Environmental movement in Australia

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A climate change rally in Melbourne on 5 July 2008

Beginning as a conservation movement, the environmental movement in Australia was the first in the world to become a political movement. Australia is home to United Tasmania Group, the world's first green party.[1][2]

The environmental movement is represented by a wide range of groups sometimes called non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These exist on local, national, and international scales. Environmental NGOs vary widely in political views and in the amount they seek to influence environmental policy in Australia and elsewhere. The environmental movement today consists of both large national groups and also many smaller local groups with local concerns. There are also 5,000 Landcare groups in the six states and two mainland territories. Other environmental issues within the scope of the movement include climate change and opposition to nuclear activities.

In Australia, the movement has seen a growth in popularity through prominent Australian environmentalists such as Bob Brown, Peter Garrett, Steve Irwin, Tim Flannery, and David Fleay.

Scope of the movement[edit]

At a political level, the most influential organisation is the Australian Greens. In recent years the Greens have at times held the balance of power in the Australian Senate. The strongest areas of focus are Landcare, conservation in Australia, clean energy and the Australian anti-nuclear movement. The largest and most influential and active environmental organizations in Australia are World Wildlife Fund, The Wilderness Society, Greenpeace, and the Australian Conservation Foundation. There are also a large number of smaller conservation and advocacy groups. Many groups are involved in active acquisition for conservation as non-profit trusts or covenants to protect of environmentally sensitive land against inappropriate use. The largest of these, in terms of total land area, is Bush Heritage Australia.


The first European settlers of Australia had little regard for the environment of the continent and the early focus was to use the abundant resources and convert the environment into a less hostile and European setting to make settlers feel more at home.

The first signs of the environmental movement in Australia began with the growing naturalism movement at the turn of the 19th century.

Early field naturalists[edit]

The first naturalists arrived in Australia very early. Joseph Banks, a botanist and naturalist, was a member of First voyage of James Cook and the First Fleet.

Despite some significant discoveries by botanists such as Joseph Maiden it wasn't for many decades and with the rapid deterioration of native habitat and growing understanding of the native environment that the first organised clubs began to form. The Field Naturalists Club of Victoria was formed in 1880, followed shortly after by the New South Wales Naturalists Club and Field Naturalists Society of South Australia. A similar organisation was established in Tasmania in 1904.

Despite the existence of a strong Victorian era zoological movement, there was little emphasis on conservation or management of the environment and in the early days these naturalists were primarily concerned with cataloguing and academia.

The first national parks[edit]

The idea of land conservation began 1879, when the Royal National Park in Sydney was proclaimed.[3] Previously it had been a recreational area; however, it followed the lead of Yellowstone National Park in the United States as a conservation park.

As the conservation movement grew, so too did the number of national parks.

Response to endangered species[edit]

The thylacine, hunted to extinction in the wild by 1930, sparked public concern for other Australian mammals.

In 1908, the Victorian Naturalists Society and the Wilsons Promontory management committee were involved in advocating for the preservation of the thylacine, a species being hunted to extinction in Tasmania. Members of that group went on to establish Healesville Sanctuary.

The environmental movement became mainstream with public outcry following extensive culling of koalas. Between 1915 and 1927, nearly 4 million koalas were killed, with the largest cullings occurring in Queensland.[4][5] By 1924 koalas had officially become extinct in South Australia and endangered elsewhere. In response to the threat of extinction, Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary was opened.

Native fauna advisory committees began to be established to address the concern of rapidly dwindling populations of a number of mammal species. In 1928, the Tasmanian Advisory Committee for Native Fauna had recommended a reserve to protect any remaining thylacines, with potential sites of suitable habitat including the Arthur-Pieman area of western Tasmania. This was also the beginning of a Tasmanian wilderness movement.

While the movement was too little, too late to save the thylacine from extinction, with the last thylacine dying in captivity in 1936, other species were saved with official protection orders. The koala was declared a protected species in all states in 1937. The Tasmanian devil, another iconic species hunted to the brink of extinction, was protected in 1941.

Landcare movement[edit]

While threats to iconic species stimulated the public to act, the conservation movement took some time to grow. Vast areas of Australia were set aside as crown land; however, these were seen as areas of potential development and land use rather than for conservation. Private land use was in general insensitive to native wildlife.

The landcare movement in Australia was begun by farmers and has its roots in the 1960s to combat the growing problems of soil erosion and soil salinity which were having an increasing impact in Australia[6] but later also embraced benefits of native biodiversity. Groups of volunteers were formed for projects which promoted revegetation and better resource management. Many of these projects were funded by community groups such as the Returned Services Leagues and Rotary International, or official government programs, such as Land for Wildlife in Victoria or protection of remnant native vegetation through trusts and covenants. Having started locally, the landcare movement gained a national voice in the late 1980s with the foundation of Landcare and later Landcare Australia. Despite increasing awareness of greater environmental issues, however, a growing conflict was occurring between conservationists and farmers.[7]

The anti-litter movement[edit]

The anti-litter movement also had its roots in the 1960s due to the growing problem in Australia of litter as a form of visual pollution. Keep Australia Beautiful, founder Dame Phyllis Frost saw the litter (cups, plastic bags, cans and bottles) strewn along the landscapes of Victoria and then sought the support of the National Council of Women, with a group of voluntary organisations and local government groups who were invited to join Australia's first anti-litter campaign. Initially named '§tate Wide Civic Pride' under the guidance of the Minister for Local Government R J Hamer, the group adopted the name 'Keep Australia Beautiful Council' and officially inaugurated the organisation in 1968.

Attracting public support from the famous Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to the music band ABBA supporting Keep Australia Beautiful's anti-litter campaigns, the organisation remains the leading campaigner for a litter free and sustainable Australia. With regional programs supporting civic pride through the only regional sustainable programs Tidy Towns Awards, annual Keep Australia Beautiful Week to the long standing eco-education programs, Keep Australia Beautiful continues as the country's leading anti-litter campaigners with increasing responsibility being put back on to the producers through litter auditing, government reporting and pushing for corporate responsibility.

The rise of the green movement[edit]

The first rumblings of the Australian green movement as a political force came with protests over the Lake Pedder damming project in 1972. The project gained worldwide publicity and brought the environmental movement to the mainstream in Australia. The movement escalated with the Franklin Dam project and Bob Brown was made a martyr for the cause when he was jailed for environmental activism.[8]

The protests included the United Tasmania Group who were the precursor to the Tasmanian Greens and are now recognised as the world's first green party. The group that preceded the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, the South West Tasmania Action Committee, continued after the flooding.

Indigenous land[edit]

An increasing consciousness in Indigenous Australian culture and the practices of sustainable landcare also contributed to an overall increase in popularity of the environmental movement and concern for indigenous species. Additionally the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976 which granted indigenous people ownership based on traditional occupation, which effectively locked away large tracts of land from overdevelopment.[citation needed]

Late 20th century[edit]

The environmental movement reached a peak in Australia in the 1980s. Popular Australian culture began to embrace the environmental messages of rock bands like Midnight Oil.[citation needed] Blockades disrupting logging, mining, dredging, clearing and other environmentally destructive activities were increasingly undertaken throughout the 1980s and have become regularly used by campaigners.[9]

The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand polarised the community on the green movement. Nuclear testing and whaling in the Pacific region had major impacts on the social consciousness of Australia.[citation needed] The environmental movement also became a hot political issue. The Australian Labor Party, in particular, began to capitalise on the popularity in its election campaigning with a national conservation and soil conservation strategy.[citation needed]

In July 1989, Bob Hawke made a famous "Our Country, Our Future" speech that the Australian Labor Party would plant a billion trees to combat soil erosion and declared the 1990s the "Decade of Landcare".[10]

In the same year, the government introduced the Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Act 1989, the focus of which was to eliminate the use of chlorofluorocarbons. The widening hole in the ozone layer was of high concern due to Australia's growing rate of skin cancer incidence.

However, with the shift to the Keating government the economy became the dominant issue and government environmental policy was not a mainstream political issue for over a decade.[citation needed]

21st century[edit]

The 2011 Say Yes demonstrations were held in support of carbon pricing policies.

The 2000s Australian drought made climate change a more prominent issue at the turn of the century.[11] A Newspoll released prior to the 2007 federal election found that the environment was the fourth most important issue to voters behind Medicare, education and the economy.[12] At the grassroots level, Extinction Rebellion and School Strike for Climate were both active in Australia from the 2010s.[13] Between 2010 and 2019, Australian environmental groups advertised over 24,000 events on Facebook.[13]

A protester at a lock-on in opposition to a mine.

The governments of John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard all prioritised climate change policies such as carbon pricing and emissions trading schemes.[11] Thousands of protesters joined Say Yes demonstrations in support of carbon pricing in 2011.[14] However, the government of Tony Abbott opposed environmental policies and abolished a number of schemes after their 2013 federal election victory. Subsequent prime minister Malcolm Turnbull unsuccessfully proposed a National Energy Guarantee to address climate change and energy issues, but was also later removed as party leader due to opposition to it. His replacement, Scott Morrison, and his government were criticised for their response to the 2019–20 Australian bushfire season, which brought climate change to further popular attention.[11]

Environmental issues were a key political issue in the 2022 federal election, where a loose alliance of "teal independent" candidates made addressing climate change a key campaign issue and won several seats from the incumbent Liberal coalition.[15][16]


Anti-nuclear movement[edit]

Nuclear testing, uranium mining and export, and nuclear power have often been the subject of public debate in Australia, and the anti-nuclear movement has a long history.[17] Its origins date back to the 1972–73 debate over French nuclear testing in the Pacific and the 1976–77 debate about uranium mining in Australia.[18][19]

Several groups specifically concerned with nuclear issues were established in the mid-1970s, including the Movement Against Uranium Mining and Campaign Against Nuclear Energy (CANE), cooperating with other environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth and the Australian Conservation Foundation.[20] However, by the late 1980s, the price of uranium had fallen, and the costs of nuclear power had risen, and the anti-nuclear movement seemed to have won its case. CANE disbanded itself in 1988.[21]

About 2003, proponents of nuclear power advocated it as a solution to global warming and the Australian government began taking an interest. Anti-nuclear campaigners and some scientists in Australia emphasised that nuclear power could not significantly substitute for other power sources, and that uranium mining itself could become a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.[citation needed]

Climate change[edit]

Melbourne Climate Strike, September 2019
Protesters at a 2019 school strike for climate in Hobart.

Growing concern in Australia about climate change reached its peak in 2006, largely in response to climate change campaigner Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and once again pushed environmental issues to the forefront. The Howard government stirred the environmental movement by refusing to acknowledge the Kyoto Protocol and pushing a strongly pro-nuclear power stance. In addition, Howard created controversy by refusing to meet with Gore during his visit to Australia. In contrast, opposition leader Kevin Rudd proclaimed climate change as "the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time" and called for a cut to greenhouse gas emissions by 60% before 2050.[22]

The Rudd government began on 3 December 2007, and as his first official act after being sworn in, Kevin Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol.[23] Rudd stated that:

Australia's official declaration today that we will become a member of the Kyoto Protocol is a significant step forward in our country's efforts to fight climate change domestically – and with the international community.

However, the Rudd government's environmental credentials suffered some negative perception from environmental groups when post-Kyoto cuts to emissions were subsequently scaled back[24] and the fallout of the public embarrassing Energy Efficient Homes Package scheme which included the much criticized insulation and Green Loans programs.[25]

Criticism of government policy caused delays to the introduction of a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme including an abandoned emission trading scheme. It was finally replaced with the Gillard government's passed Clean Energy Bill 2011.

Eco Warriors Flag[edit]

Eco Warriors Flag

The Eco Warriors Flag originated in Australia during the late 1990s.[26] It is a symbol for worldwide cultural change.

The Eco Warriors Flag has four colours. Red / yellow / black are colours from the Australian Aboriginal Flag. Representing indigenous cultures worldwide and the beginnings of all humanity.[26] Green represents nature and the environmental movement. In the centre of the flag is tripod symbol, which represents unity.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "History". Australian Greens. May 2010. Archived from the original on 11 March 2013. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  2. ^ Rootes, C. (1 June 2001). "Review article - Environmentalism in Australia". Environmental Politics. 10 (2): 134–139. doi:10.1080/714000542. ISSN 0964-4016. S2CID 145716321.
  3. ^ "NSW Office of Environment and Heritage". Office of Environment and Heritage. Retrieved 16 April 2011.
  4. ^ Evans, Raymond (2007). A History of Queensland. Port Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-521-87692-6.
  5. ^ Koala research collaboration project
  6. ^ [1] Archived 15 August 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ [2] pg 4 Archived 15 August 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Commons Librarian (31 August 2022). "Franklin River Campaign". The Commons Social Change Library. Retrieved 7 July 2023.
  9. ^ McIntyre, Iain (10 May 2021). "Blockades that changed Australia". The Commons Social Change Library. Retrieved 7 July 2023.
  10. ^ (22 July 1989) Hawke calls up a billion trees in the battle against soil erosion. News Scientist. Retrieved 5 March 2013.
  11. ^ a b c "The recent history of Australia's climate change wars". SBS News. Retrieved 13 December 2022.
  12. ^ "Importance and best party to handle major issues" (PDF). Newspoll/The Australian. 6 June 2006. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 June 2007. Retrieved 15 April 2007.
  13. ^ a b Gulliver, Robyn. "How Australia's expanding environmental movement is breaking the climate action deadlock in politics". The Conversation. Retrieved 13 December 2022.
  14. ^ "Thousands 'Say Yes' at carbon price rallies". ABC News. 5 June 2011. Retrieved 13 December 2022.
  15. ^ "'Independence day' as Teals pick off key seats in Liberal heartlands". www.9news.com.au. Retrieved 13 December 2022.
  16. ^ "Australian conservative party faces teal independent threat". The Independent. 19 May 2022. Retrieved 13 December 2022.
  17. ^ Kearns, Barbara (5 May 2021). "Stepping Out For Peace: A History of CANE and PND (WA)". The Commons Social Change Library. Retrieved 7 July 2023.
  18. ^ Jim Green. Australia's anti-nuclear movement: a short history Archived 5 April 2008 at the Wayback Machine Green Left Online, 26 August 1998. Retrieved 15 October 2009.
  19. ^ Jason Koutsoukis. Rudd romps to historic win The Age, 25 November 2007. Retrieved 15 October 2009.
  20. ^ Roy McLeod (1995). "Resistance to Nuclear Technology: Optimists, Opportunists and Opposition in Australian Nuclear History" in Martin Bauer (ed) Resistance to New Technology, Cambridge University Press, pp. 171–173.
  21. ^ Roy McLeod (1995). "Resistance to Nuclear Technology: Optimists, Opportunists and Opposition in Australian Nuclear History" in Martin Bauer (ed) Resistance to New Technology, Cambridge University Press, pp. 175–177.
  22. ^ Rule of reckless vows The Weekend Australian 27/28 December 2008 page 20
  23. ^ "Australia ratifies Kyoto Protocol". The Sydney Morning Herald. 3 December 2007. Retrieved 3 December 2007.
  24. ^ Lenore Taylor (29 April 2010). Rudd's ETS flip-flop sparks climate chaos. Sydney Morning Herald.
  25. ^ I'm to blame for the lot in bungled insulation scheme, Kevin Rudd declares Matthew Franklin and Nicola Berkovic. The Australian. 26 February 2010.
  26. ^ a b c "OCP Staff Receives Eco Warriors Flag". Okapi Conservation Project. 15 June 2012. Retrieved 7 April 2020.

Further reading[edit]