Citation: Sharon Beder,'Challenging the Corporate Agenda', Renewing Australian Planning? New Challenges, New Agendas, edited by Brendon Gleeson and Penny Hanley, Urban Research Program Forum, ANU, Canberra, 1998, pp. 83-98.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

This paper will argue that environmentalists were influential in the 1960s and 1970s in opening up decision-making processes to outside scrutiny and prompting the establishment of the first comprehensive planning and pollution control laws in Australia. However, the corporate response to these gains has reduced the influence of environmentalists, enabled conservative economic ideology to dominate sustainability policies and their influence on planning, and constrained the scope and agenda of democratic input. This is the challenge that today's environmentalists and planners are faced with.


Between 1965 and 1970 environmental groups proliferated and environmental protection, especially pollution control, rose dramatically as a public priority in many countries. Governments worldwide responded with new forms of comprehensive environmental legislation such as Clean Air Acts and Clean Water Acts and the establishment of environmental regulatory agencies. Environmental planning legislation soon followed.

These new environmental laws enabled the public to have more input into urban planning and the environmental impacts of economic activity to be considered by government agencies. The closed policy-making arrangements between industry and government were 'forced open' and governments had to listen to other voices. Decision-makers learned to take account of a greater range of interests and to justify their decisions on rational grounds. They had to be seen to be listening to public opinion and responding to it.

Businesses found that their past ways of dealing with government no longer sufficed. The scope of political conflict widened. "For the first time since the 1930s, business found its political influence seriously challenged by a new set of interest groups." (Vogel, 1989, p. 112)

For business, the turbulence of change was a nightmare of new regulations and increasingly vocal interest groups that needed pandering to. The rules of the game had changed, and new ways had to be found to at once get what one needed from government, shout down the opposition, and harness the power of interest groups for one's own benefit through persuasion. (Blyskal & Blyskal, 1985, p. 153)

In response to government regulations, brought on by the activities of environmentalists and public interest groups, business people began to cooperate with each other in a way that was unprecedented, building coalitions and alliances and putting aside competitive rivalries (Beder, 1997). In Australia corporations "substantially increased their level of resources and commitment to monitoring and influencing the political environment"; ensured their senior executives were effective political operatives in their dealings with politicians and bureaucrats; hired consulting firms to help with government submissions; and established government relations units within their companies with direct access to the chief executive officer. Also "concerted efforts were made to improve and centralise business representation at the national level" so as to mobilise and increase their power. (Bell & Warhurst, 1992, pp. 58-9; Wanna, 1992, p. 73.)

Public relations firms, lobbyists and think tanks proliferated, shaping and moulding information and manufacturing expertise on behalf of their clients and offering it to the politicians. Although caught somewhat off guard at first, in many ways the move towards information-based decisions suited business interests because of their ability to hire experts&emdash;scientists, economists, statisticians&emdash;and their fear of losing the 'emotional' battle.

Corporations managed to achieve a virtual moratorium on new environmental legislation in many countries throughout most of the 1980s. However, towards the end of the 1980s public concern about the environment rose again, reinforced by scientific discoveries regarding phenomena such as ozone depletion and weather patterns that seemed to indicate that global warming had already begun. Local pollution events, such as medical waste washing up on New York beaches and sewage pollution on Sydney beaches (Beder, 1989) , also contributed to the public peception of an environment in decline.

A Saulwick Poll in 1990 found that 67 per cent of people thought Australia should "concentrate on protecting the environment even if it means some reduction in economic growth." (McIntosh, 1990) Similarly a 1991 Gallup poll found that 75% said environmental protection should be given priority, "even at the risk of curbing economic growth." In this poll 80% of those surveyed called themselves environmentalists (O'Keefe & Daley, 1993).

Amidst all this public concern, regulatory agencies in various countries got tougher and new laws were enacted. In NSW, an Environmental Offences and Penalties Act was introduced in 1989 which provided for jail terms and million dollar fines for senior executives of polluting companies. Sustainable development, a concept popularised by the Brundtland Commission, became politically popular and various countries sought to integrate the concept into their environmental planning.

The heightened awareness of global and local environmental problems in many countries drew attention to the inadequacies of existing political, economic and regulatory structures. There were increasing demands from environmental and citizens groups for tightened environmental standards and increased government control of private firms and corporations. There were calls for a new environmental ethic and changes in moral values that governed the human-nature relationship.

This heightening of public anxiety in response to scientific confirmation of environmental deterioration induced a new wave of corporate political activity. This time the corporate backlash was able to utilise the techniques and organisations that had been established in the 1970s for the same purpose. With their activist machinery already in place corporations were able to take advantage of the new PR techniques and information technologies for building coalitions, manipulating public opinion and lobbying politicians on environmental issues (Beder, 1997).

An important aspect of corporate activities has been to redefine the environmental agenda&emdash;what it is legitimate for government to consider and what can be discussed in the political arena&emdash;thereby rendering those groups who have other agendas, ineffective: "everybody is compelled to work within a system of values and institutional rules which restricts the formal political process to making the current system work, even though the system only benefits the few" (Williamson, 1989, p. 57). Corporate-funded conservative think tanks play a major role in this.

Setting the agenda means deciding not only what will be discussed but also what won't be. Covert power covers the area of 'non-decisions' as well as decisions (Ball & Millard, 1986, p. 24). For example, environmental issues can be debated so long as the system of decision-making that gives autonomy to corporations to decide what they produce and how they produce it is maintained. Decision-making and political debate is therefore confined to the relatively safe areas of emissions, siting, and immediate gross impacts.

A key area in which corporations have managed to shape the public agenda is in the way they have coopted the term sustainability to suit their own purposes and ensure that it does not lead to significant political or social change. The sustainable development literature today is dominated by neo-classical economic concepts and generally promotes the 'free' market as the best way of allocating environmental resources (Beder, 1996b).


Australian sustainable development policies aim to incorporate environmental assets into the economic system to ensure the sustainability of the economic system. They incorporate the idea that wealth creation can substitute for the loss of environmental amenity; that putting a price on the environment will help us protect it unless degrading it is more profitable; that businesses should base their decisions about polluting behaviour on economic considerations and the quest for profit; that economic growth is necessary for environmental protection and therefore should take priority over it.

The promotion of market-based instruments is viewed by many of its advocates as a way of resurrecting the role of the market in the face of environmental failure. Neoclassical economics has not only dominated environmental economics but has also increasingly dominated the whole public discussion of sustainable development. This influence has manifest in different ways in different countries. In Australia, the infiltration and domination of the Canberra bureaucracy by economic rationalists pushing neoclassical economic solutions influenced the framing of sustainable development policy (Hamilton, 1991; Pusey, 1991).

Although economists have long advocated market instruments for environmental regulation, their popularity today owes much to the work of think tanks, who have effectively marketed and disseminated these policies. Conservative think tanks in various nations have consistently opposed government regulation and promoted the virtues of a "free" market unconstrained by a burden of red tape.

Think tanks worldwide have sought to discredit environmental legislation and planning instruments, giving them the pejorative label 'command and control', and highlighting their deficiencies and ineffectiveness (ineffectiveness that corporations and think tanks have done their best to ensure). The American Cato Institute, for example, states that one of its main focuses in the area of natural resources is "dismantling the morass of centralized command-and-control environmental regulation and substituting in its place market-oriented regulatory structures..." (Cato Institute, 1995). Anderson and Leal from the San Francisco-based think tank, the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, argue that even if legislation improves environmental quality it is at the expense of "individual freedom and liberty" (Anderson & Leal, 1991, p. 171).

Conservative think tanks advocate using the market to allocate scarce environmental resources such as wilderness and clean air and replacing legislation with voluntary industry agreements, reinforced or newly created property rights and economic instruments. In the name of free market environmentalism, they have enabled the conservative, corporate agenda of deregulation, privatisation and an unconstrained market to be dressed up as an environmental virtue.

These think tanks have popularised and promoted the work of neo-classical economists and many of the leading scholars in this area are associated with think tanks, including one of the foremost proponent's of tradeable pollution rights, Robert Hahn, a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute, Terry Anderson, who has written for several think tanks in Australia and the US, Robert Stavins and Bradley Whitehead, authors of a Progressive Policy Institute study as well as Alan Moran, from the Tasman Institute, an Australian think tank, and Walter Block from the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think tank (Eckersley, 1995, pp. xi-xii; Rosner, 1992; Ruben, 1995).

Think tanks have also produced a number of books promoting free-market environmentalism including Free Market Environmentalism published by the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy in 1991; Reconciling Economics and the Environment published by the Australian Institute for Public Policy in 1991; and Markets, Resources and the Environment published by the Tasman Institute in 1991 which argues that "Growth, capitalism and markets are fundamental to the achievement of environmental quality." (Moran, Chisholm & Porter, 1991, back cover) The Australian Centre for Independent Studies has published a book by Barry Maley which "shows how a framework of markets and property rights, and not a top-down command-and-control approach, will best serve human interests" and ensure a healthy environment (CIS, 1995).

The preference for market solutions is an ideologically based one:

Its first pillar comes squarely out of a philosophical tradition that grew from Adam Smith's notion that individual pursuit of self-interest would, in a regime of competitive markets, maximise the social good. That tradition is so firmly embedded in economics by now that most economists probably do not realize, unless they venture out into the world of noneconomists, that it is a proposition of moral philosophy... (Kellman, 1983, p. 297)

Yet despite its ideological roots, free market enviornmentalism has become mainstream. In 1991 the OECD issued guidelines for applying economic instruments and an Economic Incentives Task force was established by the US EPA "to identify new areas in which to apply market-based approaches" (Stavins & Whitehead, 1992, p. 29). Similar units have been established in regulatory agencies in other countries including Australia. At the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 business groups pushed for the wider use of economic instruments in conjunction with self-regulation (Schmidheiny & BCSD, 1992, chapter 2).

In fact many environmentalists have been persuaded by the rhetoric of free market environmentalism. They have accepted the conservative definition of the problem, that environmental degradation results from a failure of the market to attach a price to environmental goods and services, and the argument that these instruments will work better than outdated 'command-and-control' type regulations. The US Environmental Defense Fund has been at the forefront of the push for tradeable pollution rights.

The assumptions and language of neoclassical economists is found clearly in Agenda 21, the Action Plan for Sustainable Development, signed by over 100 nations at the Earth Summit. In its chapter on integrating environment and development in decision-making (Section 8.2) it posits three fundamental objectives:

  1. To incorporate environmental costs in the decisions of producers and consumers, to reverse the tendency to treat the environment as a "free good" and to pass these costs on to other parts of society, other countries, or to future generations;
  2. To move more fully towards integration of social and environmental costs into economic activities, so that prices will appropriately reflect the relative scarcity and total value of resources and contribute towards the prevention of environmental degradation;
  3. To include, wherever appropriate, the use of market principles in the framing of economic instruments and policies to pursue sustainable development.

The agenda of sustainable development has clearly been taken over by conservative interests who seek to promote the market and ensure business autonomy (Beder, 1996a).


Many bureaucrats and politicians have been attracted to the idea of market solutions by the promise that they will remove decision-making from the public arena thereby depoliticising environmental debates. The outcomes of environmental conflicts have been traditionally determined by the political process. However, environmental controversy can be politically damaging and can interfere with the bureaucratic decision-making process.

A market-based system is thought to have the ability to avoid political conflict. Chant et al. argue that market-based instruments transform environmental conflicts from political problems to economic transactions:

A major advantage of the market as an allocational device is that it provides a non-political solution to the social conflict raised by resource scarcity. Individuals obtain title to scarce resources through voluntary exchange and such exchange represents a solution to what would otherwise be a political issue. (Chant, McFetridge & Smith, 1990, p. 20)

Jeff Bennet has also argued that the political process of allocation of scarce environmental resources is "highly divisive, confrontationist and largely inefficient", because resources are misallocated and a great deal of time and money is spent on "the largely unproductive activities of lobbying and protesting." If, instead, he argues, the market could be used to allocate environmental resources on the basis of supply and demand, just as other choices are made (for example, between growing wool or wheat on a farm), they could be removed from the political arena (Bennet, 1991).

Anderson and Leal juxtapose the market with the political process as a means of allocating environmental resources and argue that the political process is inefficient, that is it doesn't reach the optimal level of pollution where costs are minimised: "If markets produce 'too little' clean water because dischargers do not have to pay for its use, then political solutions are equally likely to produce 'too much' clean water because those who enjoy the benefits do not pay the cost..." (Anderson & Leal, 1991, p. 23).

Bureaucrats tend to see the 'environmental problem' as more of a technical/managerial problem that can be solved more efficiently without political interference. Both politicians and bureaucrats have reason to prefer a solution that is technocratic and non-political and this is the way economists have sold economic instruments.

Differences in values are often at the heart of environmental conflicts, however sustainable development policies, such as economic instruments, concentrate on market values and ignore the moral, ethical and spiritual dimension of environmental values. There is an attempt to reduce the political content of environmental decision-making by artificially replacing conflict with consensus, by emphasising technocratic decision-making processes such as cost-benefit analysis and economic instruments, and by ensuring environmental conflicts are increasingly decided by the market.

Corporate activism has also eroded public participation through the use of "Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation" or SLAPPs. Every year thousands of people are sued in the USA for speaking out against governments and corporations. Multi-million dollar law suits are filed against individual citizens and groups for circulating petitions, writing to public officials, attending public meetings, organising boycotts and engaging in peaceful demonstrations (Pring & Canan, 1993, p. 380).

These tactics are aimed at intimidating opponents to development and chilling the public debate. They have spread to Australia, where SLAPPs are increasingly used by developers (Beder, 1997, chapter 4). In 1991 business people attending the Third Annual Pollution Law Conference were presented with a paper entitled Legal Rights of Industry Against Conservationists which advised them about legal action that could be taken against environmental activists. Conference attendees were told about developments in the US which were relevant to Australia, including the widespread use of lawsuits to intimidate environmentalists (Jamieson & Plibersek, 1991).

For example, Jenny Donohoe, her husband and her neighbour, Tim Tapsell, were all sued by a developer in 1993 for campaigning against a housing development that they believed would be environmentally damaging. According to the writ against them, they had forwarded letters to the council promoting rezoning; printed and arranged for about 1085 people to sign copies of letters promoting the rezoning which they delivered to council; and written articles in favour of the rezoning which were subsequently published. The developers argued that the effect of this rezoning (for environmental protection) would be to prevent them from developing their land and that "the defendants were aware of that effect and sought to achieve that effect" (Beder, 1997, p. 71). They therefore sought to claim damages from the defendants for those losses.

Political input into planning isues has also been limited by governments through the progressive introduction of formal consultation processes that seek to minimise and contain conflict. The provision for public submissions on environmental impact statements and environmental plans was a response to public protest that would ensure that potential protest expression and confrontation could be rechannelled into the less politically effective, less media attracting, more time consuming and more controlled arena of written submissions and public hearings.

In the late 1980s as people became disillusioned with written submissions as a form of participation in the decision-making process, a new form of participation was increasingly used in Australia and in other countries. It involved formal discussions between representatives of selected interest groups aimed at reducing conflict and reaching consensus decisions. An ideal of harmony and consensus was put forward as a way of dealing with confrontational politics and enrolling critics into processes that assumed shared goals and values.

The formulation of sustainable development policies is perhaps the best example of where various interest groups or stakeholders have been brought together to reach a consensus about how business interests, economic interests and environmental protection can be reconciled. Writing about the Canadian round tables, George Hoberg states:

Political conflict over unavoidable trade-offs was perceived as unproductive, and consensus could be achieved only if a proper process was designed to allow the competing stakeholders an opportunity to communicate with each other. (Hoberg, 1993, p. 318)

In Australia the ESD working groups were set up to study how sustainable development would be applied to nine different industry sectors: "The establishment of the working groups was seen by some as an important attempt to break through the entrenched hostility and mistrust that has marked the environmental debate in Australia for several years" (Hamilton, 1991, p. 1).

The representative approach favours the status quo by taking the discussion behind closed doors, limiting public debate and marginalising more radical elements. In the case of the Australian ESD process, admission was limited to chosen representatives of recognised interest groups who had faith in the process. Environmentalists were therefore represented by two mainstream environmental groups, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). More radical environmentalists were marginalised. Public discussion was severely reduced by inadequate public consultation procedures and because disagreements between the parties only appeared publicly as unsupported recommendations in the reports which appeared at the end of the process.

As Nader points out, "harmony ideology serves to control confrontational politics; it also controls or suppresses criticism" (Nader, 1991, p. 54). Not only does it take it behind closed doors, but it locks out those who continue to protest and discourages confrontation amongst those who have accepted a seat at the negotiation table. Negotiations require trust and shared goals. Confrontational activity can destroy that trust and jeopardise the process of conflict resolution.

In contrast, activism aims to engender public debate. Activists tend to be individuals who oppose the dominant paradigm by lying in front of bulldozers and by speaking out publicly against social institutions. They seek to foster a sense of urgency and crisis so that people will demand change. They work for change through providing communities with information, exposing the inadequacies of the existing system, building networks and creating a public demand for change. Conflict is one of their essential tactics.

Negotiation, however, can work against this by diffusing that sense of crisis and giving the impression that there is no need to worry since environmentalists are leading government in the right direction. This can be a false sense of confidence given the lack of power of negotiating environmentalists, particularly in times of recession. For environmentalists who want more fundamental change, negotiation can achieve small reforms in policy, it can save patches of wilderness, reduce industrial emissions, stop some projects, but it cannot change the basic structure of industry and government nor the political and economic arrangements which lead to environmentally destructive actions.

The consensus approach also favours the status quo because change has to be agreed to by all parties. Radical change rarely emerges from such a process. For example, the efforts to reach a consensus tended to weaken ESD working group recommendations. It required contentious issues or recommendations to be left out. This meant that the working groups concentrated on the more conservative and 'safe' policy options, and recommendations were aimed at gradual, incremental change rather than more radical, dramatic change.

The process of decision-making has, to date, come up with very little challenge to the status quo. Recommendations in both the working group reports and the final ESD strategy accepted the traditional frameworks of business activity, the priority of economic goals over environmental goals, and existing social or political structures, institutions and goals.

These trends are also evident in planning issues. The early environmentalists could be characterised by their confrontational approach, their willingness to challenge government, developers and business interests, and their readiness to engage in direct action. But such environmentalists have been eclipsed by the modern professional environmentalist who prepares submissions, negotiates with government, works with industry and shows a positive, constructive face to the public. The willingness to make deals and accept trade-offs, and to tone down on the confrontation, seems to allow entry into the decision-making process.

However, environmentalists are very much the junior partners in such deals because of their weaker position. Their power comes from the ability to confer green credentials on products or deliver votes. Ironically this power has more often than not come from the protest activity that highlights environmental problems and the role of government and industry in creating them. Consensus and conflict resolution inevitably reinforce the power of the establishment.

Because mainstream environmental groups are concerned to appear cooperative and not anti-development, they accept the agenda set by others. For example they do not debate the merits of economic growth whilst business groups still push it as a social priority. And because so many environmentalists are ready to give way on the issue of economic growth and deny there is a conflict, environmental protection must be argued in terms of its contribution to economic growth. Decision-making is reduced to economic balancing acts where value is reduced to dollar terms and costs and benefits compared.


The emphasis on harmony and consensus in environmental decision-making processes, combined with the renewed emphasis on economic growth and the incorporation of the environment into the economic system will ensure that business can go on as usual but it is also likely that the environment will continue to deteriorate. The imperative that environmental deterioration might once have had for social and political change has been dissipated.

The challenge for the future is to go beyond a corporate defined agenda to a vision of sustainability that is not constrained by, nor judged by, narrow economic or market-driven criteria. To achieve this the debate needs to be opened up beyond the government authorities, developers and appointed representatives of stakeholders, accredited environmental groups and vested interests.

Public participation needs to be more than an exercise to placate the public but a genuine effort to set community priorities and standards. The challenge is to find ways of doing this that cannot be manipulated or distorted by corporate activisim, either in the form of intimidating SLAPPs or clever public relations strategies where third parties are used to deceive politicians about public opinion and sentiment. We also need to find ways to ensure that those with the most money don't have most say because of their ability to hire experts, lawyers, scientists and lobbyists.

Sustainability is going to require some radical reevaluating of priorities and restrictions on the way some private firms make profits as well as a rethinking of how government entities conduct their activities. Such changes cannot occur through consensus decision-making, nor can the market show the way. It is up to those who believe such change is necessary to persuade others that it is and this requires free and open debate of some of our long held and sometimes cherished assumptions about how decisions should be made, how planning is done and how profits can be made. It also requires a willingness on the part of politicians and bureaucrats to heed that debate.


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