Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Family First finds unlikely ally in charitable status fight

Family First director Bob McCoskrie said the organisation was being penalised for its leading role in the campaign against legalising gay marriage. Photo / NZPA
Family First director Bob McCoskrie said the organisation was being penalised for its leading role in the campaign against legalising gay marriage. Photo / NZPA

The Green Party is calling for a public debate about how charities are defined after a decision to remove Family First's charitable status.

The Charities Registration Board has ruled that Family First's main purpose is political, rather than charitable, and that it will lose its charitable status unless it appeals to the High Court by May 27.

Family First director Bob McCoskrie said the organisation was being penalised for its leading role in the campaign against legalising gay marriage, which was passed by Parliament on April 17.

"This is a highly politicised decision which is grim evidence that groups that think differently to the prevailing politically correct view will be targeted in an attempt to shut them up," he said.

Ironically, the Greens, whose MPs voted unanimously in support of gay marriage, were the only party to speak up for Family First yesterday. Green MP Denise Roche, who has prepared a bill defining advocacy as "charitable" if it is in pursuit of a charitable purpose, said the current law should be reviewed.

"Advocacy in charities is where we also keep our democracy. Not-for-profits and charitable organisations have a real role in advocating for a better society, and if they are unable to do that then we lose a voice."

Ms Roche, a former board member of Greenpeace NZ, prepared the bill when the former Charities Commission ruled in 2010 that Greenpeace was not a charity because of its political advocacy. That case is going to the Supreme Court in July.

Ms Roche said she did not know enough about Family First to know whether it was purely a lobby group or had genuine charitable purposes.

"There is a difference between advocacy and lobbying. A lobby group is one where that is basically their purpose and nothing else. But we need to have that discussion."

Family First's first purpose stated in its charitable trust deed is "to promote and advance research and policy supporting marriage and the family as foundational to a strong and enduring society".

In 2008 and again in 2010, the Charities Commission investigated whether the organisation was genuinely charitable and decided then that it was.

But the new Charities Registration Board, which replaced the commission last year, ruled on April 15 that Family First's main purpose was "to promote points of view about family life, the promotion of which is a political purpose because the points of view do not have a public benefit that is self-evident as a matter of law".

Wellington charity law specialist Sue Barker said the board was making decisions based on a "fine legal distinction". Her client, the National Council of Women, was initially deregistered for similar reasons but had its status restored last month.

Other groups which advocate in the political arena and retain their charitable status include Amnesty, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Society for Promotion of Community Standards.

Others, such as the Council for Civil Liberties and the Sensible Sentencing Trust, have been deemed to be political .

"Charities have a Sword of Damocles hanging over them," she said. "If they speak up, they might lose their charitable status."

Charitable or not?

Deemed to be charitable
Amnesty International
Child Poverty Action Group
National Council of Women
Society for Promotion of Community Standards

Deemed to be political
Family First
NZ Council for Civil Liberties
Save Our Arts Centre Society (Christchurch)
Sensible Sentencing Trust

- NZ Herald

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