Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Australia anti-coal activists face funding scrutiny

Australia is considering stripping environmental groups of the right to challenge big projects in court following revelations that “foreign funds” supported a campaign against developing one of the world’s biggest coal mines.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Monday he would reassess whether there is enough support in parliament to pass laws targeting activist groups, an idea first proposed last year.

“People are entitled to bring their cases before the courts but there is no doubt that there have been very systematic, very well­funded campaigns against major projects,” Mr Turnbull said.

Hacked emails of John Podesta, campaign chairman for US presidential contender Hillary Clinton, released by WikiLeaks show that the Sunrise Project, an environmental group that has campaigned  against a A$16.5bn coal project in Queensland proposed by India’s Adani Group, received funding from the US­ based Sandler Foundation.
Sunrise has supported several Queensland groups that have launched a series of legal challenges to Adani’s proposed coal project that have held it up for several years.

The battle between Adani and environmental groups is on the frontline of a global battle  between mining monopolies and environmentalists over the future of coal — one of the cheapest sources of energy but a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Foreign funding of NGOs is not illegal in Australia but it has drawn the ire of the Liberal­National coalition, which has prioritised the economy over conservation.

In an email to the Sandler Foundation, John Hepburn, Sunrise executive director, revealed the group had sought advice on how it could “avoid disclosure, challenge and limit disclosure” of its funders shortly before it was due to appear before a parliamentary committee investigating campaigners.

“I have no concerns whatsoever about our compliance with our charitable obligations but I do have concerns about the potential PR impact of disclosure of both our funding and grantees — should that eventuate,” he wrote in an email on May 25 2015.

Mr Hepburn wrote about a proposal by the government to strip environmental groups of their charitable status, saying it “wasn’t surprising but is very ugly”.

“The mining companies seem to own the Liberals, and they play very dirty,” he added.

The disclosures by WikiLeaks prompted the Minerals Council of Australia to claim on Monday that “progressive” moneyed interests in the US were covertly funding anti­coal activists.

“This episode should prompt a rethink of the oversight of environmental groups that operate as charities and that have tax­deductible recipient status,” said Brendan Pearson, MCA chief executive.

Mr Hepburn told the Financial Times  he could not disclose the value of Sunrise’s overseas funding for privacy reasons. He said mining companies, which were 80 per cent foreign­owned, had far too much influence over the Australian government and regularly bullied environmental campaigners and their donors.

“It’s an absurd situation,” he said. “Campaign groups take cases to protect the environment under existing laws, while the mining lobby uses its power to change the law.”

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