that I work with The Wilderness Society as distinct from doing other things with my life is that the organisation, since its inception, has had a deep commitment to community. That is where we come from. Most campaigns that we operate in, if not all, come by working in relationship and alliances with local communities. I can give you some examples. You may well be aware that we have been vocal opponents of the Narrabri coal seam gas project that is proposed for the Pilliga forest. We were invited to come and participate in that campaign by the local farming community, who recognised that they were up against a rather large interest in the companies—firstly Eastern Star Gas and then Santos. They also recognised that the former Labor government in New South Wales seemed to be very keen on promoting coal seam gas in the region. The conversations that we had with those local farming communities were the reason that we got involved in that campaign. They reached out to us. You see the gas-free declarations that have occurred on the properties, covering some 3 million hectares and 87 properties around the Pilliga forest, and you can see that there is a deep level of opposition to CSG and a deep level of commitment to protecting farmland. That is just one example. We have numerous examples across the—

CHAIR: But being invited by the locals to come in is a little bit different to imposing yourself on a local situation?

Mr Schneiders : Yes, and that is my point, I guess. My point is that I cannot think of a campaign that we operate anywhere in the country where we have not gone and spent the time working with the local community.

CHAIR: That was my question. Thank you.

Ms MARINO: Has the department ever been in touch with your organisation in between reporting periods?

Mr Brennan : The Department of the Environment?


Mr Brennan : Not to my knowledge.

Ms MARINO: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thanks very much. Thanks for coming.

Mr Schneiders : Thanks for the opportunity.

CHAIR: Would you make that information on notice available to the secretariat when you send it. You will get a copy of today's proceedings.

Mr Schneiders : Thanks so much. Good luck with your deliberations.