- Date published:
3:02 pm, September 4th, 2012 - 13 comments
Categories: campaigning, Environment, law, political alternatives, Politics, the praiseworthy and the pitiful - Tags: charity, court of appeal, greenpeace
Today Greenpeace will be in the Court of Appeal to challenge the interpretation of the High Court or what is a charitable purpose. Bunny McDiarmid at the Greenpeace blog has a pretty good post on it “Charity or not, Greenpeace is here to stay“.
This month another principle is at stake. We’re in the Court of Appeal challenging the decision to decline Greenpeace charitable status under the ‘new’ Charities law passed in 2005. Central to this is free speech, or a so-called ‘political exception’ which stops charities from engaging in what the government may think is political advocacy, or challenging the status quo.
Whether we are successful or not in gaining charitable status, Greenpeace will continue to work in the same manner as we always have. Backed by nearly 60,000 kiwis, we will remain strictly non-party political, staunchly independent and we will continue fighting non-violently for good environmental outcomes and peace with every means at our disposal.
I was thinking this through as a diversion after a long and unproductive session session contemplating how inept the Labour caucus has been. It was rather pleasant to look at an organisation that had a clear vision, bloody good communications, was competent, and above all actually appeared to care about what they stand for. So I dug around a bit looking at what a charity is.
The compliance FAQ for charities is quite clear. This link starts from the legal background and has a link to the definitions of “charitable purpose” which explains some of the legal interpretations that evolved from the Elizabethan law. But the kicker for this case is in the sidelink “Political activities and registration under the Charities Act”
Many charitable entities registered by the Charities Commission undertake political activities in order to achieve their charitable purposes. As long as the organisation’s main purposes remain charitable, the use of political activities to achieve these purposes is unlikely to disqualify the organisation from registration.
The Commission acknowledges the valuable contribution that charitable entities can make to public debates – for example, a charitable entity may be the only organisation to represent the needs of a group of disadvantaged people. In addition, it is clear that the input of charitable entities may be able to resolve recurring problems in their particular fields.
The Commission understands that charitable entities may be more likely to undertake political activities at certain times. For example, entities may undertake more political activities in an election year or if Parliament is considering, or is about to consider, a piece of legislation which relates to the entity’s operations.
The Commission is only likely to question whether a charitable entity is continuing to meet registration requirements if its political activities have assumed a level of importance that appears to indicate that they have become independent purposes in themselves. In these circumstances, the Commission will inform the charitable entity that no longer appears to have exclusively charitable purposes.
Back to the Bunny.
In the eyes of the law Greenpeace’s environmental purposes are judged to be charitable as they benefit the community, as does our promotion of peace, but promoting disarmament is not. It is deemed to be too political.
Now that is a really arbitrary line that is being drawn. Advocating for peace is a valid charitable purpose, but advocating for removing arms for the purposes of peace is not? WTF..
Under the new charity law you can do some political ‘advocacy’ work in the form of promoting or challenging environmental policies or laws. However, too much advocacy, will be risky, particularly if it is critical of the status quo. But how much is too much is not clear. This creates a dilemma for some charities because if they overstep this indistinct line, they risk losing government funding linked to their charitable status.
Greenpeace does not seek or accept money from the Government (or business) so nothing will change for us in that respect, but the potential effect on debate for those that do, is a real and chilling possibility.
We want to see New Zealand more in line with Australia which allows charities freedom of expression in political debate as long as it is consistent with their charitable purposes. We reckon that the Aussies are right; engaging in political debate is an essential part of advocacy work, it’s very much in the public interest and an essential part of a modern democracy.
I agree. Time to shift the law so it allows that to happen.
What is pleasant is an organisation willing to take the expense to take a case to appeal and in all likelihood to a further appeal to the Supreme Court to establish a legal precedent that is more important to the myriads of smaller charities out there than to them. These range from activist groups like us (not that we really need a charity status for our trust), churches, poverty groups, through to people who advocate against Greenpeace like some of the climate change deniers.
And no. I don’t exert effort or even funds supporting them. Lyn does. I might have to join her.