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Integrity in the Public Debate - Whose View?

15, November 2006

Influence of public opinion, facts and credibility of those commenting or seeking to influence public opinion are raised in a thoughtful article by Leslie Cannold [The Age 14/11, It really does matter who you are], where she lays bare the need to expose those who are supporting groups commenting in the public arena.

The article is timely in that the two most populous states in the country are in election mode and many groups are seeking to influence public opinion on various issues. Their credentials to do so and their support base should be subject to public scrutiny.

A healthy democracy is strengthened by diverse and informed debate; the task of public interest groups is to have their message distributed to the public in the most effective manner. The task of the media or others who may have a differing opinion is to “keep those bastards honest” and the debate balanced.

The Australian Environment Foundation [AEF], of which I am executive director, came into being because their members perceived they were being marginalised in the public debate.

Ms Cannold somewhat lauds the honesty and integrity of journalists, but at least in relation to environmental matters, it is the failure of the media to give a balanced coverage - or put another way, their preference for emotional rhetoric over and above evidence-based commentary - that has driven the formation of the AEF.

The article states that the AEF ‘campaigns for weaker environmental laws’ for which there is not a shred of evidence to support such a claim. It further states that the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) contributed to the establishment of ‘front groups’ such as the AEF.

If this infers that the AEF and its members is a mouthpiece for the IPA then this is not supported by fact. If it implies the AEF and IPA members share common values that require debate supported by evidence and fact then this is true.
AEF has been upfront and on the public record from day one regarding its links indeed, the AEF has much stronger links with forestry and farming groups than it has with IPA.

For the record, IPA along with about a dozen other interest groups initiated the Eureka Forum in December 2004 which saw the formation of the AEF. This was a widely advertised and supported forum open to anyone. The inaugural board of AEF had two IPA directors elected by democratic process. Other ‘interest groups’ represented on the AEF board were the Landholders Institute, Timber Communities Australia and Bush Users Group. Currently there is one person on the board who is a director of the IPA. Almost every other director of AEF is involved in other groups. AEF membership is only open to individuals. There is no ongoing funding of AEF by any group other than individual members.

The Australian Environment Foundation is currently co-hosting with IPA the screening of the independently produced film, Mine Your Own Business to bring an important story about the dark side of environmentalism to the Australian public – nobody else will.

by Max Rheese, Executive Director, Australian Environment Foundation, Benalla

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submitted to The Age, 

Published in : Not Published by The Age

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