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Friday analysis: it’s time to turn off legal aid for activists

It’s time Federal Government funding of the Environmental Defenders Office was turned off.

Just last week it lost the case brought by the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) against the Commonwealth of Australia and the State of NSW with its lawyers arguing that the RFA should not have been renewed without assessment and approval under federal environment laws.

And this week it lost a landmark case against Santos’s $5.3bn Barossa LNG project, with claims the company’s proposed 262km pipeline would cause irreparable damage to First Nations people and their sites being rejected.

The EDO, which again began receiving money – $10 million from Labor last year after a 10-year funding drought initiated by the Abbott government, is carrying out four additional cases in the Federal Court, one involving Woodside’s $16.5bn Scarborough offshore gas field and another relating to the federal government’s $13bn Murray-Darling Basin water plan.

AFPA chair Joel Fitzgibbon told The Australian this week that legal aid for activists was “hurting” the Australian economy and called on the federal government to scrap taxpayer funds from the service.

“Hopefully the broader community is beginning to see activist lawfare for what it is, ideological and a threat to our living standards,” he said.

Mr Fitzgibbon said legal aid for green activists “makes no sense, there is no case for public funding”.

He also wants the EDO to disclose a list of its donors.

“It was another spurious claim by the EDO, a body constantly in search of a cause rather than one championing the national interest,” he said. “Legal aid for activists is hurting our economy and our reputation as an attractive place to invest.

“There should be mandatory disclosure of donations. How else can we be confident there aren’t commercial interests at play?”

It echoes a call by Senator Jonno Duniam and Senator Susan McDonald who late last year said in a joint statement that alarm bells should be ringing for the Albanese Government to defund the EDO.

“The Albanese Government is enabling green lawfare and stifling billions in investment by funding the EDO. The need to revisit this arrangement couldn’t be more urgent,” Senator Duniam said.

“The Government is out of touch. They are on the side of niche activists, not Australian workers and communities that would benefit from investment.”

“When the Government’s own union backers and the WA Labor Government are questioning the regulations and power of environmental activists, alarm bells should be ringing for Federal Labor to change the way they are governing.”

Shadow Resources Minister Susan McDonald said Labor’s divided, shambolic Cabinet was sending mixed signals to industry and crippling investment.

“It is clear Labor doesn’t value mining and resources, and the fact even the unions are now criticising the government should prompt a serious rethink of how they are treating our most important industry,” she said.

All three are of course right.

Why should any Federal Government fund with taxpayer money an organisation which seems to do little more than use the courts to seek to block legitimate value-creating businesses from operating, or even starting up?

The Santos case, according to respected financial journalist Peter Switzer, draws into question the tactics of environmentalists, who do have a right to question all projects and what impact they could have on the environment.

“We can’t assume all miners and other businesses are great corporate citizens, but the law courts shouldn’t be used to screw big businesses that employ people, pay taxes, and help the share prices of stocks in our super funds,” he wrote.

The delays are said to have cost Santos $800 million, and Switzer points out that while we should be thankful that our courts can play the fair referee (as we’ve seen with the Santos and RFA decisions), there are calls for the Albanese Government to pay a more active role in making sure regulatory actions are not one-sided and anti-business.

This, he wrote, should be what you expect of a government that represents all our interests, which not only looks like common sense but also is fair.

There is no doubt about that. No doubt at all.