Felicity Wishart: Tenacious environmental activist who helped lead the campaign to protect the Great Barrier Reef

Nicknamed Flic, she was one of Australia’s highest-profile conservationists

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Felicity Wishart was a lifelong conservationist who campaigned to save the Australian rainforests, prevent profiteering woodland-clearing and protect the Great Barrier Reef. Nicknamed Flic, she was one of Australia’s highest-profile conservationists and had a major impact on the nation’s environmental movement.

Working at the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Queensland Conservation Council, which she headed, the Wilderness Society and latterly the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS), she inspired many younger campaigners, especially women, to follow in her carbon footprints. As director of the AMCS’s Fight for the Reef campaign, she spearheaded efforts which have led to an increase in protection for the Great Barrier Reef over the last few years.

Over the past year, the well-publicised campaign by Wishart and the AMCS led many would-be funders, including RBS, HSBC and Deutsche Bank, to rule out investment in expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal near Bowen, North Queensland, on the grounds that it could threaten the mighty reef. Coal mining companies, with the support of the Queensland government, had long been dumping dredge spoil into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Due in large part to the feisty, tenacious Wishart, the Canberra federal government is now insisting that dredge spoil should be dumped on unused land onshore.

The Federal environment minister Greg Hunt said recently, “Onshore disposal has always been our preferred option and that’s why we’re ending the century-old practice of dumping capital dredge material in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.” Wishart and fellow environmentalists replied that having a coal port next to the reef, a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1981, was a threat to its long-term survival and that of its marine species.

Wishart was proud of having pricked the conscience of big banks and major companies. Over the past year, a string of multi-nationals have pulled out of the Abbot Point expansion project, including the Rio Tinto mining group, BHP Billiton, Lend Lease Group and London-based Anglo American. She hailed that as a major win for the Reef, local communities – and the Earth – but said she would continue fighting to win over Australia’s big banks and other potential investors.

Shortly before she died, she was disappointed when Unesco’s World Heritage Committee, meeting in Bonn, rejected calls for the Great Barrier Reef to be placed on the World Heritage Sites in Danger list. Apart from the environmental concerns, the reef brings in tourism cash which runs into billions of Australian dollars. Unesco sent delegates in June to snorkel around the outer reef in crystal-clear waters under the curious gaze of giant manta ray fish, dolphins and reef sharks. Wishart pointed out that the snorkellers had stayed around Lady Elliot Island, one of the least-spoiled areas of the reef, and should have been in the more-threatened inner reef. “We have to look at the overall health of the reef, not just an individual spot,” she said. “There is no doubt that the reef is still in serious environmental danger.”

The Great Barrier Reef can be seen from outer space and is the world’s biggest single structure created by living organisms. It is threatened by climate change (which increases coral bleaching), pollution from onshore floods, overfishing, shipping accidents (many commercial vessels prefer to go through the reef rather than round it), dumping of coal dredge spoil, cyclones, coral disease and, not least, oil spills. In 2010, the bulk coal carrier Shen Neng 1 ran aground in the reef, spilling up to four tonnes of oil.

Wishart was born in the Melbourne suburb of Mitcham in 1965 to parents from Adelaide, both of part-Scottish ancestry. She graduated in environment science from the city’s Griffith University. When she was 17 she was arrested and imprisoned for several days for taking part in a non-violent protest over a project to construct a dam on the Gordon River in Tasmania to generate hydroelectricity.

Occupying the site, Wishart and her fellow protesters argued that a dam would have negative impact on the environmentally sensitive Franklin River, which joins the Gordon River.  She helped get the campaign national attention and the project helped bring down the government of Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser in the 1983 federal election and win support for the Labor Party’s Bob Hawke, who had supported the anti-dam campaign and went on to become prime minister.

The Australian High Court ruled against the dam, resulting in one of the most successful environmental campaigns in Australian history, helping consolidate the small green movement that had emerged during the 1960s.

After she became head of the Conservation Council for the State of Queensland (QCC), Wishart highlighted the poor water quality of many of the state’s rivers. To publicise the issue at a water symposium, she put tap water in small bottles, labelled them “poisonous” and left them on delegates’ desk. Some didn’t notice the label and drank the water until someone called the police. Wishart’s office was raided by police, who did not lay charges since they found “no intent to harm”. But Wishart had made her point.

“Flic always believed the impossible was possible,” said her colleague Ingrid Neilson at the Australian Marine Conservation Society. “When others doubted, she was certain change could and would happen. Once, when she was head of the QCC, she organised a demonstration outside Queensland Parliament House, against forest and woodland clearing in the state. At the time, if Queensland were a country it would have ranked fifth in the world in terms of forest and woodland destruction. Suddenly, the Queensland Premier came out and announced an end to land clearing.”

In her rare moments of relaxation, Wishart enjoyed walking in the bush and cross-country skiing in Victoria. She died in her sleep in Mullumbimby, New South Wales, without any prior indication of ill-health. She is survived by her partner and fellow conservationist Dr Todd Harborow and their two children.

Felicity Wishart, environmental campaigner: born Melbourne 4 June 1965; partner to Dr Todd Harborow (two children); died Mullumbimby, New South Wales, 19 July 2015.