The sixth phase of the environmental defenders – and beyond

Reading Law of the Land, a book telling the story of 30 years of EDO NSW, I’m struck by the dedication and talent of the people and communities that have made this remarkable legal centre so successful. But I’m also aware that, just as the book is published, we’re already writing a completely new chapter in our story – a new ‘sixth phase’ that makes me excited for our future.

By Sue Higginson, Chief Executive Officer, EDO NSW

5 December 2016

In Law of the Land, author Murray Hogarth identifies five phases in the journey of EDO NSW. Here’s what he says: 

First came four years of planning and fundraising challenges that preceded the NSW Office’s formal launch in 1985, as it progressed from 1981’s ambitious idea to a more modest, necessarily pragmatic reality. 

Second there were tough, tenuous, tenacious early times, several years in the latter half of the 1980s, when the first small bands of Environmental Defenders worked on the tightest of budgets to establish themselves in an often hostile professional, political and financial operating environment. 

Third came a period of steady consolidation through the 1990s, as successive teams of EDO litigators built up an impressive body of legal casework and also established policy and education activities, and spread the idea nationally. 

Fourth came the Office’s modern era starting circa 2002. A relative golden age, underwritten by an extended period of stable funding and the formal rise of a multi-disciplinary model straddling an expanding menu of legal advice and litigation, science, education and outreach, law reform and policy engagement, and international capacity-building work. For a brief time it seemed like the EDO was secure, almost invulnerable. Had hubris set in? 

As this book, Law of the Land, was taking shape, a fifth phase emerged. Back to the future, with the stability of the halcyon decade 2002-12 shattered. The early-days survival battle was resurrected with much more at stake. 

The fifth phase that Murray alludes to is, of course, the challenges to EDO NSW – and all Australian EDOs – launched by the conservative media and the Federal Government in 2011. EDOs were accused of appropriating the law for environmental activism, and the Federal Government withdrew its funding. The accusations were, of course, totally unjustified: EDOs have always been far too professional to use the law in a way that it wasn’t intended. My predecessor Jeff Smith skilfully articulated our case at the time

But what struck me most when reading Murray’s book is that, though the troubles of the fifth phase are still affecting us today, we’re already well into a new phase – a sixth phase of EDO NSW. 

The sixth phase – a stronger, community-based EDO

As a result of the loss of funding, characterised in Murray's fifth phase, EDO NSW had to diversify its sources of income. In essence, this has meant increasing donations revenue, which before 2013 made up just 1 percent of our revenue sources. It now makes up nearly a third of our revenue. 

Our diversification of income has gone hand-in-hand with a palpable refocus in our organisation. We’re now more than ever connected to our supporters; more aware of our leadership on behalf of communities across New South Wales and Australia.

More than ever, we’re a legal centre nourished by an engaged community. 

And the results have been amazing. Our 2015/16 Annual Report shows that our community of supporters has grown strongly and our grass roots influence is spreading. 

Our stronger connection to people in the community is strengthening us as an organisation. 

So in some ways the attacks on EDO NSW had a perverse effect: they made us a stronger, more vibrant, more formidable organisation. I am proud to be part of this evolving story, and look forward to entering the seventh phase of EDO NSW.


Law of the Land

Law of the land: The Rise of the Environmental Defenders
In Sydney in 1981 a small group of people met to conceive a bold dream – that a system of law that over a millennium had been geared primarily to protect private property and individual freedom should be regularly used to protect the commons of mankind against the depredations of those very interests.

The perfect Christmas gift for the legal professional or environmentalist in your life.

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