Nature, Citizens and Democracy Speech

Jul 03, 2015 - 3:30pm

Speech by John Connor, given at the Nature Conservation Council of NSWs 60 years of achievement event, July 2 2015. 


Respected guests. Fellow citizens of NSW, Australia and the Anthropocene. 

It is a great honour to speak here tonight to mark the 60th anniversary of the confederation that is the Nature Conservation Council of NSW.

I have been privileged to have had a vocation as a public citizen for over two decades and to have had formative times at NCC for which I am indebted.

This was both as Executive Officer as well as Environment Liaison Officer representing the NCC and six other groups in NSW Parliament. This was a period spanning much of the 90s, interrupted by a stint with Manly independent Peter Macdonald mostly during his balance of power years – a fair dose of Macquarie Street intrigues.

Many of you here tonight were important mentors, inspiration and/or, and I mean this in no way demeaningly, "checks and balances" for me and I’m sure many others. Judy Messer, Anne Reeves, Keith Muir, I’m looking at you.

I also want to acknowledge the likes of Jeff Angel, John Corkill, Sid Walker, David Butcher and Hadyn Washington who can’t be here tonight.

And of course those who have passed on – most notably the remarkable Milo Dunphy and the extraordinary Fay Sutton.

Fay.

I’m not sure which challenged me the most about Fay – the chastisement received for poor grammar, for not having 100 per cent independent coherence in the minutes. Or the chagrin when the bell rang at 32 George St and you knew you were the one that needed to carry Fay and her wheelchair up that narrow staircase.

Thank goodness for the ever resourceful Ziggy and implacable Bruce Diekman as we first brought the meeting room downstairs into the library and then to more modern offices with a lift!

What inspired me about Fay was her indefatigability in the issues that were her passion like waste and urban bushland – persistence is a core characteristic in this caper!

A characteristic sadly but sorely needed so much in the roller coaster of climate and carbon politics of the last decade.

But we are primarily here to celebrate the achievements of NCC over the last six decades.

The most important achievements of a confederation or umbrella group such as the NCC are not always the eventual outcomes themselves.

But outcomes aplenty in NSW there have been - in which NCC has played no small role:

+ Laws enabling greater public participation in planning, local government and bushfire management;

+ The creation of national parks, wilderness areas, marine reserves and a service to look after them;

+ The protection of rainforests, western woodlands, urban bushland and championing the rural roadsides - the long paddock;

+ Improved requirements and infrastructure for the management of water and sewage – including protecting the ecosystem services of our water
catchments;

+ Ground-breaking laws for protection of threatened species - instigated by heroic litigation and even more heroic direct action (when that was a respectable term) such as the occupation of the Forestry Commission – John Corkill the former, fleeting, Peoples Commissioner for the Forests can’t be here tonight unfortunately;

+ And last but not least, the world's first carbon market – when we began the unfinished business of making our biggest polluters take responsibility and  pay for dumping heat trapping pollution into our atmosphere. Kudos to Kathy Ridge for her role in that as well as Cate Faehrmann in driving the Walk
against Warming rallies.

In these outcomes lies the glamour of the media, the glee of the moment, the thrill of achievement.

In all of these NCC has played a part albeit often somewhat overshadowed by member groups or others. The NCC didn’t always get its fair share of the glamour,  glee and thrill.

But many outcomes are but dreams without the dramas and drudge that precede them.

Without the nurturing of the networks (and some egos within them) that enable sustained pressure and the building of broader and/or strategic alliances.

Without the development of ambitious but achievable solutions through the fevered gestation in campaign planning and policy determination (I'm sure the epic stoushes and deft procedural manoeuvres at NCC annual conferences, which would do the UN Security Council proud, are etched in many of you here tonight). 

Without the hard yakka of delivery through the often turgid political negotiation, roundtables and “stakeholder” processes.

Without even just the hosting of meeting rooms, teleconferences, photocopiers/printers and, as was often illegally the case, overnight accommodation  
for impoverished activists. 

Without all these things few outcomes can be delivered.

These were, and I’m sure still are, the significant if often unheralded achievements of the NCC And we’ll need a lot more of them.

There have been reversals in some of these outcomes and fresh challenges ahead, or because my vocation requires me to be a professional optimist, fresh opportunities to be creative.

We face challenges as spiralling short termism defies the ever clearer material and ecological limits of our planet ... But opportunities as stagnating economies search for alternative definitions of prosperity and abundance and as we join with, or enable, unlikely allies such as long term investors like superannuation funds who are, after all, managing our money. 

We face challenges as the very natural world environmentalists seek to protect turns nasty as global warming puts extreme weather and events like bushfires, floods and storm surges on steroids ... But opportunities with the growing recognition that climate actions can be solution multipliers with more resilient, cleaner, healthier and socially engaged communities and with the unprecedented international cooperation that will be necessary.

We face challenges as increasingly besieged resource interests seek to shut down or inhibit advocacy voices like NCC’s as they seek to protect the environment, ecosystem services and natural values ... But opportunities to engage more people in the truth that such advocacy is important. Important for a healthy democracy and for an engaged citizenry so crucial to achieving outcomes not just for the environment, but for indigenous Australians, for confronting poverty and inequality, and for building a cleaner economy.

At the end of the day it is the job of equipping and enabling creative citizenry, as well as facilitating and representing their distilled views through member groups and through deliberative processes, that is at the core of confederations such as NCC.

In thinking on anniversaries such as NCC’s and longer ones such as of Magna Carta, I recently heard a fascinating interview on the ABC with a Greek philosopher reflecting on even longer Greek and Roman, classical, democratic traditions than that document's check on arbitrary power.  

He mused on the importance of the deliberative contest of ideas and citizens in fora and public spaces - like NCC's Annual Conferences, corporate share-owners meetings, and genuine public participation processes.

These, he said, can provide not just a more engaged and educated citizenry.

They can also provide a richer more distilled view of considered public opinions. One that can provide the basis for solutions far more enduring than from those obtained by snapshots of opinion polling and focus groups.

The NCC’s 60 year history is steeped in the traditions and responsibilities of such great democratic processes and traditions.

Its past achievements are to be celebrated and its capacity for future outcomes are to be defended and invested in.

And I think you are about to be advised how!

Thank you. 

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