How love of nature became an ideology

Dismissing environmental advocacy as left-wing radicalism makes for some ugly politics. [Peter Boyer | 27 October 2015]

At primary school I remember doing something called “nature study”, where we collected insects, leaves and such like and discussed them in class.

“Lifting the Standards”: the Tasmanian EDO’s exceptional law reform analysis

“Lifting the Standards”: the Tasmanian EDO’s exceptional law reform analysis

We didn’t learn much except a love of nature, which I guess made us little greenies, though no-one back then would have thought we were politically tainted. Nature and politics were poles apart.

The days of innocence ended in the 1970s when science began to investigate the limits to growth and ran headlong into the juggernaut of economic progress. The battle ebbed and flowed through a couple of decades as one green cause after another caught people’s attention.

Those were skirmishes ahead of the real war. Today’s stark evidence that we must choose between the established economic order and a stable climate has brought nature into politics as never before.

Inevitably the law entered the fray, at first in dealing with forest, dam and mine protests but eventually prosecuting and defending all manner of environmental issues from the national and international stage down to local sewerage, stormwater and waste management.

The first Australian environmental defender’s office (EDO) was set up in NSW in 1986, and a federally-funded national EDO network (including a Tasmanian EDO) began in 1995. The set-ups happened under Labor governments, but their non-Labor successors continued the funding.

Bipartisan agreement that EDOs were good for government ended in December 2013 when attorney-general George Brandis abruptly terminated a four-year agreement and advised that all remaining federal funding would cease from July 2014. For the Tasmanian EDO, that was a body blow.

On the day of Brandis’s announcement the office’s annual budget crashed by $250,000, then six months later by a further $100,000, leaving less than $10,000 of recurrent funding in the coffers.

Despite its travails, in May the EDO released Lifting the Standards, with funding support from the Law Foundation. This invaluable guide to environmental law reform involved line-by-line analysis of all relevant legislation and extensive consultation with government officers.

This is the kind of work that makes such non-government groups so cost-effective, as the Productivity Commission acknowledged last year when it recommended that federal funding continue for environmental advocacy, law reform and public interest litigation.

But when his own government’s error caused a federal court to halt a massive Queensland coal project in August, Brandis immediately blamed what he called “lawfare” by environmental litigants not directly impacted by the mine, and declared his aim to stop such practices.

In the same month Tasmanian attorney-general Vanessa Goodwin rejected a Tasmanian EDO request for support. When Green MP Rosalie Woodruff accused her of rolling out a red carpet to developers, she responded by asking which successful applicants should lose funding to prioritise the EDO.

The Tasmanian EDO office heard about the failure of its finely-crafted 40-page funding submission not from the government but via the news media. The EDO has still had no formal response from the government to that critically important correspondence.

It’s true this was a request for new funding, and sometimes the Greens can seem unnecessarily shrill. But with closure hanging over the EDO, it surely deserved something better than that.

The future of EDOs remains in the balance. Malcolm Turnbull is more sympathetic than Tony Abbott to communities having a say in resource issues, and his rise to leadership may cause Brandis to drop threatened legislative action and soften his stance over funding.

And if Vanessa Goodwin can allow herself to view the Tasmanian EDO through a clear lens, not one that’s green-tinted, the Hodgman government may yet find the wherewithal to help keep it afloat, even without federal support. But I’m not holding my breath.

Throughout this whole chain of events both governments have engaged in ideological branding, such that public questioning of resource projects has been represented as radical-left-greenies trying to destroy the economy. I won’t wear that, and nor should any Australian.

Get ready for climate change” (Friday from 10am, Sustainability Learning Centre, 50 Olinda Grove, Mt Nelson) will look at how organisations and individuals can prepare for a different future climate. For more information, email rosborne@nrmsouth.org.au

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