Liberals demand investigation into Smart Energy Council over political advocacy

Liberal senator Andrew Bragg has asked the charities regulator to urgently investigate whether the Simon Holmes a Court-linked Smart Energy Council should be deregistered for what he called “clear, direct and repeated” breaches of laws forbidding charities promoting political parties or candidates.

As part of the complaint, Bragg said the SEC had “concerning links to political operatives who are active during the current federal election”, noting Climate 200 founder Holmes a Court sits on its board. He also noted the council’s government relations manager Wayne Smith once worked for Labor leader Anthony Albanese [as a climate change adviser before 2007].

Wayne Smith with Greens leader Adam Bandt and Ryan candidate Elizabeth Watson-Brown.Credit:Email

Bragg cited the appearance of the council’s chief executive, John Grimes, at a function alongside independent candidate for Wentworth Allegra Spender on Tuesday, and Smith’s presence at a Greens event in the Brisbane seat of Ryan last month.

Following the Greens’ policy announcement – grants for home and business owners to switch from electricity to gas – Grimes emailed supporters saying the SEC was pleased to have joined Greens’ leader Adam Bandt for the launch and backed the measures.

The email praised other Greens initiatives and linked to one of the party’s policy documents. In a tweet the SEC also said it was “fantastic” to be with Bandt and his candidate at the launch.

Tuesday’s event featured Spender and Grimes unveiling a solar panel system they facilitated at the Holdsworth Community Centre in Woollahra. Media were invited to attend.

“These social media posts and campaign events are clearly intended to promote Climate 200 and the Australian Greens’ candidates in the upcoming federal election,” Bragg wrote in a letter, seen by the Herald and The Age, to Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commissioner (ACNC) Gary Johns.

“During an election campaign, such activities go beyond advocacy for particular policy measures and appear to be focused on promoting a political party, its political agenda and its candidates – a prohibited purpose under the Charities Act 2013”.

Bragg noted Grimes had appeared at other events with Climate 200-backed candidates, including a joint press conference with Warringah MP Zali Steggall and North Sydney candidate Kylea Tink in April, “directly lending the SEC’s support to their political campaigns”. The complaint does not make any allegation that any individual has breached the law, rather, only that the SEC has.

Bragg also referred to a previous warning the SEC received from the regulator over bin stickers it produced featuring images of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, along with the words “chuck them out” and “bin him”.

Liberal senator Andrew Bragg and Smart Energy Council boss John Grimes.Credit:James Brickwood, Alex Ellinghausen

This was evidence the SEC was advocating the election of the Greens and undertaking “prohibited activities against the current government”, Bragg wrote.

In his capacity as SEC spokesman, Wayne Smith told the Herald and The Age: “I would expect Australians would be outraged to think there are such things as prohibited activities against the current government.”

He said the council supported any political party that supports smart energy policies and strong action on climate change, and had previously worked with Clive Palmer, Angus Taylor, Matt Kean, Gladys Berejiklian and others, and provided photographs to that effect.

“I would have thought that Senator Bragg would have bigger issues to be concerned about; soaring power bills, rising interest rates, massive inflation and the incredible cost of living pressures for all Australians,” Smith said.

The ACNC said the law prevented it commenting on whether a charity was under investigation.

Last week, after the boss of Guide Dogs Victoria appeared on flyers supporting Josh Frydenberg, Johns told 3AW radio charities were free to compare the policy positions of political parties but if their “purpose” was to support or oppose a political candidate, they could be in trouble.

“The subtlety of that is the word ‘purpose’,” Johns said. “I always send out this signal: don’t dip into the actual endorsement or criticism of a candidate, otherwise it might disqualify you.

“If [a charity] sticks to a policy discussion and simply points out the facts, then that’s completely OK. They’re on safe ground there.”

Bragg, who has campaign responsibilities for Wentworth and Warringah electorates among other NSW seats, said he wanted the Smart Energy Council’s registration as a charity examined very closely.

“They’ve got to be very careful because charities are charities, they’re not political parties,” he said. “If we’re going to give an organisation charity status, it can’t become a political organisation.”

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