How de-funding of environment departments divides concerned citizens and government
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;
Story

How de-funding of environment departments divides concerned citizens and government

Issues/Environment , Issues/Policy , Stories/470
Perth WA, Australia
3rd Dec 2018
How de-funding of environment departments divides concerned citizens and government
With a cut of 400 public sector staff last year, environmental organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to achieve their goals.

Currently, one of the most politically divisive topics in Australia is environmentalism and the question of climate change. Under the current Coalition government the lack of funding for environmental protection has led to grievances, most readily outlined in the large numbers of formal submissions advocacy groups have made to a number of committee inquiries.

There is also no shortage of mainstream coverage about funding cuts which have led to the axing of jobs in the environmental sector. Big names in Australian environmental work hit by staff cuts in the last few years have been CISRO and the Federal Department of the Environment and Energy, which shed more staff in May this year.

A broad analysis from July this year found over 400 public sector staff in research and development roles across all of government have been cut over the last year.

Between 2013 and 2017, total Australian Government spending across federal, state and territory budgets increased by $66.6bn or 10.5 percent across the board. At the same time, total public environment spending decreased by $630 million. Last December it was revealed government spending on the environment had been cut by almost one third since 2013, over the length of what was originally Tony Abbott's cabinet.

"When [spending] is cut, we lose information about threatened species, about water resources, about vegetation clearing."

—Australian Conservation Foundation Nature Policy Analyst James Thezise.

For many people outside of university or relevant industries, the not for profit (NFP) sector is how 'everyday people' in Australia participate in environmentalism. Before he became a founding senator for The Greens, Bob Brown organised protests in Tasmania to protect the Franklin River as director of The Wilderness Society (TWS). The Franklin River saga marked the ability of NFP activism to instigate change within the institutions of power inside Australia.

A raft of contemporary NFP organisations continue to exist in Australia today, including TWS. There are large bodies like the Environmental Defenders' Office Australia (EDOA), Conservation Councils, and countless small bodies which exist at the state level. Many NFP bodies do receive government support, however, these relationships are often tenuous.

In 2014, the Abbott Government cut all funding for Environmental Defenders' Offices in each state, and while some have regained political support, few of the EDO centres are able to fulfil the capacity of work they were prior to the cuts.

Members of various environmental movements in Australia have historically been highly politically engaged. This typically includes protests, but also extends to advocacy and fundraising. This is still the case, and many NFPs continue to provide advice to concerned citizens. 'Concerned citizens' is a broad term, but includes scientists, activists, members of the green movement (political or otherwise), landowners, nature hobbyists, students, and increasingly, lawyers and governance practitioners.

Australian Conservation Foundation Nature Policy Analyst James Thezise says the Australian public have always stood up for nature when under threat.

"People power stopped the Great Barrier Reef from being drilled for oil in the 70s and the Franklin River from being dammed in the 80s...[more] recently, Australians have taken to the streets of cities to demand action on climate change and an end to coal-fired power."

James says de-funding of environment agencies angers some Australians because it ultimately represents the will and power of a handful of people in Canberra. It does not reflect public opinion and certainly does not reflect the views of younger voters.

Australian voters are expressing their views on climate change at the ballot box. Recently the seat of Wentworth was won by Dr. Kerryn Phelps, whose campaign carried a strong promise to act on climate change.

When it comes to cuts, monitor research programs are the first to go. These programs are crucial because monitoring programs help us measure the extent of environmental problems and gauge whether government programs are being effective in tackling them. By having a constant supply of year-round data, abnormalities are easier to spot and predict.

Last year, Australian ecological scientists protested against funding cuts to long term monitoring programs across Australia.

According to James Thezise, the supply of year-round and up to date public environmental monitoring data also allows citizens to hold their governments to account.

"When monitoring is cut, we lose information about threatened species, about water resources, about vegetation clearing. And we lose an accountability mechanism that is supposed to allow the public to find out whether their money is being used to protect the environment or not."

Since 2009, two Australian mammals and one reptile are known to have become extinct.

Australia is a signatory to a range of international agreements relating to biodiversity including the Convention on Biological Diversity. James says the way we protect nature is by measuring performance and continuously conducting scientific research into the state of Australia's environment and natural assets.

Currently, the language surrounding government discussions on the environment and climate at large is extracted from an economic discourse, where environmental assets are more readily valued in terms of tourism or carbon offset dollars. James says this might not be the right way to do things, but it's the best way to make change happen.

"It's a healthy discussion, because it encourages people to step out of their comfort zone and see things from different perspectives" he says.

"There is a role for all sectors [in environment work], but government must lead. If there is long term public funding support, it helps draw other groups in."

Disclosure: Jonathon Davidson is a part-time volunteer for the Environmental Defenders' Office of WA (EDOWA).

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