Environmental groups are preparing to launch a series of court cases to frustrate the Abbott government’s agenda, targeting its plans to ditch the carbon tax and devolve approvals for new coal mines to the states.
In a significant hardening of its approach to a government it views as instinctively anti-environment, the conservation movement has signalled it will move away from lobbying in favour of legal confrontation.
The Environment Defenders Office, a legal network which had its public funding removed by the Coalition in December, has reported a surge in private donations, which it will use to take on the government over climate change, environmental regulation and community health issues.
The Victorian office of the network is to rebrand as Environmental Justice Australia, using a crowdfunding model in place of government support.
Meanwhile, Earth Justice, a long-established litigation group from the US, visited Australia last week to advise the Wilderness Society on legal tactics.
It is understood partnerships with environmental groups in the US and UK will be forged to help facilitate challenges to the Coalition’s agenda.
“Talking niceties has got us nowhere with this government,” said Brendan Sydes, chief executive of the new Environmental Justice Australia office. “Business as usual isn’t satisfactory, so we’ve got to look outside the box, including legal action and divestment campaigns against fossil fuels.
“We will be looking at legal avenues to challenging the dismantling of the clean energy package without having any credible alternative. We’ll also be looking carefully at the one-stop environmental shops. The government is going completely in the wrong direction.”
Environmental groups have voiced dismay at the government’s approach, including the attempted repeal of the carbon price in favour of its “direct action” policy, the bid to delist parts of Tasmania’s forest from World Heritage protection and the handover of development approvals to state governments.
The shark cull in Western Australia, approved without an assessment by Greg Hunt, the environment minister, and Tony Abbott’s comments last month that there are too many trees “locked up” in national parks have also caused widespread green chagrin.
Lyndon Schneiders, national director of the Wilderness Society, said the group was looking to challenge a raft of coal and gas projects it sees as being “disastrous for the global climate” if they go ahead.
“For the government to wash its hands of these responsibilities and hand over power to blatantly pro-development state governments is set to have significant legal implications,” he said. “We’re getting advice on that now.
“We need to use the courts to pull the political leaders into line when they overstep the boundaries. The government seems to think they have a mandate to strip away 30 years of hard-fought environmental protections. We still want to engage with them, but I think Abbott’s [forestry] speech made their philosophy crystal clear.”
Kelly O’Shanassy, the new chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the group would be targeting voters in marginal electorates to encourage MPs to take climate change seriously.
“We will be doing more work out in the communities, in electorates in places such as western Sydney, to say ‘here is how climate change impacts you’,” she said. “We need to focus on areas where politicians work the hardest for votes.
“We won’t ever tell people which party to vote for, but at the moment it’s a race to the bottom for environmental policy and we want to create a race to the top. We want parties to have to take climate change seriously in order to get elected.”
O’Shanassy said she wanted to double the ACF’s current membership base to 400,000 people by recruiting activists to hold community meetings and door knocking rounds in key marginals.
“We’ll be asking more people to do more things to make climate change a critical issue,” she said.
“Commentary by the prime minister saying that we have too many trees really disturbs me. Nature provides products and services we need, but once we get into an exploitative relationship with nature she will kick our butt.”