You don’t want to go up against Australia’s most interesting eco warrior Geoffrey Cousins, because it’s a hiding to nothing, as powerful business leaders and politicians have discovered. Cousins is hard to lay a glove on: he is too articulate, too reasonable, too well-placed in business, too respected and, with his many years in advertising, too smart about using the media. And, crucially, his adversaries would acknowledge that his only motivation is the knowledge that he’s doing something to save the environment. That is a powerful package.
I met up with Cousins at a city hotel in Melbourne the day he flew to Broome in Western Australia to board the Steve Irwin, the mothership of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The trip has been organised to draw attention to the impact a proposed $40-billion gas hub in the Kimberley – which will process gas from the massive Gorgon Field – will have on the whale population.
“We’re trying to draw attention to the fact that not only is the impact on the land enormous from this massive industrial project but also on marine life,” Cousins says. “The area is the world’s largest area for humpback whale calving, the largest humpback whale nursery on the planet and yet the company (Woodside) denies this. So we’re going to take the journalists out on the Steve Irwin. Strangely, I think they might see some whales and some calves.”
Cousins hopes the trip will get great – and free – coverage. “Without the media it would be impossible to fight these battles,” he says. And he’s passionate in the belief that it’s one worth fighting for. “It’s a very important intervention. It’s the first time the Sea Shepherd has initiated any activity inside Australian waters. The Sea Shepherd is not a group I have had any connection with. We simply put to them the idea that keeping whales alive is a good thing to do, obviously, and that’s what they try to do in the Southern Ocean and other places. How about things that interrupt (the whales’) birth?”
Cousins is committed in his attempts to help save this massive wilderness. “People don’t understand the size of this plant,” he says. “This will be the biggest industrial plant built in the history of Australia by anyone other than a government if it goes ahead at that site. In a marine context, they have to build a port that goes two kilometres out to sea, and they have to dredge about 20 kilometres out to sea to get the ships in.
This is a massive industrial plant. The biggest gas hub in the world is at Qatar. This one would be about a third bigger than that. It has emissions that are more than the entire country of New Zealand.”
It’s fair to say that the man sitting here in the sharp suit and with the basso profundo speaking voice is not your average greenie. In Melbourne for a Telstra board meeting, Cousins has a blue-chip business CV, which includes making a fortune from advertising in the 1980s, becoming the first chef executive of Optus, sitting on boards including PBL and Telstra and serving as a hand-picked adviser for John Howard when he was prime minister.
If there was a turning point in Cousins’ passion for the environment, it was reading an article on the notorious $2 billion Gunns pulp mill in northern Tasmania in 2007. Inspired, Cousins offered his help in trying to stop it. His intervention – which included instigating a high-profile campaign to unseat then environment minister Malcolm Turnbull in his constituency – was successful.
Approached to help save the wilderness in the Kimberley, Cousins eventually agreed. “I didn’t consciously sit down one day and say I’m going to get involved in environmental issues,” he says. “The Gunns matter came along. I read a great piece written by Richard Flanagan about it (in The Monthly), I knew Tasmania very well, I’d rafted the Franklin River, I’d walked down there and I just felt I should do something.
“The one in the Kimberley was really much the same, except some people came to me and said ‘We’re struggling to get this thing noticed. Could you come and do what you did on Gunns?’ Initially I said ‘No, I’ll give you a bit of advice but I don’t want to do another one of these things’. As time went by I became more involved and ended up putting my reputation on the line again.”
Cousins’ critics say stopping the Kimberley gas hub denies local indigenous people their due profits from the use of their land and holds back jobs growth. “That’s just complete nonsense,” he says. “There’s no question that the Aboriginal communities in the Kimberley need major increased support in health and education and things of that kind, as many Aboriginal communities in Australia do.
Sea shepherd ship Steve Irwin off Cable Beach.
MIKE BOWERS \ THE GLOBAL MAIL
“Those communities deserve these things because they’re Australians, not because they happened to sign a document that gives away their land. There is no reason whatever, if this gas is piped down to the Pilbara – which is probably the best option that’s available – that that money can’t still go to the Aboriginal groups in the Kimberley.
“None of the people who are opposing the development at James Price Point are saying ‘Don’t exploit the resources’. Not at all. Particularly not me. What I’m saying is you can exploit those gas resources, but you don’t process the gas in the middle of a wilderness area. You pipe it down to the Pilbara or, as Shell is doing in the very same area, you process it offshore. They’re building a floating platform 200 kilometres offshore.
“In the documents that they filed for their government approval, they said the reason they wanted to process it 200 kilometres offshore was, quote, so as not to damage the sensitive Kimberley coastline. That’s Shell, one of the largest shareholders in Woodside. So there’s a lot of false argument and self-interest put forward.
“Merrill Lynch, not exactly a green group, published a 44-page report recently saying that the option of piping the gas to the Pilbara and some other alternative sites were just as economically viable. I’m a businessman. I look at the economics of these things. The economics to do it in other locations are just as good.”
The power of Cousins’ advocacy and the attention it gets is that he does not come at the arguments from a typically green angle. “I think the reason sometimes people pay attention to what I say is that they can’t quite figure out where I’m coming from,” he says. “Why is this person involved in this issue? The answer to that is simply because I believe there are very few true wilderness areas left on Earth and they are incredibly valuable to the planet and to human beings for all sort of reasons. There are very few people who ever go to these wilderness areas and actually see them, who don’t come away saying ‘My God, you would never destroy that’.
“You get politicians with short-term interest who usually promote them, and that’s what’s happened here. The Premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett, his view of the Kimberley – not just this area but the whole Kimberley – is that it’s a wasteland. Nothing happening there so we should go and build things all over it. He’s made that perfectly clear.”
Cousins’ activism has not been without some, at times bitter, opposition. Michael Chaney, the chairman of Woodside, called Cousins an anarchist. I asked Cousins whether he felt a sense that somehow he has betrayed the business community. “No. There’s a sense of that from the people who stand to make a lot of money out of this project. However, any time you get between powerful people and a very big pile of money, you are going to cop some flak. I think (Chaney’s) got a somewhat incomplete meaning of the word anarchist, incidentally. He seems to be tagging anyone who had any contrary view to a government-sponsored project as being an anarchist. Well, that isn’t what anarchy means at all.”
“I was probably the first person in this country to come out and call Pauline Hanson a racist and a bigot. And I still carry that as a badge of honour.”
Cousins is comfortable in his role as eco warrior and business leader and has always been outspoken on the need for ethics in business and life. “I was probably the first person in this country to come out and call Pauline Hanson a racist and a bigot. And I still carry that as a badge of honour.”
For many years in Cousins’ life, everything went beautifully. And then the dark clouds appeared on his sunny life. His daughter and family were involved in a terrible car accident and he lost his beloved wife, Gayle, to cancer.
“We had a charmed life for many many years, and we knew we did and we felt very lucky, and then we had 10 or 15 years of extremely difficult times.”
Of the car accident he says: “I won’t discuss that other than to say it was a horrific event. My daughter nearly died, was extremely lucky not to and was severely impacted by it.”
Several years ago, Cousins was diagnosed with bowel cancer. “As far as I know – no one’s told me otherwise – I’m as fit as a fiddle. I didn’t have any symptoms. I had a sore shoulder. I couldn’t serve at tennis. I never went to the doctor but I had to get my shoulder fixed. And being a good doctor, he asked me about my life and had I had my tests. I said ‘Tests? I don’t need them’. He said ‘Well, I won’t fix your shoulder until you’ve had your tests’. And that is the only reason I’m alive, because I had a doctor who asked me about my life and me as a person rather than about the symptoms.”
Cousins is now married to Darleen Bungey, a friend he remet while walking close to his home at Whale Beach, near Sydney. “I was very lucky,” he says. “I certainly regard the fact that I remarried – which was entirely unexpected – as one of the great turning points in my life back in the right direction.”
He had said meeting Darleen “saved my life”. “What I meant by that was … I wouldn’t have had much of a life, frankly. I’m not a person who really likes being alone.”
I asked whether the dark times he’s experienced inspired him to pursue his work in the environment. “People have surmised that. I don’t think that’s the case. I’m not a person of great self-analysis, so I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask.”
Cousins has a son, a daughter, two stepchildren, two grandchildren “and another on the way”. “And when we’re all together, they are the happiest times.”
Cousins is 70 in December. “It feels like I’m about 15. It seems impossible to me that I’m 70 … People are much more active these days at that age. I don’t think my father would have even contemplated some of the things that I still do when he was 70, and I think that’s wonderful.”
Australian Story: Her Natural Life. Annabelle Sandes’ journey from the fine-art auction rooms of Sydney to whale conservation in the Kimberley.