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The movements of the Australian environment movement


By Cam Walker

In the various histories that have been written about the Australian environment movement, most have identified the 'professionalisation' phase that happened in the 1980s as a defining feature in the movement's development.

While many groups started in the 1960s and '70s as grassroots orientated, movement-style organisations, the years from 1983 onwards when 'environment friendly' federal Labor governments were in power profoundly changed the movement. The ALP's 'peak' approach, whereby key stakeholders are 'brought into the room', changed the dynamics of the movement.

The access to government and ministers that this system facilitated, and the assumption that 'access = outcomes' gradually brought the gravitational centre of the movement to Canberra. Ever greater staff resources were allocated to federal style campaigning, with more time spent on policy development and lobbying and offices in Canberra. Slowly but surely the local branches waned. Change would come through action in Canberra, backed up by the member and supporter base, who would be mobilised at key moments.

On the back of the federal intervention to protect the Franklin River in Tasmania, this approach made sense. It delivered some important, and lasting, outcomes through the 1980s and '90s.

Over time, the focus of the movement shifted from 'nature' to include 'climate'. Towards the end of this long process of pressure on federal processes, it seemed that real change might be getting close. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared climate change as being the key issue of our time. Peter Garrett, the new environment minister, headed off to climate change negotiations in Bali, declaring that 'the rich must go first' when it comes to meeting emission reduction targets. The Rudd government came close to enacting a carbon price. As always, good policy didn't grow out of thin air. The ALP had been pushed into adopting strong positions because of the new grassroots movement that had formed largely in reaction to the comprehensive failure of the Howard government on climate change. This grassroots movement prodded the federal ALP to go further on climate policy.

The climate movement was more like the 'second wave' environmentalism of the 1970s. It was locally controlled, and activist at heart. It started to bring significant power to bear on federal politics because of the connection these groups had in their local communities and the fact that regular 'summits' allowed the development of national strategies. Unlike the top-heavy environmental groups (the ENGOs), these groups were driven from the grassroots up, meaning they had the power that comes with being based in a community. But after this movement helped propel the ALP back into power, that brief moment of hope didn't last long.

The planned emissions trading scheme was defeated, Peter Garrett subsequently went on to approve a uranium mine, and politics drifted to the Right. Tony Abbott smashed the remaining climate change policies. Many of the local climate change groups lost their energy and focus. With the larger ENGOs now largely irrelevant to the federal debate on environment and climate, there was a huge gap in Australian politics.

The climate movement 2.0

During this time, a reformed umbrella group for the climate movement, called Climate Action Network Australia (CANA) started to strategise about how to build a new movement. A big part of this involved thinking about how to build a grassroots movement that could play a major role in the debate about national energy policy and climate change. The development of this movement has been supported by the rise of GetUp which, in its broad progressive agenda, brings huge political power on environmental and climate issues and helps push them further onto the national political and media agenda.

There is no doubt that CANA is already having impact. A resurgent climate change movement has focused strongly on stopping the Adani coal mine planned for Queensland and is now on the cusp of winning. Many larger ENGOs, working in both the climate and the more traditional natural environmental space, have refocused resources away from Canberra and back into grassroots organising. This process started back in the days when Australian campaigners were influenced by the campaign that helped elect Barrack Obama as president of the USA. 'Directed networking', a model that encourages local groups to operate on a shared strategy, is all the rage at present.

But in some ways, we are exactly where we started. The movement is still largely dominated by the people who were dominant in the 1980s – well educated urban people of Anglo origin. And policy is still largely driven out of the inner suburbs. In many ways the gravitational centre of power still rests in the headquarters of large ENGOs.

The world outside Canberra

During these years of inaction – when Tony Abbott was smashing the remaining climate change furniture and Malcolm Turnbull inherited the mess, some of the most solid wins on climate and environment have occurred where groups have decided to allocate their resources to state or regional rather than federal issues. Given the ideological opposition to climate action shown by the Abbott government and state Coalition governments, groups like Friends of the Earth (FoE) decided to focus on the state level.

The five-year campaign in Victoria against onshore gas drilling won the first permanent ban on fracking (hydraulic fracturing) in Australia. A similar campaign by FoE for a state renewables target (the VRET) was equally successful and delivered targets for 2020 and 2025 that have restarted the development of commercial-scale renewable technology in the state.

What is significant about both these was the 'target demographic' and the 'frame' or key messaging in the campaign.


In 2011, FoE identified the threat posed by the emerging unconventional gas industry. This includes coal seam gas (CSG), tight gas and shale gas. Inspired by the Lock the Gate movement, which FoE had helped establish in Queensland in 2010, the campaign went to regional Victoria to mobilise communities. Using a grassroots organising model – the 'gasfield free' strategy devised by Annie Kia and other activists in northern NSW – FoE worked directly in regional areas that were under threat of gas drilling or new coal mining.

Initially the campaign followed a path of trial and error. At first FoE focused on mobilising communities to oppose exploration licenses for coal or gas. But in each instance, applications were approved as a matter of routine. Communities did not have the power to influence the business as usual approach to fossil fuel development in the state.

Lock the Gate movement in VictoriaOnce we started applying the gasfield free model of organising, things started to change as we helped build community power. This organising model, whereby a local group would doorknock their entire community to test support for opposing the gas / coal industry, both built political power and community cohesion. It clearly demonstrated that there was no social license for the industry to be in that community.

It was also 'ideology lite'. As long as you were concerned about some aspect of the industry, there was a place for you in the campaign. This allowed alliances to be built in conservative voting electorates and between a wide range of people within each community. As each community completed its door knocking and then declared itself coal or gasfield free (depending on the local threat) a movement emerged. Apart from The Greens, political parties initially ignored this movement, until one declaration in western Victoria where MPs and candidates were tripping over each other to be in the photos.

This campaign was significant in that while it was helped and supported every step of the way by FoE, it was always driven by the regions. It was light on in terms of organisational 'branding', and strong in terms of supporting local groups to become skilled up. And while it was focused on principles of community organising, the background threat of direct action and the spectre of farmers from Seaspray in Gippsland planning to ride horses up Bourke street to parliament to announce their intention to blockade drilling operations was the tipping point that saw the initial moratorium on drilling enacted.

It was also based on solidarity, the notion of 'looking up' rather than downwards to NIMBY style campaigning. With FoE managing much of the lobbying efforts in Melbourne, the campaign had an unusual dynamic – the 'outsider' movement in regional Victoria was building power at the grassroots, while the 'insider' efforts at parliament house and good communication across the regional groups meant local activity was strategic and meshed into a broad strategic plan.

By the time the state election of 2014 arrived, 75 communities had declared themselves coal or gasfield free, and The Weekly Times newspaper declared the issue one of the top two concerns in regional Victoria which was driving debate during the election campaign.

FoE's work in regional Victoria had been influenced by our work with the Plug the Pipe group who had opposed the North South Pipeline that was intended to bring water from the inland rivers to Melbourne. Although we lost that campaign, our experience of working in conservative-voting areas showed that building trust and respect was possible and could lead to effective campaigning.


When the Coalition came to power in Victoria in 2010, they immediately slammed the door on the environment movement (which in turn, encouraged us to start the successful campaign to win the gas ban). They also 'burnt the furniture' in terms of climate policy. They gutted the Climate Change Act, scrapped the state renewables target and enacted the most regressive anti-wind regulations on the planet. The development of wind energy stopped almost overnight. Jobs were shed, projects stalled, and some renewables companies moved interstate. It was as if Victoria had done a 180 degree turn away from action on climate change and was racing towards an energy policy from the 1950s.

It soon became clear that there was strong alignment between key figures in the Coalition and the anti-wind movement. The Waubra Foundation was at the peak of its influence and anti-wind groups variously blamed wind turbines for ill-health in animals and humans, being fire risks and blights on the landscape, and the slaughter of many native species of birds.

Our Yes to Renewables (Y2R) campaign started to attend the anti-wind forums that were being organised across the state. We started to shift the narrative in regional media away from 'renewables are terrible' to 'renewables bring jobs, investment, income and climate action'. We lobbied the parties to lift the anti-wind laws.Friends of the Earth working with workers and unions on renewable energy targets

Although we need an urgent shift to renewable energy because of climate change imperatives, the Y2R campaign primarily used other 'frames' in arguing for a restart in renewable energy deployment. We argued that wind farms brought local jobs and manufacturing opportunities (and that contracts should include local procurement clauses). We worked with unions and manufacturers to promote the good news story that wind energy jobs were 'green jobs', part of the much-needed energy transition. Turbines bring 'drought proof' income to farmers who host them, and rates to cash strapped local government. They bring major investment and downstream business opportunities to the regions and the state.

And as with the gas ban campaign, we found local partners to work with. Local groups have credibility in a way that inner city-based green groups do not. By collaborating with partner groups across the state, we were able to build active support for the development of renewable energy.

With the Abbott government taking a wrecking-ball to the national Renewable Energy Target and other public funds, we knew there was a strong case for Victoria to go its own way by establishing itself as a leader on renewables, and that this would be something people could be proud of.

Over time we helped shift the public narrative from one that was primarily full of negative stories about wind energy to a media environment where most stories spoke about the positive side of wind energy. Our lobbying efforts paid off and the ALP committed to reinstate the VRET should it come to power. The rest is, as they say, history. The VRET has kick-started the development of commercial-scale renewables on a mass scale in the state and placed Victoria back into a leadership position in terms of action on climate change.

What does the future movement look like?

Both the VRET and the #VicGasBan campaigns were significant because they won environmental victories. But they were also important because they helped build a new movement. The 75 groups in the gas ban campaign and the dozens involved in support of the VRET were locally developed and controlled. They were products of their communities. Neither campaign worked on 'cookie cutter' models of change. Each community was different, with a range of skills, challenges and external threats. A big part of our work was simply to help build the latent skills in each of these communities and help steer them towards a strategic outcome.

And of great significance, the core support base of these campaigns came from outside the usual ENGO demographic. They were (and are) being driven by rural and regional communities, often in conservative voting seats.

There are other movements operating on the same basic principles. The Lock the Gate network is doing this work on a continent-wide basis. A growing number of 'site resistance' battles against new coal or gas or other destructive developments are run in the same way – locally controlled but with support from state-wide and national groups. This model, based on deep democratic models and community building, shows that organised concern for the environment does not rest only in urban environments.

In many instances, these new campaigns are linking up with decades-long campaigns by traditional owner groups to protect Country. And groups like Environmental Justice Australia are active in working-class communities which are affected by coal mining through public health impacts. Long-running campaigns against all aspects of the nuclear cycle on indigenous land continue to build their power, and have achieved a growing list of major victories.

This new movement is the most significant shift in the environment landscape since the ACF and National Farmers Federation (NFF) collaborated to establish the Landcare network in 1989. There is still room to grow and a key dilemma revolves around how to keep these groups active and engaged after they win or lose their primary campaign. But like the Solar Citizens model, which seeks to mobilise 'average' people who also happen to have solar PV systems, these new forms of organising offer a pathway to a more inclusive, more diverse and more democratic environment of the future.

Further information

A longer account of the campaign against coal and gas in Victoria.

An account of the campaign to achieve the VRET.

Lock the Gate

Published in Chain Reaction #132, April 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia. 

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