ACF chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy

15 April 2014 – New chief executive of the Australian Conservation Foundation Kelly O’Shanassy has signalled a dramatic shift in political strategies from more conservative methods to stronger grassroots and people-centred campaigns.

The move is in response to “reckless” government decisions that were damaging the environment and ignoring climate change, Ms O’Shanassy said in her first statement on Monday night.

It also reflects a growing backlash to government policies that on Monday produced a poll showing the Greens vote has surged to an all time high of 17 per cent nationally and to a massive 27 per cent in the “mining state” of Western Australia. The Australian Financial Review/Nielsen poll also showed support for the federal government had slumped during a period when it cited significant successes.

New alliances were also springing up to protect the Great Barrier Reef and other sensitive environmental assets that are coming under attack from the federal government’s devolution of development approval powers to the states. One such group is Places You Love, that which together all the major environmental groups in the country, with about 1.5 million members collectively.

Ms Shanassy said political dynamics were now vastly different than in the past.

“In the past,” Ms O’Shanassy said, “we could take smart, evidence-based ideas to governments and they would listen. But today, there appears to be a growing ideological opposition to restoring nature.

“With the risk of climate change clearly known, it’s reckless to stunt the growth of clean energy to support the fossil fuel industry.

“It’s negligent to allow logging and development in our national parks. And it’s just plain wrong to pollute the Reef — a precious natural asset, World Heritage site and lynchpin of Australia’s tourism industry. But that’s exactly what our governments are doing.”

Power to the people

Ms O’Shanassy revealed the new approach on Monday night when she sent out a social media style alert complete with video, some personal words of commitment and passion, and a reference to the band U2 to set the tone for her new campaign.

“The lead singer of U2, Bono, has a saying – ‘the power of the people is greater than the people in power,’” Ms O’Shanassy said.

“I believe this. And I believe that we can build and focus that power for protecting nature and our future. This is my vision for ACF.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on Sunday said there was still time to avoid catastrophic climate change “without sacrificing living standards”, she said, and the transformation to a clean energy future was “easily affordable”.

“We know we can live and thrive in harmony with nature. We know we can create businesses and jobs that actually rebuild our natural capital rather than deplete it. We know we can repair the damage done and pass on a safe climate and thriving environment to our children.”

But the fossil fuel industry was also fighting a grassroots campaign.

Ms O’Shanassy pointed to a new campaign designed to halt growing support for renewabales.

“In the same week the IPCC released their report, the Minerals Council of Australia launched its ‘Australians for Coal’ campaign.

“The big polluters are actually asking Australians to tell their MPs that coal is good for our future.

“In light of the recent IPCC report, this is just plain self-serving and endangers us all.”

In a delightful bit of schadenfreude, the social media element of the Australians for Coal campaign seems to have backfired, with the twittersphere lampooning the coal industry and its #australiansforcoal hashtag.

Ms Shanassy urged supporters send a message to government “by telling our MPs we won’t let the big polluters hijack our future“.

Another pro-coal campaign was revealed last week with major advertisements in The Australian Financial Review for the website Advanced Energy For Life, which champions the fight against poverty through cheap coal-based energy.

The website, which says it is “sponsored by Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company and a global leader in sustainable mining and clean coal solutions”, has interfaces for China, the US and Australia, with key messages centred on the social sustainability goals of ending poverty through cheap, coal-based energy and editorial stories pulled from some of the world’s most respected newspapers and magazines that might cast doubt on the value of renewables. For instance:

A spokesman for ACF said there was frustration, and “not just at the ACF.”

“People around the country are feeling frustrated with the government turning back the clock on the environment and taking us back another decade,” the spokesman said.

“Kelly feels the ACF can play a role in bringing together people and other organisations around the country. It’s exciting times – at a time when things are going backwards.”

ACF was playing a “catalytic” role, the spokesman said.

Still, the ACF was still suffering the impact of the GFC when membership dropped from about 60,000 to 40,000 who actively support the organisation with some financial contribution.

However, there were about 100,000 people who considered themselves “part of the ACF community”, the spokesman said.


Ms O’Shanassy comes from seven years heading up Environment Victoria, during which time she shifted the focus of the organisation from dependence on government funding to stronger levels of membership and independent funding.

Ms O’Shanassy has has also been chair, Environment and Community Taskforce, Office of Living Victoria, and director of WaterSmart, as well as of various Victorian government agencies. In 2013 she was nominated as a finalist in the Telstra Business Women’s Awards.

History of ACF

From Wikipedia: ACF’s founders were drawn from Australia’s scientific, public service, business and political decision makers. A 1963 memo from the Duke of Edinburgh inspired Francis Ratcliffe to consult with his CSIRO colleagues and work with conservationists and community leaders to establish a national conservation body.

Francis Ratcliffe saw conservation as one of the three most important issues facing humanity, along with the avoidance of an atomic war and achieving racial harmony. In August 1964, at a conference in Canberra, the organisation that was to become the Australian Conservation Foundation was born. Its first president was Sir Garfield Barwick then Chief Justice of the High Court.

ACF came into being as a legal entity when its certificate of incorporation was issued in August 1966.

Early meetings of the ACF Council identified the Mallee, rainforests, the Great Barrier Reef and central Australia as the areas most needing coordinated national attention and action. However, due to limited resources and the urgency of the threats to the Great Barrier Reef re-focussed ACF on protecting the Reef from mining and oil drilling.

During the 1960s, ACF developed most of the campaign methods it used for the following twenty-five years. These included research, policy development, education and lobbying. ACF gave support to other conservation organisations and established local branches.

Francis Ratcliffe had a vision of building a large body of members to support ACF financially and assist with community education. As the 1960s drew to a close the wave of public support for conservation escalated.

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  1. Wow, after years and years of the same old letter writing strategy at EV, Kelly O’Shanassy has noticed that others are getting grass-roots support together for action on climate change because EV and ACF put all their eggs in the ‘being close to the ALP’ basket.

    And now it’s time to change strategy, oh really? And please don’t quote Bono if you want credibility in the movement.