By Alastair Reith
A recent High Court decision has stripped Greenpeace New Zealand of its charity status in this country. The court upheld a 2010 ruling by the Charities Commission that the environmentalist organization is “too political” to be classed as a charity. Greenpeace is challenging the decision. The Commission argued that calls by Greenpeace for peace and disarmament could not be classed as charitable and were political in nature, and that while Greenpeace does not openly advocate breaking the law its members have been involved in illegal protest activity. Greenpeace Executive Director Bunny McDiarmid disputed this, arguing that, “Most of the charities that have got charitable status are very much engaged in change they want to see, positive change for our society today.”
This decision will deal a serious blow to Greenpeace. Apart from the mainstream legitimacy that comes from being registered as a charity, registered groups do not have to pay income tax, and people who choose to donate to them receive their money back in tax rebates. Losing charity status will cost Greenpeace a lot of money in the years ahead, and will discourage those on low incomes from donating.
Politically motivated punishment
There are many unanswered questions surrounding this ruling. Charitable organisations deal with the most poor and disadvantaged people in our society, and decisions like this will have a chilling effect that discourages people involved in charity work from speaking out about issues ranging from child poverty to environmental destruction. Apparently it is quite alright to help the poor, but not to ask why there is poverty amidst plenty. It’s quite alright to try and protect the environment, but not to ask why the environment is being unnecessarily destroyed. If you try to find ways to raise awareness of these issues and encourage others to think about the same questions you risk losing your charity status. It’s ok to clean up the mess, but it’s not ok to figure out who caused the mess and confront them about it.
In the specific case of Greenpeace, the loss of charity status seems politically motivated. The singling out of peace and disarmament as an unacceptable demand for a charitable group to raise is a controversial position considering the enormous suffering caused by war, the role military conflict plays in causing or exacerbating poverty, and the threats posed to humanity by nuclear weapons and the armaments industry. Justice Heath, the man behind the 2010 Charities Commission ruling, claimed that the methods used by Greenpeace were unnecessary to educate members of the public. It is unclear what qualifies him to make such statements and what expertise he has in the field of raising public awareness. The Commission singled out Greenpeace protest actions against agribusiness giant Fonterra over its increasing use of coal, and a campaign against the importation of palm kernel oil and its use by corporations like Fonterra, Cadburys and Nestle as evidence of unacceptable activities.
On that note, it is an interesting coincidence that the 2011 High Court came to this decision at a time when Greenpeace has been in the news for its work campaigning against oil exploration off the East Cape. Brazilian energy company Petrobas has been searching for oil with the intention of beginning deep sea oil drilling. This would take place at twice the depth of the BP oil rig that exploded in 2010, causing one of the greatest manmade environmental disasters in history. It seems that the state and its legal apparatus is happy to tolerate Greenpeace as a charity when it campaigns against Japanese whaling and Malaysian deforestation, but when big business becomes targeted here in New Zealand it’s a different story.
Hypocrisy of ‘charity’
Greenpeace is not the only organisation to be stripped of its charitable status. There have been others, notably including the National Council of Women, a federation of women’s organisations and advocacy groups. In light of this, it is interesting to note which groups retain their charitable status. Churches and religious organisations are tax exempt in New Zealand. Putting aside the obvious issues around whether that should be the case in a modern, secular society, is it really possible to see the Catholic Church as anything other than a highly political organisation? The Catholic apparatus has helped to govern countries, and in many parts of the world still has huge influence over government policy. It isn’t just the Catholics either – churches routinely try to sway their members towards voting for one political party over another, and play an active role in holding back (or in some cases pushing forward) progressive social reforms.
The crowning example has to be Destiny Church. This is an extreme right-wing religious organisation that moves in and out of the public eye, invites prominent politicians to its conferences and orders its membership to vote for the candidates the Church supports. In 2004 it called its supporters onto the streets in a show of force aimed at intimidating the queer community. It is difficult to see this as anything other than political in nature. Yet in spite of this, Destiny is a registered charity with branches throughout the country and receives government funding for its projects. It would appear that despite the claims of the Charities Commission and the High Court, it isn’t being “too political” that will cause an organisation like Greenpeace to lose its charitable status. It is involvement in the wrong kind of politics, with the wrong methods and the wrong targets.