“I’m often asked if it gets tiring standing up to the naysayers. And while there are days when I contemplate with tired resignation facing yet another attack on climate science or democracy, the truth is, it’s a privilege to do so.
By Tim Flannery
I’ll never forget the morning close to five years ago, when I received a phone call from then Environment Minister Greg Hunt, informing me that the Climate Commission had been abolished. We didn’t take this news lying down. Out of the ashes, the Climate Council was formed, fulfilling the demands of the Australian public for an independent climate science body; and we continue to exist, remaining stronger than ever.
That decision to swing the axe on the Climate Commission in 2013 was the very first act of the Abbott Government. It has since set the tone for the following five years of the Federal Government’s policy approach towards climate change in Australia. This approach has been characterised by a persistent and calculated undermining of the bedrock role that climate science plays in our community. From deep reaching cuts to research capacity at CSIRO, to repeated climate censorship and delays in the release of crucial national greenhouse gas pollution data, to attempts to deny or downplay the role of climate change in intensifying many extreme weather events, and repeated bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, the attacks just keep coming.
“This approach has been characterised by a persistent and calculated undermining of the bedrock role that climate science plays in our community.” Tim Flannery
And the bad news is, they’re not over yet.
The latest threat to the Climate Council and the broader Australian charity sector comes from the Federal Government’s much-touted crack down on foreign influence in Australian politics.
Unfortunately, despite the declared intention of safeguarding Australian democracy from nefarious foreign influence, this package of Bills may in fact undermine it.
We are particularly worried that measures in the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill introduced last week may prevent charities and other concerned community members from standing up for action on climate change.
Built into the DNA of the Climate Council, is a mandate to provide independent climate science to the Australian public and to hold a mirror up to the Federal Government’s progress on their Paris climate commitments (or let’s be honest, the lack thereof). But these peaceful, information and communications-based activities are now at risk, undermining the democratic processes and the right to free speech that the Climate Council and other charities alike depend on.
This Bill has potentially chilling consequences. For example, if charities alleged that the Australian government was misrepresenting the impact that a domestic policy would have on Australia’s emissions reductions targets, and they reported this to the international media, they could face charges of espionage. With no exemptions or defences for actions taken in the public interest, charges of espionage could result in significant jail time.
In a democracy, the Federal Government has a responsibility to ensure that Australian charities can advocate for issues that people care about without being threatened with censorship. Whether it’s the provision of clean, affordable and reliable renewable energy and storage technologies, or protecting icons such as the world’s largest living natural wonder, the Great Barrier Reef, or protecting Australians from worsening extreme weather events, including heatwaves, bushfires, coastal flooding and drought. Without charities, many of these important issues would not see the light of day. A strong and robust democracy must provide space for these discussions to take place, and not attempt to shut down dissenting views.
We only need to look to Canada to see the disastrous outcomes of similar measures that were introduced under the Harper Government in 2012, causing many charities to self-censor, lest they be caught up by the legislation. Thankfully, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau understands the value that charities can add to public policy debate and development and has since wound back this legislation. But the warning still stands – threatening the ability of charities to hold the Federal Government to account, is just the thin edge of the wedge when it comes to upholding the right to free speech.
Since the Climate Commission’s abolition, the past five years have taught me not to cede the playing field to bullies or backward-looking politicians. Because the only way they have the monopoly on shaping our future is if we give it to them.
Professor Tim Flannery (pictured above) is an acclaimed scientist, explorer and conservationist. He is currently the Chief Councillor for the Climate Council.”
First published at the Bellingen Courier-Sun. July 5 2018.