EDITORIAL: Environmental Defenders Office review secrecy treats taxpayers with contempt

The Nightly
Minister for Environment Tanya Plibersek.
Minister for Environment Tanya Plibersek. Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

The dressing down by Federal Court Justice Natalie Charlesworth of Environmental Defenders Office lawyers in January sent the organisation — and the wider world of eco-activism — a clear message.

The law was not an instrument to be cynically abused in order to further their ideologically driven battle against the resources industry.

Courts would not tolerate the “lack of integrity” with which the EDO had acted in its legal wrangling — ostensibly on behalf of a small group of Tiwi Islands traditional owners — against Santos.

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The EDO had claimed that the pipeline Santos wished to lay off the coast of the Northern Territory would intersect with the submerged “Crocodile Man” songline, and disturb the underwater resting place of the rainbow serpent.

But, that turned out not to be a deeply held belief by the Tiwi Islanders, but a furphy cooked up by others in an underhanded attempt to have Santos’ Barossa project stopped by any means necessary.

It was just another chapter in the EDO’s long game of environmental lawfare, in which the Tiwi Islanders were little more than pawns.

Given Justice Charlesworth was so damning in her critique, in which she said EDO lawyers were guilty of “distorting and misrepresenting” the words of Aboriginal witnesses, you may wonder why it’s even necessary for the Federal Environment Department to conduct a review of the organisation’s actions.

It matters because it’s the Australian taxpayers who foot a good part of the bill for the EDO to operate. That means taxpayers should be entitled to know whether the group breached its contract with the Federal Government as a result of its unscrupulous conduct.

In February, not long after Justice Charlesworth’s bollocking, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek wrote to the EDO’s bosses for assurances that there would be no repeats of its actions in the case against Santos.

“As with any organisation in receipt of public funds, the Australian people, quite rightly, expect the EDO to exhibit the highest ethical and professional standards. That is my expectation too,” she wrote.

She’s right. So why do the Australian people not deserve to know the outcome of the review being conducted on her department’s behalf?

The review has been outsourced to a private legal firm, and there’s no guarantee that its findings will ever be made public.

Why the secrecy?

The Coalition wants the Federal Government to withdraw all public funding to the EDO. Ms Plibersek believes that’s a step too far, and says the EDO still has an important role to play in helping ordinary people access justice.

She may well be right. If the EDO decides to start acting as a community legal service again, instead of an activist organisation, then the use of taxpayer money to fund its operations is justified.

But taxpayers might need some convincing first. Treating them with contempt by refusing to make public this review is doing them no favours.

Responsibility for the editorial comment is taken by The Nightly Editor-in-Chief Anthony De Ceglie.


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