Phillip Toyne died on Saturday morning after a long illness with cancer, leaving an indelible legacy of influence and achievement.
Along with Rick Farley, former leader of the National Farmers’ Federation, Phillip Toyne was the best strategist I’ve known. We worked together in the early days of landcare. More of that later.
Toyne had a big vision, tempered with acute political insight. Politics may be the art of the possible, but Phillip had a gift in helping people to enlarge their sense of what’s possible, and then to map a path to get there.
Each of Phillip Toyne’s four careers — working with Aboriginal people in central Australia, environmental activism in Melbourne, environmental policy in Canberra and corporate consultancy and philanthropy in Gundaroo — would represent a substantial lifetime’s achievement for most people. Taken as a whole, it is a remarkable contribution.
The rich tapestry of Phillip Toyne’s life work was woven together by two continuous threads: improving our stewardship of Australia’s unique environment, and securing the rights of Indigenous Australians, particularly with respect to their land.
Timeline of four influential careers
After graduating with a law degree and then a Diploma in Education, Phillip Toyne worked in central Australia from 1973-86, first as a teacher in the one-teacher Aboriginal school at Haasts Bluff, and then as a solicitor and barrister in Alice Springs. He was the first lawyer for the Pitjantjatjara people and worked with Premier Don Dunstan to craft the South Australian Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981.
Among many legal representations on behalf of Indigenous people, he lobbied the Hawke government and negotiated the transfer of Uluru National Park back to its traditional owners. He co-authored the first Uluru National Park plan of joint management between the Commonwealth and Traditional Owners.
In 1986, Phillip Toyne moved with his first wife Frances Coughlan to Melbourne to take up the position of Executive Director of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), which he occupied for six years. Under Toyne’s astute and politically savvy leadership, the ACF and the wider conservation movement enjoyed growing membership and mainstream political influence, and many effective campaigns and significant wins, including World Heritage Listing for the Wet Tropics and expansion of the Tasmanian and Kakadu World Heritage Areas.
Phillip moved to Canberra in 1993 with Frannie and their son Jamie to take on a new role as a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Environmental Law and Policy at the Australian National University. He taught a postgraduate course in environmental law, and co-wrote and produced an eight-part radio program for ABC Radio National called The Reluctant Nation – Environment, Law and Politics in Australia, also published as a book by the ABC in 1994.
After working closely with governments of all stripes at the ACF, Toyne became a Deputy Secretary in the Commonwealth Department of the Environment from 1994-97. His tenure straddled the Keating and Howard governments, and he was involved in early negotiations of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
He worked closely with then Environment Minister Senator Robert Hill to overhaul Commonwealth environment legislation (resulting in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1996) and to establish the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT), funded by the part sale of Telstra.
With hindsight, Robert Hill was a remarkably effective environment minister, working with states and territories and cleverly deploying a mix of carrots (NHT funds) and sticks (the EPBC act) to deliver environmental wins in a difficult political environment. Both lawyers, Toyne and Hill worked well together, and with experienced departmental Secretary Roger Beale and a talented ministerial office they initiated a period of sustained growth in influence and resources for the Commonwealth environment portfolio.
Life outside public service
His substantial policy achievements notwithstanding, it was obvious to Phillip and others that he was not a natural fit for the public service. So he moved into his next career, founding the sustainability consultancy firm Eco Futures with his second wife Molly Harriss-Olson (founding Executive Director of President Clinton’s Council on Sustainable Development) and their two sons Atticus and Aaron.
They had a delightful home office on five acres on the upper reaches of the Yass River at Gundaroo and enjoyed life in a rural community. One of their more notable projects was the National Business Leaders Forum (NBLF) on Sustainable Development.
Through the NBLF, Phillip expanded his already extensive network of contacts in the corporate sector and was invited to become a director on a number of boards including the innovative forestry company Neville Smith Timber Products and the Australian Agricultural Company (AACo), Australia’s oldest company and largest private landholder.
He relished the role, introducing sustainability and Indigenous engagement strategies into a large vertically-integrated agribusiness with extensive holdings across northern Australia.
Among Phillip’s most rewarding roles of the past 20 years was his association with Bush Heritage Australia of which he was President from 2001-2009. Bush Heritage uses private donations to buy special areas of land with high conservation values, and manages those lands for conservation. It was set up by Dr Bob Brown in 1990, and now manages 35 reserves covering millions of hectares, aided by more than 20,000 supporters.
Bush Heritage enabled Phillip to bring together his love of Australia’s wild places with his commitment to the genuine engagement of Traditional Owners, which he and CEO Doug Humann hard-wired into the Bush Heritage business model. In 2013, Phillip Toyne joined Bob Brown in being made an honorary life member.
The birth of national landcare
Phillip Toyne has been a close friend for almost thirty years. We first met in 1987 when as head of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) he visited the Potter Farmland Plan project in Western Victoria. With A$1 million in funding from the Ian Potter Foundation, we were attempting to show using demonstration farms that with good planning, conservation and production can be complementary activities in farmed landscapes. Phillip was taken with what he saw on the ground and what he learned from participating farmers.
Coincidentally, Rick Farley, then Executive Director of the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF), visited that same week and responded similarly. Both asked how this work could be scaled up nationally. I suggested that they should be working together. But they had already started talking with each other about a national alliance, and had begun what became an unlikely, close and highly influential friendship.
The Victorian LandCare program initiated by Joan Kirner and Heather Mitchell of the Victorian Farmers’ Federation provided a model for bipartisanship and community engagement. The Potter project illustrated the value of whole farm planning to integrate conservation and production.
Toyne and Farley asked me to work with them in developing a proposal for a national program of community-based land conservation based on farm and catchment planning, to take to Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Our proposal was also informed by a workshop held in the then brand new Parliament House in Canberra prior to its launch, attended by leaders of pioneering community land care groups in Australia.
Bob Hawke (supported by Resources Minister Peter Cook and Primary Industries Minister John Kerin and the Shadow Minister for Primary Industries Bruce Lloyd) agreed to fund a national program and a A$340m Decade of Landcare. In the new position of National Landcare Facilitator, I reported to Toyne, Farley and the Minister over the next four years and more than 200 tours to all parts of the continent.
It was exhilarating to track the rapid growth of Landcare — voluntary groups caring for their land, bringing together farmers and conservationists, traditional farmers and hobby farmers, women and men, young and old, rural and urban, on practical actions in local communities.
Phillip was justifiably proud that his friendship and partnership with Rick Farley catalysed the ACF-NFF alliance and the national development of Landcare (also mentioned in his Order of Australia (AO) citation in 2012).
I later worked with Phillip in the environment department in Canberra, establishing the Natural Heritage Trust and the Bushcare program, and working to dramatically reduce land clearing and reverse the decline in the extent and quality of native vegetation in Australia. We initiated new incentives for conservation on private lands (a boon for organisations like Bush Heritage) and helped to establish Australia’s distinctive regional model of natural resource management, building on the foundations of Landcare.
We had stayed in touch ever since, conspiring only last week on how best to facilitate large-scale expansion of Indigenous savanna burning programs funded by multinational resources companies across northern Australia.
Phillip Toyne had a formidable bullshit detector and did not suffer fools gladly. He was not over-endowed with patience, especially earlier in his career, and his critiques could be bracing to say the least. But he was generous to a fault and his insights, advice and mentoring helped many people in their own careers.
As he came to terms with his cancer, a softer, more reflective and philosophical side of his big-hearted nature came to the fore, making it easier for those around him to deal with his obvious pain and discomfort.
Bob Brown called him “a magnificent Australian” and former independent MP Tony Windsor summed it up beautifully: