This month on the 19th of September we mark the day in 1893 when women were finally given the vote in New Zealand. This came only after an enormous struggle by some very brave women. The importance of that struggle was captured in the words of The White Ribbon editor, Nelly Perryman, 25 years later;

“We, the mothers of the present, need to impress upon our children’s minds how women of the past wrestled and fought, suffered and wept, prayed and believed, agonised and won for them the freedom they enjoy today.”

Those women fought for a principle and won something fundamental that many now seem to take for granted.

This month another principle is at stake. We’re in the Court of Appeal challenging the decision to decline Greenpeace charitable status under the ‘new’ Charities law passed in 2005. Central to this is free speech, or a so-called ‘political exception’ which stops charities from engaging in what the government may think is political advocacy, or challenging the status quo.

Whether we are successful or not in gaining charitable status, Greenpeace will continue to work in the same manner as we always have. Backed by nearly 60,000 kiwis, we will remain strictly non-party political, staunchly independent and we will continue fighting non-violently for good environmental outcomes and peace with every means at our disposal.

So what’s the big deal then?

The problem, as we see it, is that the definition of charity being used is too rigid and it’s outdated, dating back to 17th Century English law. We’re questioning whether that’s really good enough for charitable groups working in this day and age.

In the eyes of the law Greenpeace’s environmental purposes are judged to be charitable as they benefit the community, as does our promotion of peace, but promoting disarmament is not. It is deemed to be too political.

Watch what you say!

Under the new charity law you can do some political ‘advocacy’ work in the form of promoting or challenging environmental policies or laws.  However, too much advocacy, will be risky, particularly if it is critical of the status quo. But how much is too much is not clear. This creates a dilemma for some charities because if they overstep this indistinct line, they risk losing government funding linked to their charitable status.

Greenpeace does not seek or accept money from the Government (or business) so nothing will change for us in that respect, but the potential effect on debate for those that do, is a real and chilling possibility.

We want to see New Zealand more in line with Australia which allows charities freedom of expression in political debate as long as it is consistent with their charitable purposes. We reckon that the Aussies are right; engaging in political debate is an essential part of advocacy work, it’s very much in the public interest and an essential part of a modern democracy.

Ambulances at the bottom of the hill

As it stands right now in New Zealand, to be absolutely safe and to keep your charitable status, you can tell people about what is happening to the environment, you can help clean up the mess that is made, or try to fix what has been broken. But you will be taking a big risk if you try to prevent a wrong from occurring in the first place.

Under this interpretation a charity is relegated to being the ambulance at the bottom of the hill. If you go to the top of the hill and try to prevent the accident from happening, you may risk losing your charitable status.

Not over yet

We see confining charity to a rigid 17th century definition and applying a political exception that is likely to reduce political participation in important social  issues would be a backwards step, a missed opportunity and one that I am sure our suffragettes would see as most uncharitable. New Zealand and our Parliament are robust enough to withstand a bit of real debate. We hope the Court of Appeal agrees.

NOTE: GREENPEACE has not lost its donee status which allows our supporters to make tax deductable donations. The IRD determines if organisations meet the test for donee status while the Department of Internal Affairs determines which organisations meet the criteria for charitable status.