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Annual Report 1997-98

by Phil Smith

It’s been quite a year! A year that did not start well. Do you remember when we gathered last September, we said, "What a month!" Extraordinary world-wide grief over Princess Diana and Mother Theresa, smoke from rainforest fires enveloping S.-E. Asia, New Guinea’s scorching drought, Australia’s shameful rejection of greenhouse responsibility at the Kyoto Conference, three federal ministers sacked for travel-expenses rorting, and the September 3rd NO to Holsworthy and YES to a new reactor – followed by Council splitting, with its Liberal majority narrowly reversing the previous unanimous opposition to a new reactor.

In short, a challenging beginning to the year we are reviewing. Fortunately, positive initiatives from a number of the Shire’s community organisations have put a better complexion on things, and our Environment Centre has been a keen contributor. In each of the seven years of the Centre it has grown in influence. I draw your attention to the sheet, "Introducing the Scope and Work of the Environment Centre". It lists the 16 committees through which we work: three are internal committees – Management, Newsletter, Fundraising - the other 13 are, as it were, in the field. The committees vary in strength and every one of them would welcome helpers. All tend to work on the ‘networking’ principle, the convenors often having extensive contacts on which they draw as occasion demands. We value the convenors; they remind us of what we should never forget, that individuals are important, their energy, conviction, experience and capacity for initiatives.

At the same time we value the groups of volunteers who are close to our internal operations: our week-by-week office volunteers, each of whom does a 9.30 to 1.00 or 1.00 to 4.30 shift (Pat Elphinston, Shirley Renshall, Joan Flowers, Reg Blackley, Narelle Towart and Michael Priceman – there are, by the way, a few vacant spots if anyone present would like to fill them); second, our fundraising volunteers, who have done wonders (Pat Elphinston again, Shirley Renshall again, Ruth Zeibots, Don and Dave Shirley, Jean Rodger, Dorothea Dirks, Barbara Field and Tracey Scott); and our Newsletter volunteers who do the hard work of despatch (Don, Dave and Barbara Shirley and Bev and Dot Dennison).

We want to pay tribute to the responsible work of Simon Kimberley. Simon was a recent graduate in Environmental Science when he offered for voluntary work. When our greatly-missed Director Lyn Ward had to step down for health reasons – again in that fateful month, last September! – Simon increased his hours of voluntary work, and in November we invited him to undertake full-time work, whence he has been our Projects Officer and virtual Secretary.

In the past year the Centre has made submissions on many issues: most prominently on nuclear, cogeneration and urban planning issues (including Council’s new Local Environment Plan); also on airport issues, on electromagnetic radiation issues, on the valuable Bundanoon Road bushland at Engadine, the state of the Georges River, and several problems of the Hacking River and Port Hacking. Such submissions come on top of our stream of letters, media releases and oral communications to the Leader, Express, Shire Life and 2SSR.

The Centre has some twenty representatives on Council, Government and Community committees. It has also organised work under a number of grants, notably for hundreds of volunteers on the "Great Wall of Towra" project and the weed eradication project around Weedy Pond at Towra. Under a $1200 grant from Council we have produced an extensive Towra website which along with the Centre’s ever expanding general website will become the best source of Shire environmental information available to campaigners, students and the media. We stress that these are ‘specific purpose grants’ (i.e. spent on the prescribed projects); the Centre receives no ‘general purpose grants’ (i.e. for the running of the Centre): which is to say, we are totally independent.

The Centre’s major campaigns are well-known. We are reticent in speaking of them because we don’t wish to seem to be claiming credit beyond our due. To give four examples. First, our Towra-Kurnell-Botany Bay efforts are in association with Bernie Clarke’s Botany Bay Planning and Protection Council, the ‘Friends of Towra’ group, the NPWS, and at some points Council. Second, our opposition to the Cogeneration Plant was in association with RACE (Residents Against Cogeneration Establishment), the Kurnell Progress and Precinct Committee, and, again, Council. Third, our opposition to the New Reactor proposal is in association with the very active PANR group (People Against a Nuclear Reactor) – but in this case, not Council. Fourth, our contribution to the Urban Planning debate is in association with CRoSS (Combined Residents and Precincts of Sutherland Shire) – and in this case we sometimes agree with Council and sometimes are opposed.

All of such issues are ‘political’. Necessarily so since politics is all the ways people relate in managing their public affairs. But ‘party politics’ is something different. From inception in 1991 the Centre has been solidly ‘non-party-political’, welcoming followers of all parties and no party. It’s appropriate now, in the midst of a Federal Election, to reiterate that we would wish to influence environmentally all parties, to speak in favour of aspects of any party’s policy which helps the environment, but not to side wholly with any party nor stand Centre candidates in elections.

That is the first of several issues-of-concern we wish to mention now by way of giving notice that they will be under discussion in the coming year. Obviously they can’t be dealt with here tonight – each is a major problem – but we will welcome your thoughts later whether raised at the monthly Management Committee meetings, or in written suggestions, or in articles offered for the Newsletter.

Related to the political question is the perennial question of what-should-be-our-campaign-style? On any given issue, what stance do we take between the extremes of a confrontation and a polite expression of opinion? The complexity of this question is exhibited by our relations with Council. On a dozen or more current issues we find ourselves ranging from enthusiastic support – for example, of Council’s actions in bringing together six bayside councils in the ‘Reclaim Botany Bay’ campaign – to determined opposition to key aspects of Council’s policy on a new reactor.

A third issue-of-concern, and probably the most Shire-wide concern of all, is that of urban planning. We’re quite unable to say that our policies have carried effective weight. Especially since Council’s Housing Strategy Forum of March 1996 we have vigorously voiced concern at ‘overdevelopment’, ‘overcrowding’, ‘overpopulation’, ‘rising traffic congestion’, ‘high-rise abominations’ and so on. [Neil deNett will have more to say on this.] We present this as a central concern of the year ahead.

A fourth concern will be about how-to-cope with the major recession or depression into which the world is now dragging Australia. Times of economic downturn are never kind to the environment movement: available government money dries up, ‘development-for-jobs’ becomes a catchcry aimed at deriding green concerns, and the major parties tend to collude (as in Tasmania last month) against green-inclined minor parties and independents. How should we prepare to meet this challenge? An important incidental here is a relationship between the Shire’s welfare activists and its environmental activists. The welfare people have sometimes been critical of us for neglecting their admirable concerns. We have already initiated moves to bring these two interests together in discussions that will hopefully lead to cooperation.

In conclusion, we have seven years of active experience behind us. Council and MPs and media and a community that has three times put the environment at the top of its concerns, all are realising we are not a flash-in-the-pan. We are genuinely independent. We are articulate, knowledgeable, active – a Centre, an umbrella under which many community organisations and individuals voluntarily group to defend and enhance the Shire’s quality of life. Despite these difficult times, we are able to face the coming year with confidence – and in that spirit we ask for the maximum help from all of us here tonight. You – we - are the Centre! Thank you.
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