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New poll shows Australians are greener than the Turnbull Government

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Farmers and the Greens joining forces these days to fight destruction of farms by Big Mining. (Image via https://www.greenleft.org.au)

The latest Essential Poll shows a wide gulf between the Turnbull Government and the public on the role of green groups and proposed changes for the EPBCA. Leon Moulden reports.

ONCE AGAIN, a new poll draws attention to the widening chasm between the Turnbull Government and the Australian public. Last week’s Essential Report poll on environmental groups uncovered a wide gulf between the Turnbull Government and the Australian public over the role of green groups.

As a consequence, the Turnbull Government’s renewed interest in implementing the previous Abbott Government’s policy of silencing green groups by amending the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act is in stark contrast to views held by the majority of Australians.

The Essential poll found high support amongst Australians for the role environmental groups play in society, when it asked:

“Currently, donations to charities, including environmental protection, social welfare and religious organisations, are tax deductible. Donations to political parties are also tax deductible.  Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?”

Australians then responded positively to all four statements on environmental groups posed to them in the poll. With more than two thirds of voters supporting each statement.

The first statement that participants were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with, was:

Environmental groups should be able to publicly criticise the government if it makes decisions that cause environmental destruction.”

Their response was considerably positive, with 74% of participants agreeing with the statement, while only 11% disagreed.

Then, when asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement:

“I should be able to make a tax deduction for donations I make to environmental groups such as WWF and ACF.”

Again a large majority of 70% agreed with the statement, while only 13% disagreed.

And when asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement:

“Environmental groups play an important role to play in holding the government to account for environmentally destructive decisions.”

A majority of 69% of participants agreed with the statement, while only 14% disagreed.

Finally, when asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement:

“Environmental groups should be able to take the government to court if the government makes a decision that does not comply with environmental law.”

More than two thirds or 67% of participants agreed with the statement, while only 16% disagreed.

Naomi Klein at the Great Barrier Reef: what have we left for our children? (Published by The Guardian, 7 November 2016)

By any measure, this is a damning rejection of the anti-green group rhetoric and bluster of the Turnbull Government. It shows that the majority of Australians value the role that environmental groups play in making our nation’s policies and that the majority of Australians value the right of environmental groups to not only publically criticise governments for bad policy decisions, but to also hold governments to account through the legal system.

But the striking aspect of this poll is the high cross-party support for tax deductibility of donations to environmental groups. Voters from all main parties were in favour of green groups keeping their tax-deductible status. Perhaps predictably, the Greens were the highest, with 82%; but Labor wasn’t that far behind, with 73%; and, surprisingl,y not far behind Labor were the Liberal-Nationals, with 69%.

This throws into doubt the Federal Government’s argument that they are protecting development and jobs from what the Attorney General George Brandis has labelled “radical green activists”, because if this were true, it is hard to believe that 69% of Liberal-National voters would want green groups to keep their tax-deductibility status. Because if environmental groups were really dangerous radicals pursuing what George Brandis called “vigilante litigation to stop important economic projects”, then very few Liberal-National voters would wish to see the tax deductible status of green groups continue. But this is not the case; many of these voters, according to this poll, clearly believe that environmental organisations have a role to play in the community.

This highlights the growing chasm between community attitudes and the Turnbull Government’s policies.

As the Australian Conservation Foundation’s CEO, Kelly O’Shanassy stated:

“This polling shows government attempts to avoid scrutiny are out of step with the views of the Australian community. The Federal Government may not like to be held to account for its failure to tackle Australia’s climate pollution and for making decisions that endanger the Great Barrier Reef, but government accountability is an essential part of living in a democracy. The success of Australia’s democracy relies on much more than the ability of adults to cast a free vote on election day. For our democracy to thrive, environment groups need to be free to scrutinise governments and hold them accountable to the laws they are elected to uphold.”

And while Labor and the Greens are opposed to any changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, surprisingly, the National Farmers' Federation – normally a Coalition ally – is also opposed to changing the act. This is because it could limit the right of farmers and farming groups to appeal government decisions.

This then poses several questions: Why has the Turnbull Government decided to pursue changes to restrict environmental groups in the courts when it is clear that these groups have the support of the majority of Australians? Are they attempting to drive a wedge between average working Australians and environmentalists by invoking the old myth that being green costs jobs? Or are they doing the bidding of their corporate masters in the extractive industries? Or perhaps both?

After all, silencing green groups provides an ideological win for the conservative wing of the Turnbull Government as it allows them to think they have slayed one of their most hated ideological enemies — environmentalists. And it’s a financial win for their corporate mates, as they will have fewer legal hurdles to clear in their pursuit of higher profits. But how would this be a win for the Australian environment or for the communities impacted by large development projects? It’s hard to see how it could be.

Unfortunately, it appears that ideological purity is driving the policy direction of the Turnbull Government, and not the desires, concerns and aspirations of the Australian public. This is a long way from the kind of government most Australians imagined they were about to have when Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister last year. It is not the moderate, considered, nuanced and forward-thinking government many believed we would have; instead, it is a government that revels in the pursuit and destruction of its ideological enemies at any cost — a cost that appears to include the government’s own reputation.

Leon Moulden is a freelance social researcher.

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