Court finds environmental advocacy a public good

19 August 2020

Greenpeace of New Zealand has finally won its battle for charitable status as confirmed in the High Court judgment issued on 10 August.

Greenpeace first applied to the Charities Board (then the Commission) for registration as a charity in 2008 and was rejected, because two of Greenpeace's objects were not considered charitable – its rules of promoting peace and nuclear disarmament, and its reliance on political or judicial processes to support its objectives.

Greenpeace went to the Court of Appeal and, having failed there, to the Supreme Court.

In 2014, the Supreme Court found by majority that a political purpose did not necessarily disqualify an organisation from charitable status and that the test to be applied was whether the purpose was “of public benefit”. And the Supreme Court suggested that there are some purposes for which advocacy is so important that they will be charitable as of right, including protection of the environment. Why? Because protecting the environment requires effort at multiple levels, with multiple voices, but the nature of the advocacy was important.

It sent the matter back to the Charities Board for reconsideration – and Greenpeace’s application was again declined. The Board thought that the nature of Greenpeace’s advocacy for protection of the environment was not charitable because Greenpeace pushed its own views which, in many cases, had competing interests. These included promoting mitigation of climate change through limiting fossil fuel use, sustainable fishing by opposing destructive fishing practices and improving the quality of New Zealand’s fresh water by opposing intensive dairy expansion.

Evolution: the High Court decision

The High Court disagreed with the Charities Board’s interpretation of the nature of advocacy meaning it needed to be free of opposition. It said that almost every action to protect the environment will clash in some way with commercial or private interests. The public benefit comes from raising awareness of the issues at stake. The High Court found that advocating particular, even potentially contentious, viewpoints in support of environmental preservation contributes to public debate and is of benefit to the New Zealand public.

Our comment

So why is this interesting? Because it recognises that campaigning on all views to mitigate climate change, promote sustainable fishing and preserve fresh waterways is beneficial to public awareness and debate. Everyone’s voice is important. At a state level we have ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement and enacted the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019. School children marching for climate change play a role. Climate change is a global problem requiring a collective response. Greenpeace’s advocacy is a key part of the debates about to what extent fossil fuel use should be limited, about overfishing and about land utilisation.

You may be aware that the law of charities is under review. We submitted on the value of advocacy undertaken by charitable organisations in a democratic society and stated that the Charities Act should expressly state that non-partisan advocacy is an acceptable activity for charities to undertake. This decision goes further. Campaigning for environmental protection can be charitable in its own right.

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