The New Engineer

Citation: This is article was published as Sharon Beder, 'Corporate Activism against Civil Disobedience', Engineers Australia, May 1999, p. 66.

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

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

Recently the National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI) threatened a court injunction against BBC Hardware unless it withdrew from sale a book recommending recycled and plantation timber over forest timber. NAFI claimed that selling the book, "Forest Friendly Building Timbers" published by Earth Garden Publishing, would be in breach of the Trade Practices Act. Alan Fels, head of the Commission that administers the act, has since claimed that this is not the case. BBC Hardware withdrew the book from sale.

NAFI's attempt to suppress information critical of forest products is indicative of a growing trend amongst industry interests in their battle to combat government and consumer actions that pose a threat to their industry. This trend is part of a wave of corporate activism—originiating in the US—that has grown in response to the success of environmentalism in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Corporate activism incorporates strategies. First the amplification of the industry viewpoint through third parties who seem to be independent of the industry and second the suppression of opposing voices through threats of legislation and other forms of pressure.

Amplification of the industry viewpoint by third parties is achieved through the funding of amenable scientists and research institutes, the production of school materials, feeding public relations material to the media and the establishment of front groups that appear to be independent of the industry. For example, the forest industry has funded the Forest Protection Society. Like other front groups, the Forest Protection Society has a name that makes it sound like an environment group but it aims to "Provide a national grassroots voice for people associated with or supportive of Australia's forest-based industries." Its national director, Chris Althaus, is a forestry graduate and founding staff member of NAFI.

The second part of the strategy in the battle against environmentalism is to silence critics through intimidation and financial pressure. For this purpose the Americans have perfected the SLAPP, the Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, and these SLAPPs are becoming increasingly prevalent in Australia.

SLAPP's are lawsuits taken or threatened against people who are attempting to exercise their democratic rights to criticise the actions and operations of developers, industries and individual corporations. Of course people using SLAPPs in this way cannot directly sue people for exercising their democratic right to participate in the political process so they have to find technical legal grounds on which to bring their cases. Such grounds include defamation, conspiracy, nuisance, invasion of privacy or interference with business/economic expectancy.

In Australia the Trade Practices Act has also been used for this purpose. For example it was used by BHP against Greenpeace in 1991. It was threatened by the Forest Products Association against the North East Forest Alliance activists who were trying to prevent logging in the Chaelundi wilderness area. It was also used by Australian Paper and Pulp Manufacturers (APPM) in 1993 to threaten The Wilderness Society in Tasmania which was campaigning against the export of woodchips and by the Federal Airport Corporation against fishing people who were interfering with the dredging of Botany Bay to construct a third runway for Sydney's Mascot airport.

The aim of a SLAPP is not to win in court. In fact many SLAPPs have little legal merit. Rather their aim is to harass, intimidate and distract industry opponents. Those using the SLAPP win the political battle, even when they lose the court case, if their victims and those associated with them, stop speaking out against them. Not only does a SLAPP deter those involved from participating in political debate freely afterwards, but it also deters other citizens from speaking freely and confidently about similar issues.

The development of a climate of fear that dissuades citizens from speaking out on matters of public interest and discourages activists from continuing the 'honourable tradition' of civil disobedience is a threat to democracy and healthy political debate. This combined with the deception involved in front groups and the use of supposedly 'independent' third parties to promote industry viewpoints distorts democratic discussion of issues that are of vital importance to the community.