The early 1970s was where it all began. My career in water kick-started when I was seconded to the Federal Department of Environment and produced the first ever water quality guidelines for Australian and New Zealand.
During this 12-month secondment, I was able to meet all the movers and shaker in water in Australia and overseas. This secondment was where my passion for water, in particular freshwater, all began.
In the early 70s, the environment was everything. At one time I was very interested in marine chemistry. But if nothing else, I’m pragmatic. When I looked at the possibility of getting big boat time and big gear to do marine work, I thought ‘no way’. So, freshwater was it, and I have never looked back.
In that one year secondment, I spent two months overseas and got to know everyone involved in water. Well, almost everyone. I couldn’t have scripted it any better. Of course, those people are now mostly gone from their positions, but those visits really fueled my interested in water research.
Field work in the Darling river 1993
Looking toward new horizons
I like to talk about (professional) ‘horizons’. My career has been characterised by a long process of changing horizons as opportunities presented. You can never think that you have the last word on the horizon that you’re looking towards.
My initial secondary education was at Bairnsdale technical school followed by a Diploma in Applied Chemistry at Bendigo School of Mines (now Latrobe University) and then working two years as an industrial chemist at Unilever. I then trained as a teacher and commence teaching in technical schools. My decade-long teaching career stated in Stawell in Victoria where my father was the headmaster. This was great a great year as our first child, their first grandchild, was born there. But after a year, I received a promotion to Clayton Technical School and the family moved back to Melbourne.
I was very fortunate to receive special consideration by the Education Department that allowed me to teach half time and to study at Monash University to convert my diploma to a BSc and then an honours degree. This then opened new horizons. As I did well in the honours year, I thought ‘why not keep going’ and do a PhD.
I was again fortunate in being able to work as a teacher half time on full pay while completing the PhD. I elected to do the PhD in theoretical chemistry (quantum mechanics) at Monash University. This was a very pragmatic decision given I had a family of four young children and was working half time as a teacher. I always say I did my PhD in collaboration with my wife, Margaret. She looked after the children and everything else and I just worked. It was a combined effort.
My horizon in those days was very much about getting as many additional qualifications as I could so I could get rapidly promoted within the Victorian Education Department and care for my growing family.
After completing the PhD I went back to teaching full time at Caulfield Institute of Technology. Later that year I was very fortunate to be seconded to the Department of Environment in Canberra to prepare a set of water quality guidelines for Australia and New Zealand. This provided a new horizon: to better understand freshwater systems (research, knowledge generation) and then to improve water management (decision-making, knowledge exchange) using that new knowledge.
When looking at horizons, I like to talk about risk. You must work out where you stand in the area of risk. Are you risk averse? Are you a risk taker? Are you a fence sitter? You can choose different paths in different situations.
That leads me to another favourite statement about ‘forks in the road’. I was being groomed to be the Dean at Caulfield Institute of Technology. I made an absolutely conscious decision not to go the administrative route, but to stay in teaching and research. And that was tough. I chose not to be beguiled by successive promotions but to stay doing what I loved.
Fitzroy river partnership
Setting up the Water Studies Centre
The pathway to undertaking serious water research was long and arduous, but the importance of this horizon has never left me. I kept being driven to do more research – to generate new knowledge.
At Caulfield Institute of Technology like other Institutes of Technology in the 1970s, we were not encouraged or funded to do research. However, in 1975 I was able to establish the Water Studies Centre (WSC) and gradually over time to obtain grants from government agencies and industry to get some research started.
In a way, if we wanted to do research, we were ‘forced’ to get funding from government departments and industry as we were blocked from the Australian Research Council grant system.
I stayed as Director of the WSC for more than 30 years and consider this a highlight of my career. I oversaw the Centre joining with Monash University and being an important collaborator in the Cooperative Research Centre for Freshwater Ecology (1993-2005).
I love the whole knowledge generation game. It probably comes back to my pragmatic upbringing, but I really don’t believe the generation of new knowledge is complete unless it is used in policy and management. And I have always tried to get new knowledge used. It really helped that I have had a fantastic network, not only of researchers, but also policy and management people.
I am proud to say the Water Studies Centre is still active in research, postgraduate research and knowledge exchange.
Influencing water management decisions through relationships and teams
I feel privileged that as water researcher, I have been able to influence water management decision-making.
This has mostly happened through chairing and participating in many science and technical advisory committees. The most influential of these was likely the production and implementation of the Basin Plan while a Board member of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.
MDBA Board – 2009
Being selected to these positions has been very much about the people I know and the relationships I have developed. Being able to make a difference relies on the staff who do the baqckground work. I never consider that I’m the one who has made the major influence but I do as part of a team.
The experience of being part of something like the Basin Plan is bittersweet. Some things were done with a good intent, and absolutely backfired. There were also some things that could have been done differently, must be done differently, will be done differently and are being done differently. But the Basin Plan is a fantastic improvement on what we had before.
I think it is now well recognised that you can’t do water policy and management, without close interaction and collaboration with the community. This includes increased collaboration with Traditional Owners. The way of doing business has changed, no question. But I think that there’s a long way to go to get positive dialogue about water issues within our communities. Irrigation lobby groups and irresponsible media reporting are at least partly to blame.
My hope is that the new national independent water and catchment policy centre (WaterTrust Australia) will introduce new deliberative processes to assist in resolving the complex problems we face. Alluvium helped to establish the case for this centre. Fifteen Australian philanthropic organisation, including the Ian Potter Foundation and Myer Foundation, have committed $32 million over 10 years to make the centre work.
Making certain that Alluvium’s knowledge base is top notch and integrated
Joining Alluvium Consulting’s Board as a non-executive Director in 2015 was another new horizon I had not expected. When I put in an expression of interest, I told my wife: “Oh, I’m too old. They won’t want to engage me”.
That was six years ago, now I am Chair of the Board, and I’m really pleased to be involved.
From the start, I pushed hard to make certain that the knowledge base that we were delivering was tops. Alluvium used to focus on biophysical science, but now offers a quadruple bottom line service (environmental, economic, social and cultural). Alluvium Consulting Australia works with NCEconomics, Mosaic Insights, EcoFutures and Alluvium International to make sure we integrate natural sciences with the economics and social and cultural.
I think a major challenge going forward is to integrate these areas even more and include Traditional Owners to sell our brand better. Our approach will be important for tackling the two big water issues Australia faces: climate change and improved decision-making processes.
These issues are linked. Australia’s progression to a hotter, drier future will seriously challenge the management of our available water resources. There will be less water available, and this will require difficult decisions to be made regarding the types of water-dependant environments and irrigation industries that can be sustained. Both will likely need to transition to new states.
My experience in the Murray-Darling Basin makes it clear that these transitions will not be easy. Understanding social and economic drivers alongside the best possible biophysical knowledge will be crucial for meeting such challenges.