The Wilderness Society
My parents moved out of town to a small hobby farm, so I had a lot of nature experiences when I was growing up. They were interested in camping and bushwalking, and politically aware in the way a lot of people were who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. They had that progressive mindset. They weren’t activists by any stretch, even though my old man has become one in his retirement, but they were Labor Party people. They grew up and became more politically aware in the era when environmental issues, particularly dams and forest issues, were extremely prominent. I started becoming aware of environmentalism when the woodchip issues were huge and there were forest blockades. Elections were being won and lost. We’d go out to the bush and my parents would occasionally talk about those kinds of things. Camping at Barrington Tops, just north of Newcastle, and hanging out in the state forests, we’d run into the occasional forester. I remember asking my parents if these were the kind of areas where wood-chipping was happening. My parents said, ‘Well, no, this is actually sustainably managed’, etc., etc. About 10 years later I went to my first blockade in the same part of the world and saw what was being done to the bush, and it certainly wasn’t as benign as my parents had been led to believe. That was an interesting learning experience. It taught me that a story could be told in a way that made people think something that was an issue elsewhere was okay in their part of world.
I probably had a predilection for getting involved socially: I was politically aware, and I liked the bush from a young age. But in some ways it was accidental as well. We had a little Wilderness Society shop here in Newcastle around 2000 and the sister of my partner at the time worked there. I filled in for her one time and some people working there asked me if I wanted to take them scouting in the bush, because I had a car. We did that, and the next week somebody rang me up and asked if I wanted to go to the blockade. So I took part in one of the actions and got arrested—all a very interesting learning experience. It was an excellent place to be a young ratbag and try to understand how campaigning worked, because north-east New South Wales probably had the best set of grass-roots forest campaigners in Australia, particularly in terms of what they managed to deliver.
I went down to Tasmania in about 2005, with an interest in its forest issues, and became pretty heavily involved in grass-roots work, blockades and direct action in that state for five years or so. After that I took time out to finish my degree and then returned to Newcastle , where a gig came up running The Wilderness Society Campaign Centre. That was a nice way to broaden my experience, because it got me out of forests and into some of the early coal seam gas issues, and marine campaigning.
If you’re successful, and you want to bring your people along to the next issue, you need to tell the story well and it needs to be steps in a bigger story, a bigger narrative. You need to be working towards bolder, bigger outcomes, and that could be the protection of a whole particular type of ecosystem or it could be a whole new set of environmental laws. Then each victory becomes a step in achieving something bigger, and I think that’s really important.
You’d never blame somebody for getting as much out of a particular political situation as they could in terms of an environmental outcome, but you can overreach substantially. No one’s going to look a gift horse in the mouth, and those big outcomes do happen under beneficial political circumstances, but then you can have situations where the outcomes get wound back. Having alliances of people who are former adversaries is important. It’s why telling the right stories to the communities is important. It’s why it’s important to have substantial regional development packages that don’t just say there are going to be a bunch of tourism jobs in this but actually explain how government is going to invest to maximise jobs in the private sector.
I think it’s fundamental for leaders to be able to project positivity and a vision that people will be willing to support, but they also need humility. And it’s a hard balance. Leaders need to project that confidence that they know what the score is at all times and they know where things need to go. But I think that does need to be tempered with some judicious demonstrations of humility as well—being able to admit when you’ve gone down the wrong path or views you’ve held haven’t been accurate. I think that’s a really important credibility-builder, but it’s a fine line. If you are not confident in what you’re doing, then you can’t get people to come along. By the same token, if you’re full of hubris, you also lose people.
Generally, using information well is fundamental—knowing what’s real and what’s not. Some of it’s as simple as being able to listen to good advice and to absorb a brief quickly. But I think it’s always about asking why something is happening, why it needs to be done, what’s the data that backs a particular position or approach. Given the high-pressure situations that people operate in, and also the peccadilloes and assumptions and value sets of the movement, sometimes we can end up in a place that isn’t actually helpful. So I think a data-driven approach is really important.
A leader has to be a very, very good communicator. All-round communicators are able to work with different audiences, communities and individuals, and also at different levels. They can do excellent media communications, they’re able to walk into a meeting with anyone, understand what the score is, understand what the needs of the other person are, and simultaneously communicate both their requirements and their receptiveness to making a transaction. Being able to express ideas and a vision is really important. I think it takes experience.
It’s less regular than you might think that people who are ecologists or environmental scientists are the movement leaders. Usually movement leaders have a fundamental love of the environment, and I think that’s crucial, but the main thing they understand is people and politics, and the drivers of a community—what communities want. I think it is possible to lead from behind the scenes, as long as you can communicate with your people about what’s happening and what needs to be done. But I think the best leaders will be able to communicate with a broad spectrum.
I have a ‘no gods, no masters’ approach to things. If a leader is asked a question about what he or she is doing and their responses are hostile, or they’re not willing to answer because they think they should just be respected because they’ve been around for a while—that’s when you start to have personality cults. If I see people who have a long history in the environment movement doing things that I don’t think are worthy of my respect, I won’t respect them. If people have come from an entirely different background but are driven by a genuine love of the environment, are humble, are very clear about what they want, and have the ability to lead and bring people along with them, then I think that’s more valuable than being a ‘giant’ of the movement who won’t listen to people.