From our new CEO / Principal Lawyer, Nicole Sommer
A constant in my career has been the EDO. I have practised in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania and in each state the EDO has been there, taking cases for the community, pushing advances in environmental jurisprudence, holding the government to account (in some cases, the government I worked for) and providing much needed and otherwise non-existent community education and advice.
This story is equally true in Tasmania. Whether it is salmon farming, development in national parks, mining in the Tarkine, conserving Tasmanian forests or planning reform, the EDO has been behind the community providing advice and representation.
I am struck by the sheer volume of work EDO Tasmania produces. In the 2017-2018 financial year, EDO Tasmania’s lawyers provided 2,175 hours of advice and legal representation, were involved in 5 pieces of litigation and gave over 300 pieces of advice. That is an astounding rate, almost 1 piece of advice per day. This is the day-to-day work of EDO Tasmania. Whether it be complex litigation under the EPBC Act like the Lake Malbena judicial review proceedings or answering the query of an individual about a development next door, the EDO has been there.
And for many years, the driving force behind this powerhouse was Jess Feehely. I, like everyone else, was surprised by Jess’ decision to step down from her leadership of EDO Tasmania; to me she was EDO Tasmania. But when I found out that she was leaving, I could not let the opportunity pass me by. I am proud to be joining team EDO, continue the work of this resilient office and build on Jess’s incredible legacy.
I am one of a rare breed of lawyers that knew very early on in their career that they wanted to practice environmental law. I studied environmental and natural resource studies in my Arts degree and took on all the environmental law subjects I could in my Law degree. I worked at all levels of government and in private practice, seeking out different experience and knowledge of this complex web of laws that is intended to safeguard the environment. This has resulted in a diversity to my career which I confess is probably unusual.
I have been 14 years in private practice and State government, working in the NSW and Victorian State planning and environment departments, and for five years in Melbourne at national law-firm Maddocks. Since 2014, I have had the pleasure of practising in Tasmania with Hobart-based firm Dobson Mitchell Allport, as the head of its planning and environment practice. I was a regular in the Resource Management and Planning Appeal Tribunal and the Tasmanian Planning Commission.
I have worked on climate change litigation, appeared in planning appeals, advised on forestry, mining, major transport and water projects. I have worked the long hours of a big corporate law firm, and worked in the Utopia-like government departments, advising Ministers through tough decisions, court proceedings and political spin.
What I have learned so far – if I can distil it down – is the power of the law to make positive change, and that better decisions are made when the public participates.
I have joined EDO Tasmania as its CEO and Principal Lawyer because of this.
EDO Tasmania is at its heart a law office. It provides advice to people on environmental law. It takes environmental law cases. It advocates for stronger laws. We are the experts and that is our job.
The role of advice is not to be understated. Planning and environmental laws are complex and not understood by the ordinary legal practitioner, let alone the ordinary citizen. Even the most basic submission on a planning application must be relevant before it is taken into account. In this State, there are different statutory (and non-statutory) regimes for planning, pollution control, forestry, mining, development in national parks, and development affecting European, indigenous heritage and threatened species.
We know that without EDO Tasmania, many Tasmanians would not have been able to have that access to meaningful involvement in decision-making, or to be adequately informed to properly participate in those decisions.
EDO Tasmania brings cases before the Courts in the public interest to protect the environment and to progress the law. We are taking on the Lake Malbena case for these reasons. It is in the public interest for there to be strong Commonwealth environmental laws that ensure robust and inclusive environmental assessment. This case seeks to hold the government to that standard.
Finally, EDO Tasmania will continue to be an advocate for stronger laws to protect the environment and places we value.
During my time in Tasmania, I have been struck by the fact that Tasmania is a place where people across the social-spectrum have a connection to nature, an appreciation for the values of this place, as fishers, sailors, walkers, cyclists, farmers and simply as the setting to our lives.
Tasmania is on the precipice of change and there is palpable concern for these values.
Part of this change is population and tourism growth. As more people like me move south to escape the mega-cities of Sydney and Melbourne, and more and more tourists are drawn here, the natural and built environment that Tasmanians value is under pressure.
These pressures have brought with them both positives, such as more vibrant cities and towns, greater economic prosperity and opportunities for business, and negatives, such as increasing development with consequential impacts on places we value, tourists flocking to wild places, expanding urban areas and infrastructure struggling to keep up. In my experience, we do not need to sacrifice one for the other – there can be middle ground between environmental protection and economic development.
With this shift comes the opportunity to get that balance right, to protect the places we value and love, while providing equal access to housing and services, and providing businesses and people with the opportunity to thrive. Now more than ever we need to consider the legal framework that underpins decisions about the future of this State. I see EDO Tasmania’s role in this change as critical; to equip communities with the tools and language to guide our State, to not only to help the advocates, but be the advocates for laws that strike that balance.
I look forward to working with the staff, volunteers, supporters and clients of EDO Tasmania as we face these challenges and work toward strengthening and enhancing our system of environmental laws.