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Integrity in the public debate - whose view?

03, January 2007

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 (On Line Opinion, December 28, 2006), where she lays bare the need to expose those who are supporting groups commenting in the public arena.

The article is timely in that 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 some of us perceived we 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.

Ms Cannold claims that the AEF "campaigns for weaker environmental laws". Where is her evidence for this claim? She 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 are a mouthpiece for the IPA then this is not supported by fact. If it implies the AEF and IPA members share common values that requires debate to be 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 the AEF had two IPA directors elected by democratic process. Other “interest groups” represented on the AEF board included 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 the AEF is involved in other groups. AEF membership is only open to individuals. There is no ongoing funding of the AEF by any group other than individual members.

The Australian Environment Foundation co-hosted 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.

AEF supports the view that persons speaking or writing on behalf of interest groups declare their affiliations so that the public can weigh and analyse any perceived bias for themselves. Every commentator connected with AEF has been meticulous in declaring their affiliations. They can do no more.

Leslie Cannold’s error has been to lump AEF in with some “public interest” groups that do not have a policy of transparency. No attempt was made to verify the (untrue) statements made about the AEF. Surely this is “distorting or suppressing relevant facts”.

AEF’s values, which are on the website for all to see, demand debate based on science and evidence not ideology. AEF membership is exceptionally well placed with nuclear physicists, professional foresters, farmers, marine and terrestrial biologists, geneticists and many other people highly qualified to present their views for public discussion.

Leslie Cannold’s point, “It really does matter who you are, and where you come from” is valid in the context of the integrity of public debate and that the source of the debate is transparent. What is more important though is, “Where you are going with the debate and what evidence do you have to back your views”.

This is particularly so with the environment debate, which is long on rhetoric and short on evidence. A fact seemingly lost on many journalists.

By Max Rheese, Executive Director, Australian Environment Foundation

Published in On Line Opinion

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