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Wise Guys Down Under: PR's Eco-front Moves on Australia
On the job in Australia, PR Watch scouts out the Canberra headquarters of the Burson-Marsteller PR firm.
by Bob Burton
The public relations industry which began in the United States has spread to other countries, but the US continues to be an innovator and leader in the industry.
During the past decade, one of PR's most insidious inventions--the anti-environmental, self-named "Wise Use" movement--has gained momentum in Australia, with the assistance of corporations and PR firms that operate on both sides of the Pacific.
In 1986, the chemical industry sponsored a tour of New Zealand by Wise Use co-founder Ron Arnold. Describing himself as the "Darth Vader for the capitalist revolution," he defended the use of the Agent Orange herbicide 2,4,5-T, and claimed that environmentalists were inundating the US with a wave of eco-terrorism.
In 1987, Dick Darnoc assumed the leadership of the Australian timber industry's leading lobby group, known today as the National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI). Darnoc was managing director of Weyerhauser Australia Pty Ltd., a subsidiary of the $6-billion-a-year US-based forestry firm which has been involved in funding Wise Use groups in the US such as the Oregon Lands Coalition, Oregonians for Food and Shelter and the right-wing legal group, the Pacific Legal Foundation.
Under Darnoc's leadership, the Australian timber industry launched the Forest Protection Society (FPS), a deceptively-named organization whose true purpose was to counter the growing success of environmentalists in protecting native forests from logging operations.
According to NAFI Executive Director Paul Edwards, the plan was for the timber industry to provide FPS with funding to get it off the ground, but ten years later it still has not been weaned from industry money. Approximately 80% of its budget comes from NAFI, which has provided it with $3.6 million in funding during the last five years alone. "We could not function without that (financial) support from the companies and the industry," admits FPS Director Barry Chipman.
The FPS is advised by the Burson-Marsteller mega-PR firm, which also works for Wise Use Groups in the United States. Not surprisingly, it uses very similar tactics, in particular the tactic of mobilizing independent-seeming "third parties" to advocate for corporate causes.
"For the media and for the public, the corporation will be one of the least credible sources of information on its own product, environmental and safety risks," explained an Australian representative of Burson-Marsteller. For that reason, "developing third party support and validation for the basic risk messages of the corporation is essential. This support should ideally come from . . . political leaders, union officials, relevant academics, fire and police officials, environmentalists, regulators."
Just as Wise Use has organized log truck blockades in the Pacific Northwest US to oppose protection of the spotted owl habitat, the FPS mobilizes timber workers in rural Australian towns to defend the industry agenda. On two occasions FPS has organized log truck blockades of Australia's Parliament House in Canberra.
In 1988, the Network Communications PR firm distributed FPS strategy meeting notes which contained a revealing glimpse at the group's organizing tactics. Under the heading, "long term program," the minutes recorded that FPS National Director "Robyn Loydell discussed activities by her group which involved taking over local environmentalist meetings, with the result that they became distracted from their ongoing campaign. Robyn's group actually controls the voting on several groups and could therefore vote to have them join the Forest Protection Society."
It was a boast that backfired when the minutes were leaked, and Loydell's gloating was quoted in newspapers around the country.
Beginning in the 1990s, the FPS began establishing formal links with Wise Use groups in North America. The US-based Western States Public Land Coalition (WSPLC) became its first international member. Ties were also established with like-minded groups including Canadian Women in Timber, the Forestry Alliance of British Columbia (Canada) and Share Canada.
In May 1994, Robyn Loydell and Barry Chipman attended a conference in Glorieta, Colorado which was sponsored by People for the West, another US-based Wise Use group. "We share a lot of common ground with the US organization and the conference is a great opportunity to exchange ideas and reinforce with the politicians present that the movement against excessive government pandering to minority groups is international and growing," Chipman wrote upon his return.
Two Australian mining companies, the Western Mining Corporation (WMC) and BHP, have also played a critical role in fostering links with US anti-environmental groups. According to RJ Smith of the Washington, DC-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, Ray Evans from WMC "originally heard about us and . . . set it up with some of our good friends at BHP, Roger Nelson in San Francisco, Nick Allen in Melbourne and others to bring me down, I think in 1993. I came out for the first time and spent a month at Tasman Institute (a conservative think tank) . . . and they put me on a tour all around the country to lecture."
Ironically, WMC has recently sought to reposition itself as a "leader in environmental management." To accomplish this task, former Burson-Marsteller managing director Geoff Kelly joined WMC as Group Manager of Corporate Communications. Under his leadership the company released an environment policy, a code of conduct for employees and an annual environment report. WMC also sought to court critical activists and recruited former Greenpeace Executive Director Paul Gilding as a consultant. These face-saving measures occurred while WMC was simultaneously supporting Wise Use groups and playing a critical role in organizing the Canberra conference against global climate reform (see cover story in this issue).
The New South Wales based Public Land Users Alliance (PLUA), with close associations with the mining industry, has been campaigning against the protection of wilderness areas. In 1995 it announced that it proposed to launch the Australian Wise Use movement at a three day rally "with our friends from the mining, forestry and agricultural industries. We'll fly Ron Arnold out from the States for a public address and a series of meetings with organizers from all our affiliated groups. Representatives of our parallel organisations in Victoria, Queensland and other states . . . to exchange information and set up national networks."
The Rough Get Going
As in the US, Australian PR people have attempted to "position" community groups as dangerous radicals. One fax from the Forest Industry Association of Tasmania's PR officer suggested describing environmentalists in public statements as "conservation extremists, environmental fanatics." The FPS has repeatedly accused environmentalists of being terrorists.
Australia's timber industry has openly boasted about how it has worked closely with police. On two occasions the timber industry has succeeded in having an anti-terrorist intelligence officer from Victoria Police appear at joint press conferences branding environmentalists as eco-terrorists.
Recently it was revealed that Victoria Police have routinely infiltrated a wide range of community groups, including environmental groups. At one PR conference, NAFI head Robert Bain boasted that Victorian Special Branch "anti-terrorist" police had infiltrated environment groups and passed information to the timber industry about the movements of protesters.
In reality, it is the timber industry which has used violence, a fact which was revealed when an amateur video operator recorded environmentalists being assaulted by loggers.
"If we have to have a fight, if we have to physically confront those people who have opposed us for so long, then so be it," said Col Dorber, an ex-policeman who serves as executive director of the New South Wales Forest Products Association. Speaking on national TV, Dorber added, "I also say to people in the industry, if you are going to do that, use your common sense and make sure it's not being filmed when you do it."
The Wise Use movement suffered a setback, however, when a lone gunman went berserk and shot 35 people in Australia's Port Arthur massacre on April 28, 1996.
The shooting sparked a broadly-supported movement for stricter controls on gun ownership, and the public was shocked to learn that the New South Wales timber industry had funded the state's pro-gun Shooters Party.
"We both have the same enemy basically," explained Shooters Party leader Ted Orr, a former policeman. "We don't need a bunch of long-haired unwashed gits up trees . . . trying to tell us how to run a forest."