Cuts to Environmental Defenders Office’s Represent the Latest Example of Environmental Barbarism

In this post, Adelaide Law School’s Dr Peter Burdon writes on the likely impact of Abbott Government’s latest moves against our environment in slashing funding to Environmental Defenders Offices. This piece first appeared on ABC Opinion.

Many of us take for granted the privilege of living in an industrialised and stable first world country. As we commute to work in the morning we could be forgiven for thinking that our fragile environment is under sensible guardianship and that our elected leaders are doing everything in their power to secure this land for future generations.

Yet alongside this complacency, many of us are worried…even frightened. We are living at a time when the best science in the world is telling us that human beings are on a collision course with ecological collapse. Moreover, the time frame for this collapse is getting shorter and shorter. While luminaries of the environmental movement like David Suzuki remind us to put faith in human reason, his argument is bellied daily by the descriptions of barbarism that occupy the headlines.

In the first 100 days of the Abbott government we have been confronted with threats to repeal the Commonwealth Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act; scenes of Australia’s climate negotiators blocking progress, wearing T-shirts and gorging on snacks during sessions of the Warsaw climate conference; the approval of the world’s biggest coal port in a world heritage area; enticements to BHP Billiton to reconsider their Olympic Dam expansion; and the introduction of reforms aimed at expanding police power to ‘move on’ protesters.

Yesterday our descent deepened after the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s department announced that it was cutting an estimated $10 million in funding to the country’s nine Environmental Defenders Offices (EDO). It is also planning to end a long-standing annual payment of between $90,000-$100,000 per office. This means that legal centres will receive no federal support from 1 July 2014.

In case the reader is unaware, the EDOs are non-profit, public interest environmental law offices. They are the community’s first (and in many cases only) point of call for advice and representation in matters that relate to environmental protection and planning law. Moreover, they are active in legal research, community education and law reform. The EDOs have earned a national and international reputation for professional legal work of the very highest order in quality and integrity.

Yesterday’s announcement represents another example of the Government’s willingness to ‘take the razor’ to public interest groups that give voice to community concerns. It also follows Campbell Newman’s announcement in 2012 to cut $97,000 in state funding to the Queensland EDO and Barry O’Farrell’s announcement in 2013 to cut (at least) $40,000 in funding to the NSW EDO. The cumulative impact of these cuts will differ around the country. But it does certain damage to the public’s ability to protect the places they love and risks the closure of smaller offices in areas such as Darwin, Cairns, Perth, Hobart and Adelaide.

Alongside these tangible impacts on public interest litigation, acts of barbarism can also give rise to despair. It can rob people of their agency and their sense that their actions are meaningful. Barbarism isolates us and makes us suspicious of our neighbours. It breeds competition and it provides multiple windows for the powerful to solidify their control.

And yet barbarism may also quicken the conscience. It clarifies the root of a problem and provides the conditions for the education of ‘unlikely activists’. Barbarism may also lead to the formation of alliances like those who joined to protest the state funding cuts to the NSW EDO. In making this latest announcement of cuts, the Federal Government has sorely misjudged the depth of respect and passion that people feel towards the EDO.

In just 100 days we have seen the Government ‘back-flip’ on a number of important announcements. It is imperative that we join together to ensure that this latest announcement gets added to the pile. Maybe after that we can get on with the task of providing a sustainable future for generations to come.

Dr. Peter D. Burdon is a Senior Lecturer at the Adelaide Law School.

Disclosure Statement: Peter Burdon served on the management committee of the Environmental Defenders Office (SA) from 2011 until October 2013.

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