The law of the land

When I spoke to the unstoppable law enforcer Sue Higginson she was still in the office at 10pm on a Tuesday night. After a landmark win over Whitehaven Coal to stop the slaughter of native animals with a brutal winter tree clearing in Leard Forest, she was celebrating with a single glass of champagne and a few more hours work.

“Yes I’m the last one here, there’s still a lot to do before tomorrow’s cases,” she said.

Sue is principal litigator for the Environmental Defenders Office, a non-governmental group whose Federal funding was recently axed. The EDO is the only environmental legal community centre in NSW and is now largely community funded. The Whitehaven win is just the most recent of its triumphs.

In another historic victory, Sue and a community group recently took on and beat international mining giant Rio Tinto in their Supreme Court appeal over their bid to turn the towns of Broke and Bulga in NSW into an extension of an existing open-cut coal mine.

Such extraordinary successes are again, the latest in a long line of wins for this gifted and resolute woman. Sue came to law after spending much of her younger years as an environmental campaigner. A prominent and fearless activist, she was primarily involved in working to protect the old growth forests of NSW.

She proved an adept lobbyist, shining in negotiations with state Ministers and bureaucrats on attempting to achieve a balance between forest conservation and a sustainable timber industry. Her frustration in grappling with complex legislation and defending rural communities against big corporations led her to study law in order to be able to better protect them.

After graduating from Southern Cross University in Lismore with first class honours and the University medal, she started work at the EDO’s first Outreach centre there.

“When I started with EDO about eight years ago my role was to pioneer EDO’s first ever branch office at Lismore. That was met with an overwhelming success and when the opportunity of Principal Solicitor came up, because funding is limited I took the job with a commitment that I would maintain delivery of the service across NSW and from the Outreach office.”

Sue now divides her time between work in Sydney at the EDO main office, and Lismore, where she lives on a small farm with her partner, their six kids and twelve horses. It’s a hefty schedule, involving long days and lots of travel. She says that her family are what keeps her sane.

“I’m accused by my family of being a workaholic. I feel a kind of personal as well as professional obligation to be looking at innovative and strategic ways to use law and to advise people about the law.

“I probably don’t sleep as well as I should and don’t get as much time with my family as I’d like to, but at the same time everybody in my world is committed to what I’m doing and sees the importance of it. It does seem to work.

“That’s because my work has involved throwing my entire life into it. It’s never been a 9-5 job and nor could it ever be. And that’s because we’re dealing with environmental destruction. We’re talking about extinctions of animals and plants, which makes the battle very desperate, because there’s no getting it wrong.”

My fondest memory of Sue is from about 1995. As a member of NEFA (the North East Forest Alliance), she marched into a logging coupe, alone, to confront a notoriously aggressive logging team, near Dorrigo, over an illegal operation. She had told the rest of us, especially males, to stay away, so as not to provoke any further tensions. After Sue had talked to them for about twenty minutes, the loggers vacated.

This is the kind of courage and self-possession that has taken Sue to the top of her profession. It doesn’t come without some personal drawbacks.

“Personally it’s a very weighty gig,” Sue concedes.

“What goes with it is an enormous amount of privilege to be able to work with the dedicated and passionate people that I do, but with all of that comes a massive amount of responsibility and I would say it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible to switch off.

The consequences of not succeeding can be so dire because the stakes are so high and so for me it’s one of those jobs where you just can’t go to sleep. Each day is approached like the last day in that you can’t miss a beat. You’ve got to be on the front foot all along the way.

“So some days I feel like I’m carrying the weight of the world.”

But these misgivings are balanced by a happy home life and the drive and motivation that those who worked with her on forestry issues knew so well.

“The key to being able to do it is hyper-organization as well as high energy.  The reason I can do this is because my children are mostly grown up. I’ve got one child at school and I can manage this because I have the terrific support of my partner. He’s the one that maintains things at home and looks after the farm and that allows me the complete freedom and capacity to be where I am needed at any given time.”

Aside from her family and a huge rambling garden, Sue’s horses are a mainstay of her sanity.

“Some of them are rescue horses, a couple of them are brumbies that we took out of a wilderness area, based on an ecological programme.

“I have one particular favourite a rescue horse called Oliver. I try and ride him whenever I can but that’s not very often given the amount of work.”

Sue’s overriding environmental concerns include one that touches on a most crucial aspect of our country’s many environmental issues – the toxic effects of unconventional gas mining.

“From where I sit the primary issue is about water. The whole play of CSG is in underground resources, where people are 100% reliant on that water being safe and not contaminated. The primary fear is that industry hasn’t shown its safe and the real cause of why that’s so concerning is that nobody’s shown that you can clean up groundwater. If you wreck a resource as significant as the Great Artesian Basin, a groundwater resource that’s been growing for millions of years well, no-one knows how to fix it. Obviously logic says that if there’s a different way of getting the energy you’d take that.

“In terms of the law, the industry is so far ahead of the regulatory scheme anyway, the laws just aren’t up to dealing with the industry yet. CSG has come in front of the laws meant to regulate it. The law has not been comprehensively revised or amended to be able to cope with what’s going on yet and in the meantime industry is out there, in the NSW landscape potentially causing an enormous amount of harm.”

“We are on the driest continent and water is so desperate and this is a diversion from the real programme of moving to renewable resources. The science on climate change is in, the jury on the impacts of unconventional gas is out. As a society who cares for the environment and future generations, our best options are reasonably clear to me.”

The focus on renewable resources is a prerogative that Sue feels is inseparable from her work – and her role as a woman.

“At the end of the day what motivates us is as women are future generations – the next mob that come along. I think that compels us as a gender to be caring for future generations. That’s what motivates me.”

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