Penny Figgis, an environmental treasure.
Penny Figgis has been involved with ACF for 24 years first as the chief lobbyist in Canberra in the exciting early eighties over the period when the Franklin River was the dominant issue and then from the mid 80s as a Council member and Vice President.
Penny first discovered the natural world through her parents' passion for fishing, accompanying them to 'the wild beaches, rainforest pockets and estuaries of northern NSW "Rainforests have intrigued me profoundly since I was a child," says Penny who edited a major book, Rainforests of Australia (1985). Her father's links to the Blue Mountains area have given her a lifelong interest in the fate of that region. She first became involved there as an activist in the early 1970s, joining the battles to protect the Wollemi wilderness in the northern Blue Mountains and the northern NSW rainforests.
In the 1970s, Penny studied and then taught political science at the University of Sydney, before becoming ACF's national lobbyist in 1982, at the height of the Franklin campaign.
Penny's political science background meant that she understood how derisions were made at the top levels of politics. "Until then, the emphasis in the green movement was on providing information, but I was able to help activists to use Parliamentary debates and Questions on Notice, how to get issues onto committee agendas ... I believe that helped the movement gain greater sophistication in terms of where and who to lobby and how to form arguments."
She also provided ACF with a more professional image. "A lot of people in the green movement were pretty scruffy!" she laughs. "I was teased about being very corporate, but I used to tell people 'Don't make your appearance the issue'."
In 1984, Penny was elected to the ACF Council, and in 1985 she was elected to the first of six terms as Vice-President. Over the years she has represented ACF to the public and to members, giving presentations, speaking on the radio, and providing a plausible and articulate voice for the organisation. Within the organisation she has brought her political and tactical skills to scores of campaigns--especially in the area of nature conservation.
Penny was also able to use her professional presentation and strategic thinking to bring issues about which she was passionate to the forefront. This included bringing environmental responsibility into the tourism industry. "In 1987, when I was elected to the Australian Tourist Commission, it was not on the agenda. I was able to secure better research and argue the case. I believe I did play a role in a substantial change and now we have much better standards, accreditation schemes, major discussions on both cultural and environmental responsibility ... you won't see a tourism conference where these issues aren't major items."
In the wider environment movement, she has served on the boards of Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, the Great Barrier Reef Consultative Committee, the Australian Tourist Commission, Landcare Australia, the Environment Protection Authority (NSW), the Sydney Olympic Park Authority, been Chaff of the Parklands Advisory Committee, the Australian Bush Heritage Fund, and the Jenolan Caves Trust. Her outstanding contribution to the environment movement was recognised in 1994 when Penny was awarded the Order of Australia (AM) for services to conservation and the environment. In 2003, she received further official recognition in the form of a Centenary Medal.
ACF has changed significantly since Penny first worked with the organisation in the early 1980s. "The movement of the 1980s was more spontaneous, more activitist, more grassroots, more broadly democratic.' she remembers, adding that the issues have also changed since then. "Issues were more specific then. Everything was 'save the...' We had 'save the Barrier Reef' or 'save the forests'. You knew whether you had won or lost."
Today's issues are more complex, requiring comprehensive institutional and cultural change to address problems such as resource use and climate change. Penny refers to this slow, painstaking process as 'turning around the Titanic', saying that the amounts of behind the scenes work required '...makes it harder to show results to members.'
Despite being involved in so many key environmental campaigns over the years, Penny says one of her proudest achievements has been her long term commitment to ACF. "I've stayed in through all the ups and downs, from our heyday of the late 1980s through the more difficult years of the early 1990s. I'm an ACF loyalist who will always promote and support the agenda of the ACF, to protect, restore and sustain our environment."