14 June 2012 – For anyone who knows about environmental issues, Geoff Cousins is a man to inspire.
Coming from deep in the corporate world with a background that includes advertising guru, company director, chief executive of Optus and political adviser to the Liberal Party, Cousins is legendary for his powerful and instantly made decision to try to stop the Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania. It meant campaigning against then environment minister Malcolm Turnbull in the 2007 election and incurring the wrath – and worse – of his fellow business people and strangers in the street.
But how angry the reaction became, he won’t discuss.
Speaking to The Fifth Estate after his appearance at a Property Council of Australia lunch in Sydney last Thursday, in an interview session with journalist Imre Salusinsky, Cousins refused point blank to go into too much detail of how some people have responded to his stance.
Put it this way, he said, “If you stand between anyone and a pile of money, you’re likely to get some pretty strong reaction.
“I’ve had people yell at me in the street and spit at me and all that sort of business but I’ve many more people who come and say, please press on.”
But it’s no surprise, he says.
“It’s a polarising thing in the community no doubt about that,
if you want a quite life you stay silent.”
Maybe a little surprisingly, until you get to know this man, the friendship with former prime minister John Howard survived.
That’s the mark of intelligence, he says.
“We’re friends and there is no reason we shouldn’t be.
“I find it very unintelligent to not agree to someone on one issue and then not wanting to talk to them at all.
“John Howard called me to ask simply what my view is…whether I was opposed to all pulp mills or just this particular one. I said just this particular one and I gave him reason.” The reason was the toxic chemicals the mill planned to use and the old growth forests that would plunder for the pulp.
When he was Optus CEO, Cousins also spoke out against Pauline Hansen’s racism and blunt prejudice, incurring the wrath of shareholders who told him to stick to talking about telephones.
In Cousins’ view the current rollback on environmental and climate change issues is unambiguously driven by the resources industry.
“I think it’s coming from the concept that the Australian economy is being driven by exploitation of resources and therefore anything that might interfere with that will somehow damage people’s livelihoods – which is simply not true – but that’s the impression many people are getting.”
So is the resources industry the focal point of opposition to climate change, as so many environmentalists suspect?
Absolutely, Cousins says.
“Ninety per cent certainly is coming from the mining industry.
“There are very powerful forces who are actively and cleverly trying to put the point of view of those who wish to exploit these resources at whatever cost and they’re putting a lot of money into it, in advertising in all kinds of all public relations, and emailings, supporting all sort of groups and movements I behind the scenes.
“And anyone who has a different point of view as I do
Needs to stand up and speak about it.”
And it’s why he chooses to address audiences such as this, he says.
“I am sure this is an audience that is not entirely receptive to everything I’ve got to say.”
“But I think it’s a waste of time to speak at an environmental event because everyone there will agree with you.”
Tough ground to make up
Does the environment and climate change agenda have a chance to regain lost ground?
“I doubt it in the short term. I think that will take some time and I think that’s to do with the world economy and people are worried and for good reason. The world’s in a mess. And people are concerned.”
Cousins thinks the global financial crisis has 10 years to play out. “Maybe more.”
I’m not opposed to regulation, Cousins told the Property Council lunch, but added, “the idea that businesses can regulate themselves is nonsense.
“I remember when regulation was brought into the Australian banking industry, APRA (the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority). A lot of people said this is the end of the banking system.
“And then when the GFC (global financial crisis) hit the Australian banking system – one of the few in the world – was standing tall; they were saying this is a tremendously well regulated system.”
Good ethics is good business
In Cousins view, there are some sound business reason for good ethics: they pay off.
Cousins became involved in the Gunns pulp mill campaign after reading the seminal major article in The Monthly by Richard Flanagan, which detailed a dreadful legacy of what the company had done in Tasmania.
“It was a well written piece with a lot of research and a lot of facts. I had to do something about it.”
The plan was for Gunns to build one of the biggest pulp mills in the Tamar Valley but the thing that galled Cousins was the toxic chemicals they would spew into the environment and the pristine native forests that they would use for pulp.
Malcolm Turnbull and the rich bully accusation
“This brought me into conflict with one of the great shrinking violets in Australian life, [Malcolm Turnbull then environment minister].”
Cousins took out a full page advertisement in the local newspaper that asked, was Turnbull for or against the environment. It was widely reproduced and broadcast. A massive advertising campaign, at the cost of a single ad, Cousins recalls.
Turnbull called him a “rich bully”.
That was manna from heaven, Cousins said.
“He could buy and sell me several times before breakfast, and as a bully I’m still a trainee, still in third grade.
“It was very brash of him to respond in that way and I think that’s one of the reasons he’s not yet a great politician, because to be a great politician you have got to allow things to wash over you.
“You have to be a free spirit and not be beholden to anyone.”
Cousins is not a member of any party or political group.
Today he campaigns against the gas processing plant planned by Woodside Petroleum for James Price Point in the Kimberley. Cousins thinks there are plenty of good sites elsewhere that would not destroy sensitive coastline.
“If it can be reconfigured then you have to change your point of view.”
Cousins is pleased to see resources development but it doesn’t need to happen in a way that ruins “these wild and beautiful places,” he says.
Shell, for instance is processing its gas 20 kilometres off shore on a floating platform, he points out.
It all goes back to his core beliefs in ethics. Ethics and reputation also make good business sense, because if you don’t have these, Cousins says, your customers can abandon you.
It happened with Murdoch’s News of the World, which was shut down because advertisers would no longer support it. And with Gunns, the ANZ said it would not fund the project after 20,000 of its customers said they would leave the bank if it did.
Social media and rapid communications also means that companies can no longer behave unethically and get away with it.
“Personally I think that’s a tremendously positive influence. It means power is no longer held by people like me and you and heads of companies. It’s much more widely spread.”