It was the perfect job. That’s how Geoff Wescott felt when he heard there was an opportunity to head up the Conservation Council of Victoria (CCV) in 1979. He had just returned to Australia from studying conservation at University College London, was in his mid-20s, and had been stirred by demonstrations against the flooding of Lake Pedder in Tasmania.
But as soon as he started, he realised there was “a bit of a split” in the organisation. “The young activists, who were all my age group, had got impatient,” he recalls. “I think they just thought the CCV was a bit conservative – it wasn’t action-oriented, it wasn’t direct, it wasn’t doing any demos.”
One of Wescott’s most important steps was to lobby for forests to become national parks. Up until then, he says, the government’s Land Conservation Council had “ticked off” all the easy national parks but avoided declaring forested areas. The CCV hadn’t challenged these decisions, but under Wescott, forests were put on the agenda.
The CCV also contributed to the fight against plans for a nuclear power plant on French Island, drawing on Philip Sutton’s influential book Victoria’s Nuclear Countdown. When Alcoa proposed an aluminium smelter on Western Port Bay, it outraged the powerful, well-connected community of the nearby Mornington Peninsula. Alcoa switched its sights to Portland, a port town in a Liberal electorate where an argument for local jobs could win more support.
Other planning issues helped the council strengthen relationships with its members. Environmental lawyer Simon Molesworth successfully argued that the CCV’s constitution gave it automatic standing in planning appeals, so it could object to developments anywhere in the state on behalf of its members.
For example, when a developer applied to subdivide important native wetlands at Taylors Lakes, the Macedon Ranges Conservation Society could fight the proposal through the CCV, despite not being a directly affected landowner. As the council’s director, Wescott usually signed the objection letter. “Somebody once rang me up and said, ‘Geez, you’re a bloody trouble maker, we’ve got 130 objections in the name of Geoffrey Wescott! Who are you?’”
Looking back, Wescott can see why he was appointed director. “I had all the technical knowledge and expertise, but also I was probably at the right age and generation and culture to take the CCV the next step further.”