Green groups struggle to turn anger to action

Nobody expected the Abbott years to be easy for the environment movement. But the public anger at the Coalition’s first budget has been a gift that green advocates have so far squandered.

Life was never going to be easy for the environment movement under the Abbott Government. As expected, hard-won environmental gains from the Howard, Rudd and Gillard years were the first to go to the wall once the new ministry was sworn in.

Protections for Australia’s marine parks were diminished, legislation was introduced to abolishrestraints on progress-hungry state governments, and funding for environmental advocates was withdrawn.

Attempts were also made to access World Heritage-listed forests in Tasmania, and approval was given to senselessly cull sharks off the shore of Western Australia.

Perhaps most importantly the entire climate action architecture, created by the minority Gillard government in negotiation with the independents and Greens, was slated for demolition.

Given they faced a minimum of three years’ Government obstructionism, abetted by a socially conservative Senate crossbench, it’s surprising the environment movement didn’t simply decamp to the nearest beach to await the next federal election.

Maybe that’s what many were contemplating. That is, until the first Abbott budget ignited a spark of unrest in the Australian community that breathed new life into the protest movement.

Suddenly the value of environmental (and other) protest was re-established, and what had only recently seemed as pointless and painful as hitting one’s head against a brick wall suddenly became a vital part of the democratic process again.

Even so, it appears green advocates are unsure how to meaningfully leverage voters’ new appetite for dissent. This is particularly the case when it comes to addressing climate change.

Climate action undoubtedly remains a tough sell. The Australian public has been desensitised by almost five years of Abbott homilies on the evils of the “toxic” carbon tax, conservative media attacks on climate science, and progressive parties’ relegation of the issue to a matter of faith by jostling over the moral high ground.

To counter this, several attempts have been made over recent years to create a bandwagon effect – with the 2011 Say Yes rallies being the most prominent – to create a groundswell of support by suggesting there already is one.

However such rallies can be labour-intensive, unpredictable and to a large extent ignored by the media as an indicator of broader support. So climate action advocates have taken instead to commissioning opinion polls to suggest there’s growing public support for their cause and an inevitable consensus approaching.

This tactic can prove tricky, however, if the numbers are not moving strongly in one’s favour.

A time-honoured way of showing weak polling results in the best possible light is to selectively quote the numbers in a text-heavy report instead of publishing the full tables of data. Such cherry-picking depends on journalists being too busy to read more than the executive summary and discourages independent analysis of the outcome.

This approach was used last week by the lobby group, The Climate Institute, with its Climate of the Nation 2014 report.

In fact TCI’s tactics would have done a shonky corporate lobbyist proud. Their selective interpretation of the poll results was released at a media event replete with puppet dinosaurs and the Liberal anti-hero John Hewson, guaranteeing a great picture and headline but limited scrutiny of the numbers.

The “full” report was not launched until 24 hours later. Even then the results were only partially provided and obscured within 25 pages of mostly text. This allowed TCI to avoid any detailed examination of whether the questions were leading, what the real trends were, and what the percentages really meant. The report could well have been an embarrassing own goal if TCI’s pre-cooked summary turned out to be less than representative of the actual results.

Thankfully for TCI, they were saved by the Gore-Palmer spectacle, which could yet descend into a debacle for the environmentalists who brokered the deal.

It must have seemed a good idea at the time to offer Palmer some reflected Gorish glory and a blind eye on the scrapping of the carbon price in return for the retention of most of Gillard’s other climate action mechanisms.

But the Faustian deal with Palmer means the centerpiece of Australia’s emissions reduction effort, the carbon price, will be scrapped. And there is no chance Palmer’s zero-rated pseudo-ETS will take its place.

So Australia will have an increasing amount of renewables in the electricity supply mix but no price on carbon to drive down emissions from transport, agriculture or other forms of energy production.

Yes, something is better than nothing, and the retention of artefacts like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Climate Change Authority could be seen as a win.

But let’s not forget Palmer’s commitments are as certain as the shifting sands. He moved from being a climate sceptic to a believer overnight, and took a similar time to shift from wanting the renewable energy target to be voluntary to insisting that it be untouched for two years.

Now the Member for Fairfax is reportedly moving away from the environmental rhetoric he used when standing alongside Gore, to argue that Australia needs to avoid as-yet non-existent climate tariffs imposed by our trading partners. PUP Senator-elect Jacqui Lambie has also jumped onto the economic bandwagon by insisting that businesses in Tasmania be exempted from the renewable energy target.

Meantime, The Climate Institute is running a campaign to stop the scrapping of the carbon price that was essentially sanctioned by their climate action compatriots.

It could all yet end in tears.

Nobody expected the Abbott years to be easy for the environment movement. But green advocates have been given a gift by the Coalition Government that they’ve squandered so far.

While the Government’s environmental vandalism has less immediacy for the community than other budget measures, the opportunity remains for it to be incorporated into the ongoing campaign about the unfairness of the budget.

Environmentalists should be tapping into this voter angst instead of spinning survey results and making devil’s pacts with unreliable politicians.

Think tanks: Independent does not mean objective

Somewhere along the way, in the debate of public policy issues, we seem to have forgotten that “independent” does not necessarily mean “objective”.

Think tanks in particular are the guiltiest in using this sleight of hand. In stressing that they are independent scholarly organisations, think tanks attempt to lay claim to a higher moral ground that comes from academic objectivity.

With a sage nod and the dispassionate tones of an academic, think tank representatives refer us to the word “independent” in their Wikipedia entries in a Jedi-like attempt to distract us from the partisan players who sit on their boards or fund their activities. They MAY be independent, in that they’re not formally affiliated with political interests, but most think tanks are NOT objective by any stretch of the imagination. Generally, this is because political interests created them in the first place.

This deception is by no means a new dimension to the battle for political influence. Nor is it the only illusion inflicted on the mostly unaware populace.

The flourishing of think tanks indicates the evolving nature of public trust; articulate and organised “third parties” almost magically blossom from whichever groups the community trusts most. And when that trust moves from one group to another, then new “independent” voices spring from that group too.

It’s a classic lobbying tactic, to which the name astroturfing no longer fits because of its broader scope. I call it the creation of friendipendents, that is, the active establishment by partisan interests of third parties which claim to be independent but actually push their creator’s agenda.

There have been several different manifestations of this tactic. When the community vested its trust in non-government organisations like environment groups, these proliferated. Business interests set up their own NGOs with pro-environment names to muddy the waters. As NGOs lost their gloss, and academics consistently outpolled them on trust, then lobbyists (of all political persuasions) swathed their agendas in academic garb by establishing “independent” think tanks.

And let’s not forget the classic astroturfing tactic which arises when the most trusted voice in a community is “one of us”, resulting in the fabrication of grass roots support to influence the debate.

Sometimes, because of the disparity of public opinion on a broad or complex issue, lobbyists use a combination of these approaches to influence the key demographics. The most evident example of this is the Say Yes campaign, which combined green NGOs with the “independent” think tank The Climate Institute, and faux grass roots organisations such as GetUp!.

The Climate Institute’s prominent involvement in the Say Yes campaign seemed to me to be the first time a self-described independent think tank had publicly displayed such political activism. It caused me to question whether this was appropriate. My judgement was no doubt coloured by The Climate Institute’s close association with one political party; TCI was established by The Australia Institute, which has Bob Brown’s current Chief of Staff on its Board and is headed by a former Greens’ staffer.

I was told that TCI’s activism was appropriate because the Say Yes cause was just and also consistent with the think tank’s area of expertise. I wondered nonetheless whether political observers would have been equally sanguine if the Institute of Public Affairs, which has some prominent Liberals on its Board, had participated to the same extent in the No Carbon Tax rallies.

That’s not to say the IPA doesn’t pursue it’s interests just as vigorously. By identifying, grooming and touting a bevy of articulate “independent” commentators, the IPA has assertively imposed its free market perspective into all major public policy debates including that on climate change.

This brings me back, then, to where I began. Independent does not mean objective, although think tanks (and their creators) depend upon us not making that distinction.

Think tanks have agendas and the justness of those agendas will differ in the eyes of each beholder. Think tanks have too long hidden behind the cloak of independence and should be subject to more scrutiny. They should be recognised as active players in political debate, and not the dispassionate observers that they pretend to be.

This piece also appeared at ABC’s The Drum