The plaudits for Joan Kirner, who died on Monday, highlighted her achievements as a teacher, education activist, feminist and politician. It is also worth noting her pivotal role in the development of landcare in Australia.
Joan Kirner’s first ministerial role was as Victoria’s Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands in the Labor government under John Cain from 1985-88. She was a very effective minister, working very hard, travelling tirelessly, seemingly remembering the name of every public servant and community volunteer she ever met. She brought in the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, delivering Victoria’s first effective controls on land clearing.
However in the views of many, including me, Joan Kirner’s most enduring legacy will be Australia’s landcare movement, beginning in Victoria and spreading nationally.
I worked as the first National Landcare Facilitator from April 1989 to August 1992. This coincided with Joan Kirner’s time as Victorian Premier, and from meetings with her during that time and in conferences and airport lounges since, I know she was extremely proud of her landcare legacy.
The birth of landcare
In 1985, Kirner’s new department of Conservation, Forests and Lands brought together five separate agencies (the Forests Commission, National Parks, Fisheries and Wildlife, Lands, and the Soil Conservation Authority) that had apparently overlapping roles but very different institutional cultures and a track record of collaboration that was patchy at best.
It required considerable strategic nous and political skill to get this new department working cohesively, and Kirner proved to be a good fit as minister.
The new department needed to work across private and public lands to tackle issues at a large scale (such as erosion, salinity, pests and weeds), and they needed to involve the community.
From prior experience in soil conservation, senior officials knew that individual landholders and local communities need to “own the problem” and be involved in designing and implementing solutions in order to ensure lasting environmental improvement. Joan Kirner understood this implicitly, possibly from her long grassroots community experience with State School mothers’ clubs.
Senior soil conservation staff designed a new program in late 1985 to support voluntary neighbourhood groups to tackle land degradation problems, that they proposed to call Total Land Care. When the Minister saw the acronym, she stated that she definitely did not want to be known as “the Minister for TLC!”. So it became Land Care, soon shortened to LandCare.
The pioneering Victorian LandCare program was born, and the first LandCare group was launched at Winjallok near St Arnaud on 25 November 1986.
Crucially, Joan Kirner understood from the outset that the new program needed to have bipartisan support, and that this was most likely if it was seen to be led and owned by the farming community, working with conservationists. Joan Kirner invited Heather Mitchell, then President of the Victorian Farmers’ Federation to co-Chair the program. This formidable duo emphasised the partnership at the heart of LandCare.
The number of LandCare groups grew rapidly, building on the network of Farm Tree Groups and soil conservation groups across the state, and the innovative community education work in schools pioneered through the Victorian Salinity Program. Within five years, LandCare involved more than one third of farming families — an extraordinary achievement on a relatively modest budget.
Landcare goes national
Joan Kirner was quick to promote the Victorian program as a model for the nation, recommending it to Peter Cook, then Minister for Resources in the Labor government under Bob Hawke.
I was asked by Toyne and Farley to work with Jane Elix of the ACF and Philip Eliason of the NFF on a proposal for a national initiative based on the Victorian model of facilitating partnerships between farmers and conservationists.
In late 1988, the ACF and NFF jointly proposed to Prime Minister Bob Hawke a A$340m, ten-year program for a Decade of Landcare. This represented a radical boost in Commonwealth funding - the then National Soil Conservation Program was about A$1m per year.
Bob Hawke agreed with alacrity, and the new national program was launched at the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers in July 1989. Crucially, both Labor and Coalition ministers stood on the podium, emphasising the bipartisan thread that began with Joan Kirner and Heather Mitchell and extended through Farley and Toyne.
As it had done in Victoria, the new program took off nationally, and in the 25 years since the Australian landcare model has spread to more than 20 other countries. Landcare is an unsung Australian export success story - a great example of soft diplomacy.
From this distance, those early days of landcare seem both inevitable and extraordinary.
It seems common sense now that farmers need to work together to tackle problems that cross farm boundaries, that planting trees on farms and protecting creeks and rivers is good farming practice, and that looking after the land for future generations is in the interests of the whole community, so it is fair that the whole community contribute to this effort — even better if such help can be practical as well as financial.
But this was not so obvious in the mid 1980s. Joan Kirner instinctively “got” landcare from the outset. She understood its community base and the dynamics of voluntarism.
She reached out. She understood the political potency of bipartisanship and unlikely alliances — she and Heather Mitchell were more than twice as powerful working together than either could be working from within their own political tribe.
She understood the importance of community ownership of problems, and empowerment to develop and implement solutions. She took the long view. Given the right information and support, she trusted grassroots community groups to do the right thing on the ground.
Against this backdrop, today’s politics seem depressingly partisan, glib, austere and myopic.
Government programs tend to be prescriptive and paternalistic, rather than imaginative, catalytic and empowering. Government agencies (more closely coupled with Ministerial offices than ever) seem allergic to risk, wedded to incremental tweaking of the status quo and fearful of anything transformative.
After years of cuts, redundancies and “efficiency dividends”, too many agencies lack sufficient technical expertise to be intelligent purchasers or to take well-considered risks in developing innovative new programs with a clear eye on the long-term public interest.
Perhaps landcare has simply been lucky over the last 30 years to have grown under the wise political stewardship of people such as Joan Kirner and Heather Mitchell among many others, matched at a grassroots level by countless community leaders across the continent.
But I’d like to think that when wise leaders design policies that deliberately make space for people at lower levels to innovate, to own their own agenda and to grow, then great things happen and lasting benefits can be delivered.
If you’re interested in reading more on landcare, see the following titles:
Campbell, Andrew (1994) Landcare: communities shaping the land and the future. Allen & Unwin, Sydney. ISBN 1863735550
Catacutan, Delia, Constance Neely, Mary Johnson, Horrie Poussard and Rob Youl (Eds) (2009) Landcare: local action-global progress. World Agroforestry Centre, Nairobi. ISBN 9789290592457
Youl, Rob (Ed) (2006) Landcare in Victoria. Rob Youl, South Melbourne. ISBN 0977524000