The Federal Government will scrap all funding for the Environmental Defender’s Offices (EDO), sparking allegations that Canberra is trying to gag organisations which are standing up for small Australian communities.
The decision follows the former Labor government’s guarantee of almost $10 million over the next four years to the not-for-profit community legal centres. Some offices will be hit harder than others, with various branches also funded by private donations and state governments.
The Department of the Environment, the Attorney-General’s office and Department for Industry have all been contacted for comment.
The New Daily understands that offices in Western Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory and Queensland now face closure. A reduction of operations will almost certainly occur in the other offices.
Brendan Sydes, CEO of the EDO Victoria, has accused the federal government of trying to gag opposing voices.
“This decision by the federal government demonstrates the hostility that this government has for the many Australian communities using the law to stand up for the places they love”, he said. “It is outrageous that the federal government seeks to silence the voice of communities.”
Mr Sydes acknowledges the future will be tough for EDOs, but is confident that its work will continue.
“It’s a major blow and puts a big hole in our funding but we would like to reassure our supporters that we remain committed to being the environment’s legal team,” he said. “The generous assistance of our supporters will help us be a strong and resilient voice for communities … and for nature.”
The EDO has long been a thorn in the side of mining companies. In October 2012, the New South Wales Minerals Council appealed to Premier Barry O’Farrell to scrap the EDO funding.
In light of the funding decision, Chris Rath of the Mineral Council says it has “nothing to say regarding the most recent announcement”.
What is the EDO?
The EDO is a community legal service that acts on behalf of communities on environmental matters. EDOs throughout Australia provide thousands of individuals and community action groups with free legal advice on environmental and planning laws each year.
The NSW EDO represented the Hunter Valley town of Bulga in a three-year legal battle against Rio Tinto when the Land and Environment Court overturned a state-government decision to dig an open-cut mine next to the town. The EDO plans to represent the town in the NSW Court of Appeal, but funding cuts could hamper its efforts.
The Western Australia EDO acted for the Wilderness Society and Mr Richard Hunter, a Goolaraboolooo man and traditional land owner, against Woodside Corporation. The EDO successfully challenged the government’s approval of a Browse LNG Precinct Proposal at James Price Point.
EDOs also make submissions on government policy and legislation proposals, and agitate for environmentally-friendly law reforms.
The decision is the latest in a series on the environment by the Coalition. Earlier in December, the government signaled its intention to close the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, a body that encourages private sector investment in renewable technology.
The Federal Government also plans to return power for environmental decisions to the states and territories, a move that could result in considerable conflict of interest between economic and environmental actions.
Sally Rawsthorne is a Sydney-based freelance writer.