Science faces the risk of being strangled

It might not sound like much, but a clumsy move by the federal government to put sanctions onto charities could stifle democracy and science – just when we need them most.

The Climate Council of Australia was set up with the mission to be an independent and authoritative source on the science of climate change; its likely impacts and what we can do about it. Our purpose is to provide information and education to enable the public to make informed choices about climate change and what needs to be done about it. 

Despite the clear legitimacy of our purpose, last week we were forced to make a detailed submission to a government review that threatens to restrict our effectiveness by making us change our model. 

The most concerning recommendation is that, despite being a research-led organisation, we would be forced to spend 25 per cent of our funding on on-the-ground remediation work, such as tree planting and weed control. 

Environmental remediation has great value, but ultimately the policy change required to solve climate change will only happen through scientifically informed policy change that allows businesses and communities to do the heavy lifting. 

Businesses have total freedom to lobby for their interests, support peak bodies and think tanks to drive the political agenda in ways that are good for them. Forward-thinking businesses use this clout while recognising they have a wider responsibility to be good corporate citizens in the places they operate. Many millions are spent by business in this way and their costs are all tax deductible. 

There is nothing wrong with this, it’s to be expected – and there is no doubt: business activity leads to the economic prosperity we enjoy today. However, given the short-term and often narrow focus of many businesses, they should not have an unfettered right to carry out their activities unchallenged. 

One mechanism that allows other voices in the room is to give individuals similar rights to businesses, by allowing tax deductibility (DGR status) to organisations with a longer term view, or for research and advocacy. This helps to create a more level playing field and allows society to be better educated on the real issues it faces in the short and longer term.

Seeking to disrupt the operating model of an independent scientific body like the Climate Council is deeply unhelpful.  Accurate and actionable scientific information is needed now more than ever if Australia is to respond in time to the worse impacts of climate change, such as bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef or bushfires. 

Aside from the environmental implications, I am most concerned by the broader end of the wedge that this reform represents for charities. 

Despite some volatility in recent years, Australian charitable donations have risen over the last three years. At the last count, more than $630 million was given annually to causes ranging from health, education international development and disaster relief. 

Some are domestic issues, such as bushfires, where emergency services rely on the latest climate risk data to protect our lives and property. Some are international causes that relate to us at a human level, such as famine relief in South Sudan. What these causes have in common is their interests are altruistic, not for financial gain.

The proposed reform represents an ominous challenge to Australian democracy, support for science and freedom of speech. If this precedent is set now, which community groups might governments meddle with in the future, if they are deemed to be in conflict with their policies?

Gerry Hueston is a Climate Council councillor.