When Greens Eat Themselves
By Mike SteketeeOctober 17, 2012
A leaked report shows environment groups aren’t having the impact they’d like you to think they are.
WHAT would you conclude about the success of a public campaign by interest groups that saw support for its cause decline?
Take the case of the coalition of nine organisations — including the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, the ACTU, the Climate Institute, GetUp! and the World Wildlife Fund — which last year funded the Saying Yes to a Price on Pollution campaign. If you remember it at all, it may be for Cate Blanchett’s involvement (more of which later). According to a “strictly private and confidential” review and evaluation study commissioned by the Say Yes coalition, the campaign was a raging success. “Now is the time to declare victory,” the leaked report says of the campaign. On what grounds? Australia put a price on carbon pollution.
The only problem is that this was going to happen, whether or not these groups mounted their $2 million plus campaign.
You’ll recall that, in the tussle for victory that followed the stalemated 2010 federal election, the Greens insisted on legislation to price carbon as a condition for guaranteeing support for a minority Labor government. Those involved in Say Yes argue they played an important role in keeping the parties to the agreement. But for the politicians, the alternative was too awful to contemplate: the possible loss of government for Labor, the loss of seats for Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, the two independents who supported the minority government, and the loss of influence for the Greens.
So the “victory” was a policy outcome that already was part of a signed agreement between Labor and the Greens. Moreover, it did not go beyond the five per cent target for emissions reductions that environment groups and the Greens had dismissed as completely inadequate under Kevin Rudd. Most importantly, given the aims of the campaign, it actually saw a fall in public support for tackling climate change, making it all the more likely that a future Abbott government would succeed in scrapping the carbon tax and the emissions trading scheme.
If that’s victory, well, defeat doesn’t bear thinking about.
Andrew Macintosh, associate director of the Centre for Climate Law and Policy at the Australian National University, argues that the groups involved in the campaign dealt themselves out of real influence by agreeing beforehand to whatever emerged in legislation. “From way back they said we will say yes to any sort of carbon pricing — whatever it is, we will support it. That is such an unsophisticated message it is laughable.”
The lack of ambition and modest achievements of the Say Yes campaign are a sign of the environmental times.
The green movement is strong on paper. In terms of political representation, the Australian Greens have gone from strength to strength, albeit not solely because of their environmental advocacy. The groups that came together for the Say Yes campaign claim three million members and supporters, although that includes about 1.8 million union members, who are not necessarily strong environmentalists.
In the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, conducted by university academics, 7.8 per cent of adults said they were members of environmental organisations, which would mean 1.4 million of the current population. Though more rated themselves as passive rather than active members and more still as belonging to “non-protest” rather than “protest” organisations, the figures demonstrate a significant degree of concern about the environment. Many are involved practically through community organisations like Landcare, Clean Up Australia and climate action groups.
The combined annual income of the big four in the environment movement — the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, WWF and the Wilderness Society is close to $60 million. Add in other green groups and without even mentioning more broadly based organisations such as GetUp! and the ACTU, you are talking about much larger sums. Between them they have hundreds of staff. All this raises the question of how effectively they marshall this support.
“The mining industry spent $20 million campaigning against a resources tax and changed the country,” says Richard Denniss, executive director of The Australia Institute. “The Your Rights at Work campaign against John Howard’s Work Choices was a $20 to 30 million campaign. The environment movement could be running something bigger than that every year.”
Although the environment movement is a long way short of matching the resources of the mining industry, Denniss nonetheless has a point.
From the latter stages of the Howard government to the end of 2009 there was bipartisan political support for action on climate change through an emissions trading scheme. It is easy enough to blame Tony Abbott for wrecking the consensus but there was more to it than that.
The people and interest groups challenging climate science, though they include very few experts in the field, have swung public opinion towards them and often have gone unchallenged. At the same time, many indicators of environmental health have declined, including biodiversity and freshwater, marine and forest resources, although at least the rate of deforestation has slowed. Then there is the daddy of them all — rising greenhouse gas emissions.
The 95-page report on Say Yes, undertaken by research firm Think: Insight & Advice, makes clear that an important goal was to raise public support for putting a price on carbon. A March 2011 strategy paper said the purpose of the campaign was to “build and energise the necessary public support for national legislation on pollution and climate change in 2011”. A July 2011 strategy update set a target of increasing support in opinion polls from 39 per cent to 49 per cent by the end of November.
On these yardsticks it failed: according to the Nielsen poll, support for a carbon price fell from 46 per cent to 37 per cent between February and October 2011, while opposition rose from 44 per cent to 59 per cent. Essential Research showed a more favourable trend but still a small fall in net support (those opposing minus those supporting) between March and November 2011.
The report concedes the point, arguing that the campaign’s “primary power was not in delivering new support — although some hoped that it would be — but in demonstrating that support existed among the combined 3 million supporter base of its members”.
Well, you would hope so.
The report goes on to say: “The two biggest criticisms of Say Yes from both inside and outside the coalition were that ‘we were speaking to ourselves’ or that we were speaking only to ‘the politicians in Canberra’.”
Apart from declaring victory, the tone of the study, which involved interviewing 55 people inside and outside the campaign, is often critical, sometimes scathingly so, of what was achieved and how the campaign was conducted.
A particular target is the highest profile event of the campaign — the advertisement in which Cate Blanchett and Michael Caton, among others, spoke out in favour of a price on carbon. Though Blanchett uttered just seven words — “and finally doing something about climate change” — they were turned into a full-blown media controversy. What was supposed to be a strategic leak to the mass circulation Sunday Telegraph and other News Limited Sundays on the day the advertisement screened became a front page story quoting politicians and other critics branding Blanchett as a multi-millionaire out of touch with ordinary Australians struggling with the cost of living.
“The highly charged political environment scared away potential supporters and turned off up to 30 per cent of donors, according to one fundraiser,” says the report. “Potential corporate supporters were the first to take cover when the ‘Carbon Cate’ controversy broke. Not only did they hold back funds but they also withheld critical public support for the campaign out of fear that their brands and reputations might be the next target of News Ltd tabloids and the shock jocks.”
It is easy to be wise after the event but in this case plenty of warnings had been sounded. “Strongly anti-Cate ad,” said an email from Ogilvy, which conducted research for the campaign. That was on April 4, more than six weeks before the ad screened. A policy maker is quoted as saying “we warned that this would be seriously out of touch”. A communication plan drawn up for the campaign and several strategy memos “explicitly stated that the communications should avoid entrenching ‘us versus them’. While Cate is undoubtedly Australian, she is hardly considered ‘one of the crowd’ in Western Sydney.”
The Say Yes slogan and some of the advertising scripts were tested twice in focus groups and they reacted unfavourably on both occasions. “On 20 April external focus groups pan the Say Yes concept as hollow ‘in the absence of information’,” the study records. Despite that it was the theme of the Cate ad, which was shot two weeks later. In a remarkable indictment, the report concludes: “It is the assessment of this study that the ad was allowed to go ahead against the advice from not one but two research agencies because no one person, or small group, had the organisational authority or personal standing to stop the television shoot from proceeding.”
The take from other focus groups in seats held by independents was that “affordability is a key concern that should be addressed” — a confirmation of earlier research showing it to be the most important issue in people’s minds. Tony Abbott certainly did not miss his cue on this score.
Yet the recommendation from Say Yes strategists was that “discussions around structure and cost should be reactive rather than proactive”. Two other research agencies disagreed but were ignored.
What accounts for this rolling series of misjudgments? “Ultimately, it came down to a question of leadership,” says the report. Although it describes the formation of the coalition as having been “a tremendous feat of negotiation”, it seemed to create more problems than it solved: “The effort that went into bringing and keeping such a large and diverse group together meant that there was little energy, or time, for much else.” There was “much more talking than doing”.
Not mentioned in the report is that Christine Milne, then deputy Greens’ leader, vented her frustration over this very point at a meeting with coalition members in December 2010. In what one person present described as a call to arms, she urged environmental groups “to get out there and start campaigning hard”. Even then, nothing much happened until well into the following year.
At pains to come up with some positive outcomes of the campaign, the report points out that the Cate ad generated just over $5 million in free publicity in the week after its release, though conceding that “it is difficult to gauge whether the impact overall was positive or negative”. This surely ranks as the ultimate in masterly understatement.
The report also argues that GetUp! helped force the government back to the negotiating table with the Greens at a crucial juncture. This was when the government was holding out out on concessions demanded by the Greens, and GetUp! sent an email to its supporters, who flooded Julia Gillard with complaints. The Prime Minister’s office was not amused but the point had been made. But this was a GetUp! initiative, rather than part of the Say Yes campaign.
That brings us to the future. While the carbon tax and emissions trading scheme have passed into law, the report concedes that the “victory” may be shortlived, given Tony Abbott’s promise to repeal the tax. This, it says, points to the need for one or more campaigns in the future. The study’s “deliberative debrief group” came up with six potential strategies, including a “backing the tax” campaign to inoculate it against repeal, depoliticising the carbon tax so that it is no longer an election issue and ensuring business insists it stays to secure investment certainty.
Good luck with all that. With heroic undertones of “if at first you don’t succeed…”, the goals also include increasing community support for action on climate change. Apart from some groups collaborating on a television advertisement to coincide with the introduction of the carbon tax on July 1, nothing much has happened since the report was completed in December last year. “We are still working through the specifics of it,” says the Australian Conservation Foundation’s chief executive officer Don Henry when The Global Mail asks about future campaign plans.
A persistent criticism of the modern environment movement is that it has grown top heavy, bureaucratic and complacent, neglecting grass roots activity in favour of what Americans call inside-the-beltway politics. In the words of one activist, “I am always amazed at how many people are sitting around tables as opposed to delivering the message”. And as one policy maker told the evaluation study: “We were surprised at how poorly the environment movement understands and mobilises its members.” Direct lobbying of politicians has its place but it is much less effective without building public support.
At the national level, the movement has evolved from largely voluntary groups into professional organisations focused on large scale fund-raising and marketing strategies. This inevitably encourages rivalry and is one reason they find it notoriously difficult to pool their resources for campaigns and why, when they do, the campaigns often are ineffective.
Some organisations, including the ACF, have seen periods of low turnover of senior staff. Greenpeace and The Wilderness Society, both with a history of success at grassroots level, have suffered internal problems and a resulting loss of focus over recent years. A split in the Wilderness Society in 2010 saw the departure of Alec Marr, its head for the previous 15 years and it ran up a deficit of almost $1 million in 2009-10. Although it has since returned to surplus, income for last financial year was down 11 per cent to $12.8 million, requiring cuts in staff and other spending. Greenpeace Australia has had three chief executives in three years and saw its income from fundraising fall from $20 million to $16 million between 2008 and 2010. It ran a deficit of over $1 million in both 2010 and 2011, requiring Greenpeace International to bail it out with a loan of $2 million.
It all adds up to a certain staleness in the environmental air.
Part of the problem, according to one political adviser, “is that the environment movement doesn’t quite know how to campaign when Labor is in power because they are so scared of the alternative”.
The ANU’s Andrew Macintosh argues that groups like the ACF and The Wilderness Society lost authority after forming alliances with Labor in the 1980s.
Lyndon Schneiders, national campaign director for the Wilderness Society, says he is happy to work with people across the political spectrum but the gap between the parties has widened. “The Coalition has been far too influenced by the culture wars that have come out of the [United] States — the argument that ‘you need to mobilise your base, so go and beat up greenies’. I am still trying to find ways to have a constructive relationship with them. The difficulty is you go and spend time with the Libs and you might as well be pissing in the wind.”
David Spratt, climate change activist and co-author of Climate Code Red , which argued that global warming had become an emergency requiring urgent action, says that most of the big environmental organisations spend most of their budgets on research, policy, gaining political access and communications and little on actively engaging communities and thereby building serious political power. “My biggest beef with the environment NGOs is that they basically have tried to win the battle without organising people,” he says. “I don’t see a single federal Coalition MP who is seriously worried about their seat because of climate or other environmental issues. That is the test, isn’t it?”
Spratt is a critic of “brightsiding” — the approach governments and NGOs have adopted in recent years of talking mainly about the positives of climate change, such as a clean energy future and green jobs and playing down the adverse consequences. “For these organisations, the story of climate science and impacts was simply off the agenda and hence also for electors,” he wrote recently. “This was an unfortunate positive feedback loop that reinforced in the media’s and the public’s mind the notion that the climate threat had diminished. It remains the most spectacular own goal in recent years… ”
Daniel Voronoff, a communication specialist and contributor to the Climate Code Red blog site, argued last year: “Imagine the anti-smoking advertisement that fails to mention mouth and lung cancer, telling the smoker they should give up a pleasurable habit of 10 years because, well, they’re certain to feel better. The evidence shows this appeal just doesn’t work.”
The don’t-mention-the-climate-strategy stems from research suggesting people turn off when presented with an unrelentingly negative message. “What is very clear from the research is that we are not going to scare people into action,” says John Connor of the Climate Institute. Perhaps, but how can we expect them to accept a carbon tax and higher electricity prices if we gloss over the real reasons for imposing them? It was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth — not a positive spin on the issue — that made people all around the world sit up and take notice, many for the first time.
The environmental movement still kicks some goals. There was the recent reversal of federal government permission for a super-trawler to fish in Australian waters — although the scientific, as opposed to political, basis for that decision is open to question. Apart from putting a price on carbon and the $10 billion fund to promote renewables, the ACF’s Henry cites curbing land clearing, the recent declaration of a network of marine national parks over an area “the same size it has taken us 100 years to achieve on land”, putting the Kimberleys on the national heritage list and steps towards saving the Murray River. These are notable achievements but over them looms the spectre of global warming. As Spratt argues, “if you don’t solve the climate issue, all other environmental issues are irrelevant”.
Rachel Siewert, for 15 years head of the Western Australian Conservation Council before becoming a Greens senator in 2005, says there has not been forceful enough national leadership on many issues, with a lack of direction and of co-ordination between groups. “If you look at the climate debate, a lot of them left it largely up to us and to a certain extent the renewable sector to keep it on the agenda.
“At the moment my question is: ‘Where is the outrage from the environment movement over the assault on environmental laws and regulations?’”
Siewert is referring to the main piece of national environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, to which planned reforms would streamline approval processes, in part by handing back power to the states. “It is one example where there needs to be a strong, nationally co-ordinated campaign,” she says. “They have put out a couple of media releases but in the old days they would have been in every [politician’s] door, not just talking to those responsible for the environment.”
There are signs of new thinking that may lead to more effective action. Green groups are applying pressure on superannuation funds to take greater account of risk when considering long-term investments in fossil fuel industries and controversial projects like the planned LNG gas hub at James Price Point. At the grassroots level, Schneiders says The Wilderness Society is looking at new approaches, accepting that, in the day-to-day combat with governments and industry organisations, the environment movement may have lost touch with mainstream Australia. “We need to make sure we are not just having a fight with the elites: we need to bring the broader movement with us.”
In an era where mass environmental protests have faded, he points out that neither side in the climate change debate has been able to generate the kind of groundswell of public opinion that sees people taking to the streets. “The 24-hour political cycle makes it incredibly difficult for most people to conceive how they can make a difference. There is massive concern but also a massive sense of disempowerment.” He claims success with recent attempts to engage his members through suggestions about how best to approach politicians, write letters to the editor and conduct fund raisers.
The Australian Youth Climate Coalition is harnessing its 80,000 signed-up supporters to go beyond the media. “We are really focused on going back to the grass roots and face-to-face engagement with people,” says national director Ellen Sandell. It recently organised an online vote on renewable energy and a “solar walk” in support of a solar thermal station at Port Augusta.
David Ritter was a lawyer specialising in commercial and then native title work before spending five years working for Greenpeace in London. When he returned to Australia in August to become head of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, he was struck by the contrast in attitudes to the environment. For example, David Cameron chose the Greenpeace building to launch Conservative policy on a cleaner, less carbon-dependent energy future. It probably would not be the venue of first choice for an Abbott announcement.
Ritter worked in London with other major environment and community groups on a campaign to protect the North Sea. “The North Sea is hardly the same as the Great Barrier Reef but then I come back to find the conversation, at least at the surface level, is about how much of the Barrier Reef would it be alright for us to destroy in order to expand coal mining and coal ports in Queensland,” he says.
Ritter talks of bringing Greenpeace in from the cold and, like Schneiders, reaching out to a broader community. “I don’t see the environment as an issue that is separate from the economy or from society,” he says. “We have to talk about what people consider their ways of life being at risk.”
He cites as an example the concern of Australian anglers about the destruction of local fishing stocks by a super-trawler.
“I think we give the environment the best chance when we start from a position that stems from everyday experience, rather than a more top-down approach. Unless you are linking to the way people think and feel about their day-to-day lives and the things that capture people’s imagination, it very quickly becomes an arid policy debate that loses people.”
Ritter says Greenpeace will continue with the direct action policy for which it is best known “where we think it will be effective… If you look at the great social changes that have happened, whether it is women’s suffrage, ending slavery, equal rights or the decolonisation movement, they happen because people are prepared to engage in non-violent direct action.”
But he also is looking to instigate a more pragmatic approach.
In the UK, he worked closely with retail giants Sainsbury’s, Selfridges and Marks and Spencer to change their buying practices. “The entire king tuna industry in the UK converted to more sustainable options within the space of about six months,” he says. “Corporations are legislatively mandated to maximise profits for their shareholders. But a big retail chain like Sainsbury’s have worked out that they can take products out of their supply chain that come from recently deforested land, that have destructive impacts on the ocean and that improve their carbon footprint and that they can improve their bottom line and achieve an amazing improvement in their brand reputation.”
Which leaves the question raised by The Australia Institute’s Richard Deniss early in this article: shouldn’t the environment movement be doing more to combine its resources to tackle a few big priorities, like increasing public support for action on climate change? Ritter says Denniss’ comparison between well-defined economic sectors like business or organised labour and a movement as broad and diverse as that covering the environment is “a bit illusory… But I don’t think anyone could argue with the central proposition that it would be good if we could work together more effectively.”