Stop saying yes: What went wrong?

This is the third in a series of posts about the Australian climate movement.

In 2011, Australian climate activists united under the lowest-common-denominator “Say Yes” campaign. The focus was, above all, on supporting a carbon price, apparently any carbon price that might be negotiated by the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee (MPCCC). (See the previous posts in this series for background on the MPCCC negotiations and the resulting policy.)

The movement said “Yes” to a policy that hadn’t even been negotiated yet, in other words before we knew what we were saying yes to. Leading up to the policy’s announcement in July, no demands were made of the Government other than some sort of carbon price, and no criticism of the inadequacy and fundamental flaws in Labor’s known policy positions – even though by all accounts, in the MPCCC talks Labor was arguing for the weakest possible outcome. After July, the movement uncritically supported the policy as drafted and campaigned for it to be legislated, with no mention of its myriad flaws and the obvious gaping contrast with the action urgently required to address the climate crisis.

“Say Yes” TV ads were so uncritical they could easily have been perceived as Government ads:

I attended the largest “Say Yes” rally in Melbourne on 5 June 2011, and was disappointed by the blandness of the message. The slogan “Say Yes” is sickeningly sycophantic, vacuous, ultra-simplistic, and inhibits critical thought. Speakers ostensibly representing the community were strictly on-message: no criticisms or demands were made of the Government. The crowd was explicitly forbidden from marching: evidently we were there only so the organizers could say tens of thousands had turned up. I became suspicious about the agenda behind the campaign.

The coalition behind “Say Yes” included the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), Climate Action Network Australia (CANA), Climate Institute, Environment Victoria, GetUp!, Greenpeace, and World Wildlife Fund (WWF). According to anecdotal reports, GetUp! and the ACTU organized everything without consulting, and even ignoring the concerns of, other members of the coalition. Grassroots groups were refused the opportunity to set up tables or speak at the rallies. Groups handing out leaflets supporting the necessary scale of action were told to stop – presumably deemed too radical, not politically correct. All this is anecdotal but confirms my impression: it seems almost as if these rallies were arranged for the purpose of supporting the Government, rather than demanding action against climate change.

How did this happen? Guy Pearse, a former Liberal Government insider and veteran of climate policy battles, provides some plausible insights:

Ask people in the movement why everyone’s cheering for a plan you’d expect them to stomach under sufferance and the responses all begin the same way: “This is strictly off the record.” Most cite partisan bias, driven more by Pavlovian habit than ideology. While relations with the Coalition have usually been acrimonious, Labor has delivered various groups their biggest wins and political influence. A former insider of the Climate Institute tells me its unofficial mission when established was to “get rid of John Howard”. Post-Howard the CEO is said to have defined its new role as being Labor’s “mine-sweeper”. A “Say Yes” campaign insider recently told me: “People are so desperate to get something rather than nothing that we’re all running cover for Labor; so, rather than getting a better scheme from them or the other side, it’s all about helping Gillard sell the scheme.”

ACTU is obviously affiliated with Labor. GetUp! is often accused of being a front group for a political party, though its critics cannot seem to agree on whether that party is Labor or Greens. GetUp! promote many genuinely progressive causes which seem more Greens than Labor, but on carbon pricing they act like Labor cheerleaders. I understand and share the fear of a Liberal government, which could undo everything we have achieved, but we seem to have become so scared of the Liberals we’ve forgotten to stand up to Labor.

The bias may be more than pragmatism. Pearse argues ideology is at work in some of the “Say Yes” groups:

Most ‘suit-wearing’ greenies also sport a neo-liberal faith in markets, with many building careers promoting the idea that emissions trading is the solution to climate change. Thus, campaigners at groups such as the WWF, the ACF and the Climate Institute turn ‘think global, act local’ on its head, believing a global carbon trade is paramount, not local action. To a worldview that cares not where emissions are cut but that cuts are made globally, at least cost, importing carbon credits en masse and ignoring coal exports fits perfectly.

Pearse also blames the “desire to fill the tent”:

It’s a far cry from 2009 when the environmental movement split over the so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). […] Since then, the groups that did a backroom deal with then Prime Minister Rudd have been on a charm offensive – encouraging a much broader group to come on board. Frustrated campaigners explain that the more groups involved, the faster the race to the bottom. One tells me: “If you’ve got ACF, WWF and the Climate Institute in the tent, you can’t talk about export coal; can’t talk down ‘clean coal’ or importing carbon credits or carbon farming.” As the carbon price becomes the issue upon which Labor stands or falls and the Greens’ forward momentum depends, the tent is filling up with unions, celebrities and GetUp!, among others.

Finally, Pearse points out the funding of Australian climate activism is largely dominated by a handful of wealthy individuals. Of course I’d prefer money to be put into causes I agree with than those I disagree with, and these individuals are presumably well-intentioned, but their disproportionate influence is still a potential concern. One is online tourism entrepreneur Graeme Wood, who donated $1.7 million to the Australian Greens in the 2010 election. Wood also funds Beyond Zero Emissions, Queensland University’s Global Change Institute, and news website The Global Mail. Another is engineer Robert Purves, who is president of WWF Australia and whose Purves Environmental Fund contributes to AYCC and the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, among numerous others. (AYCC responds that Purves has no influence on their policy and they continue to advocate science-based action despite their involvement in “Say Yes”.)

Then there’s Eve Kantor, an environmentalist niece of Rupert Murdoch. She started the Climate Institute, which is probably the most moderate of all the Australian environmental groups (they not only supported the CPRS but sang the praises of the Durban Platform). Kantor is also connected to the Australia Institute, ACF, and (indirectly) AYCC. It is striking when you realize that two of the loudest voices on Australian climate policy – the “Say Yes” campaign, and News Corporation newspapers – have been partly funded by two warring factions of a single family.

The Climate Institute, ACF, and AYCC have also received government funding. The Greens have received donations from the Construction, Forestry, Mining, and Energy Union (CFMEU). Most disturbingly, the Climate Institute even accepts funding from fossil fuel companies AGL and General Electric, and the Greens have accepted a donation from Origin Energy.

Whatever the reasons, climate activists’ reluctance to criticize the Government really frustrates me. Behaving like puppets of the Labor Party does not help build a movement for real action. By advocating the Government’s policy, environmental groups have given it credibility it does not deserve. “Say Yes” failed to explain, indeed actively discouraged the explanation of, the desperate urgency of dramatic action to get to zero emissions as rapidly as possible. I worry this will confuse voters. There are few things more important than exposing government greenwash, because greenwash is how governments attempt to neutralize public concern about the environment. Our success in getting a carbon price threatens to provide a false sense of security, especially after GetUp! organized celebrations of the legislation’s passage. I fear the public may perceive the problem is being dealt with, causing support for climate action to evaporate as the fossil fuel industry continues to grow. The carbon price is already being used as an argument against other existing climate policies, let alone new ones. I can’t help but think Labor, or at least the fossil fuel lobbyists behind them, will be laughing at us all the way to the ballot box.

In Part 4, I discuss “bright-siding”, another factor in what went wrong.

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