It's not easy, being a green panda


On 7 September, federal Environment Minister Senator Ian Campbell issued a media release announcing some new Commonwealth grants for projects to protect threatened species.

While the announcement was a dull affair, the remarkable feature of the media release was that it included the panda logo of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and quotes from the acting CEO of WWF praising the government’s program.

The fact that WWF is actively promoting the Howard government’s environmental policies in the middle of an election campaign is difficult to square with its angry reaction to the Australia Institute’s July report, which concluded that the relationship between WWF and the Howard government has become unhealthily close.

The report, Taming the Panda, followed an earlier Australia Institute report, Silencing Dissent, which examined the means by which the Howard government has attempted to silence its critics in non-government organisations.

Within days of the release of the Australia Institute’s WWF paper, a bitter row broke out in Tasmania over a report detailing WWF’s solution to the dispute over logging in Tasmanian old growth forests. Thirteen local environment organisations, most of which have been campaigning on the issue for years, wrote an excoriating letter to WWF directors. It declared of WWF’s Blueprint for Tasmanian Forests:

‘The document is incredibly damaging to the cause of forest conservation in Tasmania. We believe it will do irreparable harm to the reputation of WWF in Australia and internationally.’

These environment groups were not the only ones to feel betrayed. The Age newspaper reported that some wildlife photographers, whose work is due to be published in a new WWF book on the Tarkine, have withdrawn permission to use their photos. One Hobart photographer, Ted Mead, was quoted as saying: ‘I certainly would not have been part of the book project if I had known the blueprint was going to be produced’.

The Australia Institute’s study found that WWF has enjoyed lavish financial support from the Howard government, with a five-fold funding boost since 1996.

The flow of funds was turned on after WWF endorsed the Howard government’s highly controversial Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in 1999. Funding to other environment groups, notably the Australian Conservation Foundation and Tasmanian Wilderness Society (both of which were critical of that legislation), has been slashed.

An analysis of the public statements made by WWF Australia and other environment organisations about the Howard government’s major environment policies shows the following.

First,WWF Australia’s comments are almost uniformly favourable, and often highly complimentary, to the Howard government.

Second, WWF Australia’s position is frequently at odds with those of other major environment groups such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, Greenpeace, Tasmanian Wilderness Society and state conservation councils.

Third, other major organisations are sometimes critical and sometimes supportive of Howard government policies.

The Australia Institute report concluded that there are strong grounds for questioning whether WWF Australia can legitimately continue to describe itself as independent. The perceived loss of independence is of considerable importance as it undermines WWF Australia’s role in public debates about government policy, and raises questions about whether it has misled its supporters and the general public. Because the public is justified in asking whether the opinions and activities of other groups are influenced by governments and businesses, the standing of all environment non-government organisations in the community could be jeopardised.

There is an inherent danger for independent community-based organisations when they accept government funding. Organisations that begin to see the world through the eyes of governments risk losing their capacity to make dispassionate assessments of what is in the interests of the environment.

Most organisations work assiduously to guard their independence and, at their best, governments accept this. In the case of the Howard government and WWF Australia, it appears that the line has been crossed.

With the environment expected to feature more prominently in this federal election than any since 1990, ‘solving’ the iconic Tasmanian forests problem will be high on the agenda of the major parties.

WWF’s Blueprint offers the promise of saving the industry and getting the endorsement of a major green group. It’s an attractive approach and we may well see the Howard government adopting something very similar and receiving WWF backing.

It is also likely to win the backing of the National Association of Forest Industries. At a recent forest industry conference in Melbourne reported by Bob Burton, the head of NAFI Kate Carnell described a divide-and-conquer strategy in which ‘moderates’ are courted and ‘radicals’ marginalised. WWF’s Senior Policy Officer Michael Rae shared the podium with her’

‘The problem as I see it is that although I think Michael Rae and WWF are doing an absolutely stunning job [attempting to negotiate with industry]’, Carnell said, ‘ … we know that if we come to an arrangement with Michael and WWF, the Wilderness Society will still hate us because their fundamental position is that native forestry shouldn’t exist at all.’

Many committed and capable people work for WWF, and the organisation has made a valuable contribution to environmental protection in Australia and elsewhere. But WWF appears to have lost sight of the critical importance of maintaining its independence from government and business.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.