Finding like-minded people

19 Aug 2016 - 13:54 | Version 1 |

What makes some people decide to take action on environmental issues? There are different reasons people get together, including the desire to 'make a difference' or to achieve a very specific objective. In Canberra, the high level of education is a factor in people taking action in environment matters, because they are often knowledgeable about the issue and why it is important to act. Individuals and groups taking action on climate change have reached an all-time high, with organisations using coordinated campaigns and mass public action to raise awareness and encourage Australians to take positive action to address climate change. For example, 350.org Australia campaigns around divestment from fossil fuels, and protestors, including students from the ANU Environment Collective and members of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, recently rallied outside bank branches to discourage the Commonwealth bank from financing fossil fuel projects. This demonstrates the ongoing and crossgenerational concern for the environment and the effects of climate change that is prominent in the ACT. Such organisations aim to create accountability for the actions of governments on both a local and international scale to ensure there is a collaborative effort when working for a solution to climate change.

To start, think about whether another group is working on your issue. There may be many groups working on different aspects and angles of the same issue. The main thing is to establish relationships with the other groups and communicate. For example, if you want to monitor water quality in your catchment, you would be better working within a catchment group or if you have an interest in the way development deals are done in the ACT, contact your local planning associations, active resident groups and also your local politician. When taking action, ensure that you ask around and find out what groups might already be out there.

The Conservation Council ACT is the 'umbrella' conservation organisation in the region. It and many of its 48 member groups, encompassing over 15,000 members, can be found on its website (see Contacts list at the back of this book).

The work of the Conservation Council includes directly lobbying government and agencies on environmental issues in the ACT and region. They also provide education and literature on environmental issues and have established working groups which are open to the community to become involved. The working groups focus around each of the Conservation Council campaigns; for example, at the time of writing the council had been very active around cat containment in Canberra.

You can also get involved with community groups through 2XX 98.3 FM community radio. It has a variety of shows which specialise in local, regional and global environmental issues.

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Incorporation

If there is no-one working on your issue then starting your own group is an option. If you decide to take this course then whether or not to incorporate will become an issue. Incorporation gives a group its own formal separate legal identity; you are no longer a group of individuals. There are some distinct advantages to incorporation, including:
  • creating a separate legal entity which can open bank accounts, enter into contracts, take out insurance, hold assets, etc. in its own right
  • providing a certain amount of limited liability of individual members for actions of the incorporated association
  • limiting the financial liability of the group's members in respect of the debts of the group
  • establishing clear aims and objectives which are included in the group's constitution/ articles of association
  • meeting the requirements of some funding bodies that only provide funds to an incorporated entity
  • incorporated bodies may also hold an advantage when arguing standing if the organisation wants to have a decision reviewed by ACAT. For example, when appealing a development approval an applicant must illustrate 'material detriment' which, for an organisation, is satisfied if an entity has objects or purposes and the decision relates to a matter included in the entity's objects or purposes (Planning and Development Act 2007 (ACT) s 419(1); see also ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal Act 2008 (ACT) s 22Q).
Offsetting these advantages are factors, such as:
  • the costs, both financial and administrative, of creating and maintaining the incorporated entity
  • the risks associated with being a director or office bearer of an incorporated entity, risks that are similar to those of being a director of a company.
As well as legal considerations, group activities and experience may suit a less formal way of organising, for example, an affinity group model or empowerment model.

In the ACT, environmental groups can become an incorporated association under the Associations Incorporation Act 1991 (ACT) ('Associations Act'). Another, but less common alternative, is to establish a company under the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth). The former is a simpler process, resulting in an entity that is less costly to create and maintain, has less ongoing regulatory requirements, and for which the penalties for breaching any regulatory requirement are not as severe. Regardless of the structure, however, it would be prudent to obtain independent legal advice before proceeding.

To become an incorporated association under the Associations Act, you will need:
  • at least five members (s 14(1)(a))
  • a lawful object for the association (s 14(1)(b))
  • a constitution/articles of association to set out the group's aims and objectives and rules on how it will function, voting, quorums, timing of the AGM, etc. (Pt 3)
  • a public officer to be the legal face of the group and to lodge documents at the Registrar-General's office (s 57)
  • an auditor to check the financial affairs of the group (Pt 5)
  • a committee made up of at least three members to organise the activities and manage the finances of the group (s 60).
The Associations Act and the Associations Incorporation Regulation 1991 (ACT) ('Associations Regulation') set out more detailed requirements on all these points. You can purchase a copy of the Act and Regulation, or download a copy from the ACT legislation register (see Contacts list at the back of this book). The Associations Regulation contains a model set of rules that can be adopted as a constitution or articles of association. Alternatively, if you decide to change the constitution to suit the group's needs, or totally replace it with your own, a checklist of the core rules that must be included in your constitution is also available.

If the incorporated entity is to hold a bank account you must apply for a tax file number. If it is a not-for-profit entity, an application should be made for income tax exemption. Without either of these your bank will be required to withhold income tax out of any payment of interest. Application forms are available from the Australian Tax Office. The ACT Registrar-General manages incorporated associations and more information can be found on the website (see Contacts list at the back of this book).

See the Environmental Defender's Office (ACT) factsheet on incorporating an environmental group.

Tax deductibility

Being an incorporated entity is one of the business structures acceptable for tax deductibility under the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997 ('ITAA Act'). The Commonwealth Department of Environment administers the Register of Environmental Organisations. Any money paid into the public fund of a registered organisation can be claimed by the person giving the money as a tax deduction.

For a group to be eligible for the register there are a number of criteria that must be satisfied and included in the group's constitution. Under section 30.265 of the ITAA Act, in order to be eligible, the group must have been established for the principal purpose of either:
  • protection and enhancement of the natural environment or of a significant aspect of the natural environment; or
  • provision of information or education, or the carrying on of research, about the environment or a significant aspect of the environment.
Further requirements under sections 30.270 and 30.275 include:
  • be not-for-profit
  • establish and maintain a public fund in Australia for gifts of money or property for its environmental purposes that is only used to support the body's environmental purposes (Taxation Ruling 95/27)
  • if the group is a body corporate or co-operative society it must have at least 50 individual voting financial members, or an exemption from the Environment Minister.
For information on eligibility for the register and application guidelines see the department's website (see Contacts list at the back of this book).

Define objectives

If you decide to incorporate, your constitution must include the group's objectives. Even if you do not incorporate, take time to define your objectives at this will provide a focus for people in the group to work around and can potentially avoid conflict between members at a later stage.

Get it sorted out at the beginning and have processes for introducing new people to the group's objectives. It is important to set the ground rules, which should also include dispute resolution mechanisms. When you are taking on an issue that will require dedication over some period of time, ground rules are essential to assist with unity. If conflicts arise, objective dispute resolution guidelines can be followed and will not detract from the group's focus, which should always be the aims and objectives of the campaign.

It is important that objectives are described with sufficient specificity. Some organisations have faced take-over bids because they have defined their objects too broadly, for example, 'the protection of the environment'. Framing your objects more specifically allows for more control over the organisation. For instance, 'protecting the environment by working for the creation of national parks'. Those who do not agree with the objectives can be prevented from joining or asked to leave.

In circumstances where it may be necessary to pursue legal rights of redress, a group's aims and objectives as set out in a constitution will be a relevant factor (see below for information on taking court action).

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