Act: Formal Processes

Section
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
Page
4.6

There are three main poles of power in the majority of countries: political, corporate, and media. Here we will introduce ways of interacting with political power (corporate power is examined in Section 9 and media power in Section 6).

To avoid drowning in a sea of cynicism, we will assume that political systems of all types are, at least in part, sensitive to pressures for change, be it the very obvious mechanism of voting, or through the more circuitous paths of advocacy. Letters, petitions, consultative forums, surveys, etc. and so forth, are available in many countries as a formal process to gather community input on various policies, programs and projects. Of course, these are more or less open to opinion that is at odds with what is proposed, but there certainly have been many instances, large and small, where community pressure has achieved very worthwhile gains for the environment. My state, Victoria, has one of the best national parks systems in the world through a combination of good timing, good luck and good process. The good timing was 1960s/70s environmental awareness, the good luck was that there were still extensive, largely intact, natural areas in the state when this awareness arose, and the good process was a sympathetic state government through much of the ‘70s that established and supported a body called the Land Conservation Council (LCC) to assess, consult and recommend the location, size and type of parks across the state. The community ‘got the ball rolling’, so to speak, with an outcry at the proposal to clear for farming the diverse and fascinating Little Desert (~150,000 ha in western Victoria), which was subsequently saved (read the excellent book1 or listen to the four-part podcast about this most-interesting conservation case study: Little Desert Podcast – Victorian National Parks AssociationVictorian National Parks Association (vnpa.org.au)), and from this the LCC was established by government (1970) and it set about scientifically assessing all public land, making proposed and final recommendations as to land use, and conducting political and community consultation. The process was so rigorous, the ‘conservation public’ so focussed and engaged, and the political climate sufficiently supportive, that since its inception, it – and its various successors – established a conservation reserve system of 139 land and marine reserves covering 3.46 million hectares, or approximately 15% of the state. (There is more to be done here, but this is a very good start; see map below, and Section 7).

(McLean, A./Aust. Geographic.2013. Western Pygmy-possums occur throughout the Little Desert which was due to be cleared for farming until saved by community action)

 

People, acting for the environment, drove and chaperoned this process, and they did this largely formally, through endless meetings, hearings, forums, letters, submissions, data collection, phone calls, radio calls, letter-drops, talks, tours, speeches, advertisements, and more.

(State of Victoria/Parks Victoria2. 2019. Major conservation reserves in Victoria; established largely through formal public action. Note: Little Desert is #7)

 

Now to return to voting. I think there is little doubt that all the advocacy in the world wouldn’t have saved the Little Desert if environmental effort weren’t channelled into voting pressure as well. The incumbent government got a rude shock in 1969 when it lost a by-election partly as a result of the ‘Save the Little Desert’ campaign, and the architect of the scheme to clear the land, Lands Minister William McDonald, lost his seat in the 1970 election. This is the ‘sharp end of the stick’ politically, and yet – strangely – a lot of people with environmental interests don’t seem to consider applying these interests to their vote.

Even if living in a totalitarian regime, there will usually be some form of voting in play, even if just at the local level, and as such there is an opportunity to direct your vote to the better environmental candidate. This said, it is often more easily said than done to ascertain a candidate or party’s environmental credentials, particularly in the modern world of elaborate smoke, mirrors and spin. Thankfully, there are increasingly groups and websites that attempt to list, clarify and evaluate environmental policy with a view to assisting voter choice and we have, for instance, several in Australia.

For example, one of Victoria’s NGOs – Environment Victoria – has a scorecard system for evaluating the environment policies of state parties, and here is the scorecard for the 2018 election: Environment Victoria | Election 2018 Scorecard . The major parties were ranked thus:

Policies are evaluated for a range of topics – for instance ‘Sustainable Transport’ – and as an example, the Labor Party is scored thus:

And there is a full list of policies, as supplied by the parties, as well. There is a summary and evaluation, also, of the ‘minor’ parties, as follows:

Another very clever guide is the Vote Compass – Vote Compass – which has been used in many places around the world. One completes a survey of usually 30 questions, and then the program positions one’s views in relation to the parties contesting the election and relative to other people’s views. It also allows one to drill down into, and weight, topics of specific interest, such as environmental topics. An idea of how it graphically displays its results is reproduced here. Vote Compass is excellent for those unsure as to the political spectrum, the ‘location’ of the parties, and which party or parties will best represent their interests.

Regardless of where we are and what manipulations of a true and direct system of representation of our wishes there may be, voting is one of the most powerful tools the individual has to influence power and to bring about change for the environment.

Perhaps the most ‘formal’ and structured process of all environmental action is through law. Targeted, incisive action, can be, and has been, taken to defend the environment, a potent example being the defeat of the Franklin Dam proposal in SW Tasmania (see 1.8.3) through application of federal Australian law and heads of power over Tasmanian state law. (This is now ironic with federation in Australia in tatters during the coronavirus pandemic as states vie with each other to be the most corona-extremist and isolated). Obviously, legal action requires not only extant legislation to use, but for larger cases, considerable resources to apply. Few individuals can do this, so most larger environmental cases are undertaken by organisations or groups of organisations, and are often assisted by dedicated legal groups with expertise in environmental law. In Australia we are lucky to have Environmental Justice Australia and the Environment Defenders’ Office to take this role.

The EJA website – Who we are – Environmental Justice Australia (envirojustice.org.au)  – lists its recent achievements as: “We have pioneered world–first climate risk litigation, become national leaders in protecting communities from the health impacts of coal pollution, been founding members of the Places You Love Alliance for national law reform, exposed Adani’s shocking international track record of not complying with the law, run landmark forests litigation, worked closely with First Nations Australians to achieve water rights and care for our rivers, and so much more.”

Its current cases and reports and submissions gives the flavour of its work:

It also assists individuals and small groups through its Community Environmental Legal Service, which provides:

  • Kits and Fact Sheets for those seeking to bring or engage with environmental legal cases
  • Advice on dealing with Victoria’s major administrative and legal tribunal – VCAT, e.g. videos that take you through the process: e.g.

  • Workshops to help the community participate in environmental decision-making.

 

Hopefully, there are similar helpful entities in your region to assist the understanding and application of the law for environmental purposes.

 

1 Robin, L. 1998. Defending the Little Desert. Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Australia.

2 State of Victoria/Parks Victoria. 2019. National Parks Act Annual Report 2018-19. Parks Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

Explore Other Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

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