The bumpy road to think tank transparency in Australia
Article (1,655 words) posted on 11 Aug 2018 by Rosie Williams
During the week I received a response to my enquiry to the ATO requesting a list of Approved Research Institutes (some of which are think tanks like the IPA) however, as you will see from the response at the foot of this post, the problem of think tank transparency in Australia has a lot of hurdles to overcome before we will be in a position to understand who is funding them.
Australian tax law prevents the disclosure of organisations with Deductible Gift Recipient status which would presumably affect transparency regarding Approved Research Institutes that have DGR status. I'm not sure why I was not provided with a list of ARI's that do not have DGR unless every ARI in Australia also has DGR, thus preventing disclosure. Given the secrecy provisions, who knows? See the thread below for a discussion of the issues surrounding think tank transparency.
International debate leans toward expecting greater transparency from think tanks. Transparify recently released its annual report, rating think tank transparency around the globe, announcing that overall, funding transparency is improving.
A couple of Australian think tanks made the 4 star rating but the IPA does not rate a mention presumably because Transparify's report names the organisations high on transparency as opposed to those who receive less than 3 stars.
Interestingly, the charity regulator (which does not decide who gets DGR- that is carried out by the ATO) has argued in the past for secrecy provisions to be removed for better public education and policy analysis. Now that the IPA-linked Garry Johns is running the ACNC it will be interesting to see what the ACNC's first 5 year report which is due this month has to say on these matters.
Correspondence from the ATO in response to my recent request for a list of ARI's.
Thank you for your email. Please find below our response - apologies for the delay in getting back to you. You're welcome to attribute the below to an ATO spokesperson. We have also included further details on relevant parts of the law as they relate to Approved Research Institutions.
Please let me know if we can help any further.
Unfortunately we are unable to provide a list of organisations that are endorsed as Deductible Gift Recipients (DGRs) by the ATO under the Approved Research Institution (ARI) category.
The reason for this is that unless a specific exception applies, taxation officers are prohibited from disclosing information about the affairs of organisations that is not publicly available (see Division 355 of Schedule 1 of the Tax Administration Act 1953).
The DGR category that an organisation is endorsed under is not publicly available information.
Please note, an ARI may be a charity, an entity that is not a charity, or an institution, association or organisation that is part of an entity. In order to be eligible for endorsement by the ATO as a DGR it must be approved as an ARI by one of three possible approving authorities - namely, CSIRO, the National Health and Medical Research Council or the Department of Education and Training's Research and Higher Education Infrastructure Branch.
Further detail on the Australian Business Register and the ARI category:
Whilst the Australian Business Registrar must enter in the Australian Business Register certain information about DGRs that have an ABN (see s30-229 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997(ITAA 97)), that does not include information as to whether the organisation has been endorsed by the ATO as a DGR in the ARI category (item 3.1.1, s30-40 ITAA 1997).
Update: Overnight I realised that despite the ATO claiming the category under which an organisation receives DGR is subject to secrecy (and although I have no idea what could justify this), the Department of Industry and Innovation exports the list of organisations which receive DGR status and this dataset includes several organisations listed on Wikipedia as think tanks. I have combined the Department of Industry DGR list with ACNC charities data in AusGov so am able to provide the financial information lodged with the ACNC of Australian think tanks which have DGR status although it should be noted that organisations including the IPA have additional corporations receiving funds separately and in addition to their charitable trust. I do not have access to information on the ASIC registry but IndependentAustralia recently looked into the IPA's finances here.
Australian think tanks:
The Menzies institute appears to have DGR status according to ABR but this information does not appear to be part of the open dataset.