Successes and struggles through the 1990s

The nineties became the ‘Decade of Landcare’ for ACF as the organisation sought to inspire a society that was environmentally responsible. Persevering through a recession, ACF continued to campaign unabated on water and energy issues.

The nineties began on a high note. The environment was the focus of the federal election and ACF was swamped by the media with requests for information to produce environment-related TV programs, newspaper features and radio documentaries.

On World Environment Day 1990, ACF and Telecom Australia held a nationwide video conference for young people throughout the country to discuss ways to reduce ozone-depleting substances. ACF also arranged for nine young Australians to attend the Montreal protocol meetings in London.

Never before had young people been given the chance to express their views at such an international conference

The historic alliance in 1989 between ACF and the National Farmers Federation (NFF) established the national Landcare program and the nineties were declared 'The Decade of Landcare'. Landcare provided a vision for the transformation to ecological sustainability that was embraced by all major political parties.

In 1990, ACF and Greenpeace produced a joint submission calling for the establishment of a Federal Environment Protection Agency.

In that year, ACF also formed the Australian Genethics Network that aimed to promote public debate on genetic engineering technologies and their uses, and seek public participation in decision making.

After years of campaigning, the Madrid Protocol for Antarctic Natural Reserve was approved in 1991, which enforced a 50-year ban on mining in Antarctica.

In 1991, the annual Peter Rawlinson Award was launched. The award acknowledged the outstanding voluntary contribution of an individual or group to the conservation of the Australian environment. Peter was an ACF vice president, treasurer and councillor who died in Indonesia in 1991.

ACF broadened its engagement with Indigenous peoples both in Australia and in the Asia-Pacific region. The fight to stop mining at Coronation Hill in Kakadu succeeded in 1991 and from 1992 ACF played a key role in highlighting the environmental and social impacts of th Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea.

In 1993, ACF compiled a Green Agenda of environmental issues governments must address and implement in that next parliamentary term. Previously in 1990, ACF had coined the term Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) and the federal government set up nine committees to define ESD. ACF also established a Green Jobs Unit to run a joint ACF and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Green Jobs in Industry Program and put ESD into practice. This led to the ACF-ACTU ‘Green Jobs and Industry’ report in 1994.

As the decade went on though, the wake of the recession had a palpable impact in 1993 and media attention turned away from the environment

As ACF battled its own financial constraints, the organisation was forced to redefine its vision in an effort to inspire a society that was environmentally aware and responsible.

In 1992, when Tricia Caswell joined ACF as its executive director until 1995, she found an organisation in financial turmoil and helped turn it around by convincing businesses to invest in the environment – a move that enabled ACF's work to continue, but also attracted criticism. Tricia Caswell remembers the time:

"ACF was not in good financial shape when I came on board and the power of the environmental vote had waned a little. Consequently, as Paul Keating told me, the Cabinet was not very sympathetic to high profile environmental issues. So it was a struggle to make sure ACF could get itself into better financial and campaign/policy shape. This was unpleasant, difficult for all involved."

Positively, ACF campaigning continued unabated, which was crucial as climate change had become a critical issue. ACF helped to establish the Sustainable Energy Industries Council of Australia and the federal government agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by the year 2005. When Canberra backtracked on this commitment in the mid-nineties ACF spoke out in international forums including the 1995 Berlin Climate Change Conference.

Professor David Yencken was elected president in 1994 (until 1997). One of David’s first tasks was to oversee the Greening of ACF – a project to refit ACF’s headquarters as a model of environmental design and management. This would eventually lead to the construction of the 60L Green Building.

In 1995, ACF launched its first website with a view to facilitating more frequent and effective communication with its diverse and active community

ACF also continued to work to bring the degraded state of the Murray-Darling Basin to public attention. In 1995, under new director James Downey, ACF began the ‘Save the Darling’ campaign for a basin-wide commitment to restoring the Murray-Darling to health by 2001. In 1996, ACF introduced the concept of environmental flows into the political arena and launched a major campaign to reverse the decline of Australia's rivers.

With new Director Don Henry in place in 1997, ACF and other environment groups worked with the Mirrar people to halt the Jabiluka uranium mine at Kakadu. A 1998 blockade at Kakadu gained significant media attention and placed Jabiluka on the national and international agenda. In 1999, the Jabiluka Uranium Mine was halted.

The next big win for the environment and ACF was the passing of the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) in 1999.

Climate remained a high priority and, significantly, ACF represented Australia as the only Australian non-government organisation at the Buenos Aires International Negotiations on Climate and again at the World Trade Organisation Millennium Round Discussions in Seattle in 1999. That year the Climate Action Network was established.

ACF positioned itself in the mainstream and by the end of the nineties mainstream society had changed the way it viewed the environment

At the close of the millennium progressive business came to understand environmental responsibility as a competitive advantage and more than 60% of Australians listed the environment as one of their major concerns.

There were many more successes in the nineties including:

  • A World Heritage declaration for the Wet Tropics of Queensland, protection of Shark Bay in WA, New Mallee national parks were proclaimed in Victoria and the Environmental Youth Alliance was established in 1990;
  • ACF’s released its publication Recovering Ground, a major research document on sustainable agriculture, and stopped logging on Fraser Island in 1991;
  • Jervis Bay National Park was established and Fraser Island and Shark Bay achieved World Heritage status, plus Stage 3 of Kakadu was added to the World Heritage list in 1992;
  • The first of ACF’s Green Homes was launched and the Commonwealth Endangered Species Act was proclaimed in 1993;
  • Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was established, sandmining ceased in Shoalwater Bay and Port Hinchinbrook resort and marina halted in 1994;
  • Cape York Peninsula regional land agreement was signed and logging halted in 671,000 hectares of forest in NSW in 1996;
  • Proposal to dam Fitzroy River in WA was stopped and Cooper Creek protected by preventing the introduction of cotton irrigation in 1998; and
  • Environmental flows packages for the Murrumbidgee, Namoi and Gwydir rivers were ratified in NSW in 1999.

Policies established during the 1990s included:

  • Antarctica;
  • Arid Lands;
  • Armed Conflict, the Military and the Environment;
  • Coastal Zone Management;
  • Energy Pricing;
  • Farming of Native Fauna;
  • Farming of Native Flora;
  • Forests;
  • Indigenous People’s Land and Water;
  • Ozone Protection;
  • Pollution Prevention;
  • Population and Demographic Change;
  • Pulp and Paper Mills in Australia;
  • Tourism;
  • Trade and the Environment;
  • Urban Passenger Transport and Urban Form;
  • Waste Minimisation; and
  • Wilderness and Indigenous Cultural Landscapes in Australia.

Continue reading about ACF in the 2000s.