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Institute of Public Affairs/IPA targets non-government organisations

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In April 2001 the IPA launched a specialist newsletter, NGO Watch, to investigate human rights, development and environmental organisations. However the October 2002 edition was its last. "It just wasn't financially sustaining, there weren't enough buying the product," IPA Senior Fellow Gary Johns told Inter-Press Service in April 2004.

Johns, who was a Labor Party member of Parliament between 1987 and 1996 and Minister and headed the IPA's Non-Government Organisation Project. This project echoed the rhetoric of the 'defund the left' campaign in the US in insisting that non-government organisations that gain tax benefits or funding from government need to be subjected to more scrutiny.

As a 2001 Fulbright scholar to the U.S., Johns teamed up with the American Enterprise Institute to reseach NGOs. While the IPA has a stated policy of not accepting government funding, in late 2002 it proposed the conservative Australian government fund a consultancy to advance its proposals that a protocol be developed between government and NGO's. Part of the project is the development of a "framework for assessing the role and standing of NGOs" in relation to eight government departments and Ministers.

The IPA complains that advocacy NGOs are displacing unorganised citizens. The solution, it proposes, is that NGOs would have to pass a series of threshold disclosure tests before gaining high level access to government officials, funding or inclusion on committees. Information to be disclosed to government would include "their source of funds, their expertise, their membership and the means of electing their office holders".

In a letter to departmental officials in early July 2003, the secretary of the Department of Family and Community Services, Mark Sullivan, revealed that part of the $A50,000 consultancy project would involved compiling an inventory of the interaction between NGOs and eight government departments including those responsible for health, environment and Aboriginal affairs.

The Department of Family and Community Services claim that the IPA contract was let on the grounds that the expertise was not available within the department and that the project required "independent or impartial research/assessment by an independent organisation". [1]

Johns report was submitted to the Department of Family and Community Services in April 2004 and is scheduled to be discussed by the Prime Ministers Community Business Partnership in mid-June 2004.

The IPA have also developed a good working relationship with the American Enterprise Institute. In June 2003, Nahan and Johns travelled to Washington to co-host a major seminar with AEI on challenging the role of non-government organisations. It was at this seminar that AEI launched their NGOwatch.org online database.

While using the language of increasing 'transparency' and 'accountability', critics of the project see it as little more than an attempt to restrict the role of NGO's in shaping public policies that affect the IPA's corporate sponsors.

In its January 2001 submission to an Australian government inquiry into the definition of charities, the IPA's Director of Economic Policy, Jim Hoggett, wrote "we would prefer the definition to be limited to organisations that provide direct relief for poverty, sickness or like distress---in other words, the traditionally accepted meaning of charity". [2]

The adoption of such a definition, he stated, would have the effect that environmental, cultural and other organisations would cease to be defined as charities. He also proposed that charities be required to provide greater detail on what they spent their funds on which he said "would exclude a number of what are, in reality, political action groups falling under environmental and ethical and other headings".

In July 2003, the Australian government proposed a Charities Bill that included a "disqualifying purpose" preventing a charity from gaining tax concessions would include any of "advocating a political party or cause", "supporting a candidate for political office" or "attempting to change the law or government policy". A charity would be excluded if advocacy were deemed to be either the sole purpose or "more than ancillary or incidental to the other purposes of the entity concerned".

The draft legislation also sought to disqualify groups involved in civil disobedience or advocating a political party or a political cause or attempting to change the law or government policy. The IPA Executive Director, Mike Nahan, was enthusiastic about the proposed changes, acknowledging that the disqualifying purposes "will threaten the charity status of several organisations".

"For example Greenpeace, which regularly engages in trespass and other breaches of the law, would have its charity status threatened by a requirement to not break the law. The Wilderness Society and many other environmental groups regularly run marginal -seat campaigns during elections and their charity status would be threatened by a rule against such action," he wrote. [3]

Following a storm of protest, the Australian government dropped the proposal in early 2004, but in 2005 the Australian Tax Office passed a ruling that contained some of the most contentious elements of the proposal. [4]

The IPA's advocacy that non-profits groups should be reigned in has won fans in the PR industry too. Ross S. Irvine approvingly cites Johns views in his writings. In May 2002 Irvine was a keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand. In his presentation Irvine identified "charitable organization legislation" as one of the key focal points to consider in New Zealand.