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George Christensen apologises but environment groups fear tax ‘witch-hunt’ could cost them millions

The Great Barrier Reef, which Environment Victoria chief Mark Wakeham says would have been destroyed many years ago if not for the lobbying of green groups. Photo: Darren Jew
Nanjing Night Net

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Maverick MP George Christensen has apologised, in part, for threatening environment groups that they will lose charity status, a move that could cost them hundreds of millions in tax-deductible income.

The Queensland MP is a member of a government-initiated parliamentary inquiry that is considering whether environment groups should lose their tax deductible status.

Environment groups claimed the outspoken MP’s taunts were proof the government was running a “witch-hunt” designed to silence opposition to contentious environmental decisions like the coal terminal at Abbot Point.

The committee is dominated by Coalition MPs, but committee chairman Alex Hawke insisted the public could have confidence in the committee’s processes. He said he had spoken to Mr Christensen who apologised for his comments.

“I raised the specific issue of commenting about any potential findings of the committee before any such discussions have occurred,” Mr Hawke said. “Mr Christensen acknowledged an error in commenting on findings and has apologised, again indicating he was expressing personal views. Members of the committee on both sides are free to advocate for and against issues and have done so, in many ways during the course of the inquiry so far.”

But in a telephone call yesterday, Mr Christensen remained unapologetic about expressing his “personal view” based on a day’s evidence at the inquiry.

While the inquiry is yet to hand down its findings,  the maverick MP took to Twitter after public hearings in Brisbane on Tuesday to taunt the Australian Marine Conservation Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Fight For The Reef campaign with: “Time to get the donations in. I can’t see it continuing longer once we report.”

Last Wednesday, after the ABC reported on environment groups’ concerns he was pre-empting the findings of the inquiry, Mr Christensen tweeted a link to the ABC story, adding: “Extreme political green groups chuck a tantrum because evidence points to them losing their tax deductibility status.”

Mr Hawke told The Sunday Age that Mr Christensen was just expressing his personal  view and “not those of the committee as a whole”.

“No findings have been made or even discussed at this stage,” he said. “Evidence is being heard from all interested parties and we continue to follow the evidence and what it is telling us.”

Labor, however, has described the Coalition inquiry as a “show trial”, and shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh argues the government set up the inquiry to silence critics.

Yesterday Mr Christensen said he has offered to apologise at the hearing on Tuesday for his personal remarks being “misconstrued” as being representative of the committee.

When asked if perhaps he should refrain from commenting on evidence until the inquiry is completed, he remained defiant. “I’m yet to be convinced there’s nothing wrong. My mind isn’t hard and fast on that,” he said, adding. “I’m not going to apologise for having a view.”

Government MPs have claimed environment groups are using taxpayer funds to campaign against jobs and development.

About 600 groups are listed on the Register of Environmental Organisations, which grants tax concessions the groups say keep them afloat.

Friends of the Earth campaigns co-ordinator Cam Walker said more than 90 per cent of his group’s income came from tax-deductible donations.

Mr Christensen has accused green groups of engaging in “illegal behaviour”, but Environment Department general counsel Simon Writer told the inquiry that none had been deregistered as a result of a complaint about their activities.

Environment Victoria chief executive Mark Wakeham said if it weren’t for environment groups, Australia would not have the Kakadu and Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Parks and the Great Barrier Reef.

“It’s an ideological effort to silence environment groups,” he said. “The Coalition has done nothing but attack the environment sector since it got elected. I feel like they’ve overreached.”

In 2010, the High Court ruled that charities have the right to advocate against government policy, and seek to change it, and retain their charitable status.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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