Fresh Greenpeace charity application 'cleanest' option, Charities board lawyer says
By Paul McBeth
Sept. 4 (BusinessDesk) - The "cleanest and clearest" way for Greenpeace of New Zealand to settle its disputed charitable status is for it to lodge a fresh application, the Court of Appeal heard today.
Counsel for the charities board, Peter Gunn, told Justices Rhys Harrison, Lynton Stevens and Douglas White there was nothing barring the environmental lobby group from making a new application to register as a charity, and that might be the simplest way to settle their dispute.
Greenpeace is challenging a High Court ruling last year upholding the decision of the now-defunct Charities Commission opposing its registration as a charity. The commission, which has since been replaced by a board in the Department of Internal Affairs, had deemed the environmental group was too political to be granted the tax-exempt status.
"The cleanest and clearest answer here is for Greenpeace to resubmit its application," Gunn told the court in Wellington. "That is the most effective way of going about it."
The bench said it would consider that option, and reserved its decision, leaving costs to fall where they lie.
Gunn said Greenpeace retained a donor tax status from the Inland Revenue Department, which meant donations could claim tax benefits, and the Greenpeace Educational Charitable Trust, a related entity which promotes conservation values, protects the natural environment and educates people, was also a registered charity.
"It's possible for organisations to structure their affairs so as to avoid these sorts of concerns," Gunn said.
Davey Salmon, counsel for Greenpeace, said the sticking point there is that the trust community believes that if it loses its charitable status, the IRD may revoke donor status.
Greenpeace argued the then-commission took too narrow a view in deciding what advocacy activities were outside the guidelines and that the reliance on references from the group's website wasn't representative of its actual work in educating the public.
Gunn said it was difficult to determine what Greenpeace's level of advocacy was as a proportion of its total spending, which was a sticking point in deciding whether it was overly political.
He said that the onus was on Greenpeace to provide the regulator with enough information to grant it charitable status, though the board couldn't decline an application without reasonable cause.
The bench's primary concern was whether there was evidence illegal activities had been "officially sanctioned" by Greenpeace, Justice Harrison said.
Salmon said there no evidence Greenpeace was engaged in illegal activities that would block it from registering as a charity. Even if some members were found to have trespassed in their non-violent action in support of Greenpeace's goals, it was a side-issue to the organisation's primary goals.
If there was evidence of illegal conduct by a charitable entity that didn't necessarily disqualify it from keeping the status, rather it should prompt the regulator to monitor whether it still met the criteria, he said.