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Sally Neighbour’s Four Corners story on papermaker Amcor’s “A-Team” as they are called, was nothing new for those of us who live in Gippsland’s Latrobe Valley. It was good to see my seven cents a day being put to good use.
However what I did find interesting about her report was the absence of any comment by union officials and the refusal of Amcor to discuss the matter. After all, if we believe their own propaganda, they won and it’s usual for the victors to gloat over the spoils. Another thing I found interesting in Neighbour’s report was the absence of any reference to the practice of “greenwashing” and “astroturfing”. That was the real story.
In the program we find the chief protagonist is set up as Derek Amos, PR flack, former Labor politician and leader of the “A-Team”. Amos is now a Latrobe City Councillor who is referred to towards the end of the program as enjoying a “quieter life”. Obviously his anti-green credentials have brought the local city council into question when it comes to their stance on the environment. However, that’s another story.
During the Four Corners program we get a fairly good insight into what is one of the widespread but not often discussed practices of propagandists. However Amos’ candor is revealing in itself. In this story of how a “greenwashing” campaign is put together and executed we find out that the strategies used, while not necessarily illegal, bring together the way the modern media, unions, political parties and big business co-operate to ensure that their main agenda, making money, is not compromised.
The “A-Team” was established because people, ordinary citizens, were concerned about their environment. Amos claims it was the Greens who were the problem. He is wrong and he knows he is wrong. The problem was that ordinary people like you and me were concerned that more of our environment would be sacrificed for the demands of capital.
However, propaganda does not have to be a blunt instrument. For Amcor, Amos and their cronies to come out and say “you’re all deluded. The pollution this project will create is good for you” would have been too extreme for even the most receptive couch potato. What is needed in these extreme situations is a foil. A ‘strategic enemy’ upon whom scorn can be placed in such as way as to cause the average couch potato to want to distance themselves from the ‘enemy’ and if all goes well, align themselves with the side you are representing.
Amos says in the program that “Children's minds are formed before the age of reasoning, really. I mean, that's when the formation takes place. And, you know, if you can put into those minds your view of the world as opposed to, at that particular time, the Greens' view of the world, you'd have a better chance of having a more rational debate later on.” He also said, “Up until that time, the Greens were getting the major newspaper coverage, and they were winning the hearts and minds battle.”
To counter this public alignment with conservationists, environmentalists and those concerned about the amenity of public space, Amos, funded with a never ending supply of cash from Amcor, set about creating an “astroturf” campaign. Astroturfing grew out of the US environmental campaigns of the 70’s and 80’s and is based on the establishment of fake ‘grass roots’ groups who are either self-standing or who infiltrate existing groups to white-ant them. In the case of the “A-Team” both strategies were used.
“Greenwashing” is the process by which an Astroturf group “sells” its message. That message is always, “What we are doing is good for you, good for the environment, good for jobs and good for the economy” or variations on these themes.
Amos, in the Four Corners program, makes it clear from the outset that he was not at all worried about the environmental consequences of the Amcor project. His comment about the “minds of children” demonstrates that he saw his activities as somewhat like a ‘priest’ or ‘teacher’ who needs to 1) convince the child he is a sinner or ignorant and then 2) lead them into salvation or enlightenment. The worrying thing here is that Amos was ably supported by Amcor, the unions, local media and the Victorian Labor Party.
The problem here is not one of immorality, lies and deception, we all know these are the foundation of modern business and politics. What is of concern is that all sides ganged up not on the Greens but on us Victorians and in particular we Gippslanders.
During the program Amos makes good use of militaristic language. The Greens were “winning the hearts and minds battle”. Amcor had to “take over that ground”. He was there to “train and lead the volunteers” and to hold “regular briefings”. Amos states, “In the beginning, it was thought necessary to know what the enemy was doing” and that the early activities of the “A-Team” were, “just considered reconnaissance.” While he claims he is no “spy master” he instructed his volunteers (who were paid employees of Amcor) to, “Just to blend in and be part of the group”. And on it goes.
The open secret here in the Latrobe Valley was that the “A-Team” was both a corporate and political ‘plant’. The union officials who allowed their members to be part of it were obviously not interested in their workers because no extra jobs came out of the campaign. It was, for the union officials involved, another way to ensure their own skins at the cost of the environment and their worker’s jobs. The local media was also aware of the true intent of the “A-Team” but I can’t ever recall seeing a report in which their activities were subject to the scrutiny they deserved and the derision that has now come. Albeit far too late.
As to the politicians and the Labor party. Since the 1970’s the Victorian Labor party has been more about looking after its big business sponsors than it has been about looking after the citizens and environment of the state. While the Liberal / National government under Kennett took the heat for Amcor’s expansion, it is really the Victorian Labor party who encouraged, supported and allowed it.
While I am a strong supporter of collective action, the concept of unionism and Labour politics, it is obvious from the Four Corners report that these three touch stones of working class hope have been corrupted by the processes they were meant to protect the working class from.
On one level Derek Amos is not the “bad guy” in this story. He’s just another greedy man doing his best to make a living from something he obviously does well. His part in this story is as just another bit player whose scruples and talent are exploited in the pursuit of capital accumulation.
The real rogues in this story are the Labor party politicians – many of them now sitting in government – and the union bosses who sold out their constituents, the environment and their communities for the demands of capital. Perhaps when I see a Four Corners story on that I will see the true value of my seven cents a day at work.