After 13 years with EDO Tasmania, Principal Lawyer Jess Feehely is finishing up at the end of 2018. Here are her thoughts about some of the highs and lows of her time at EDO Tas.
What’s your favourite thing about Tasmania?
I love Tasmania for all the obvious reasons: its rugged beauty, cute / terrifying wildlife, and the unrivalled accessibility of our wild places. I have particular soft spots for Mt Field, Cape Pillar, and the Walls of Jerusalem, but even a walk at Knocklofty can still take my breath away.
I love Tasmania for the passion of its communities and their willingness to get involved in difficult conversations about things that matter to them.
Also Kudelka, Dark MOFO, fagus, cherries, the mysterious Ivan Cerjak, kunanyi, people who build snowpeople on their car bonnets and drive down kunanyi, Bruny Island cheese, Willie Smith’s cider. Did I mention that I love Tasmania?
Has being an environmental lawyer been what you thought it would be?
I never intended to be a lawyer. I’m not an adversarial person so I didn’t see law as a natural fit. I studied environmental science and law as a double degree, but was always planning to work in environmental policy development. It came as a genuine shock to me when I enjoyed law, and I quickly came to see it as a powerful tool for environmental protection.
I never became comfortable with litigation, but grew to appreciate that practising law was so much more than that – in fact, a desire to avoid litigation is a great motivator for finding alternative solutions! And when going to court is the best option, I’ve been lucky to have incredibly talented litigators in my team.
Practising environmental law as I have – empowering the community to understand the law, promoting compliance, and advocating for stronger laws when the ones we have aren’t fit for purpose – has been incredibly rewarding.
What’s been your most satisfying experience at EDO Tas?
There have been some deeply satisfying victories – saving Ralphs Bay from an “inherently unsustainable” canal estate, preventing the re-opening of 4WD tracks in takayna, confirming the legal right of groups like Save the Tarkine to seek reasons for government decisions that affect places they work hard to protect.
But there is also satisfaction in seeing ordinary people emboldened simply by understanding what the law requires, or being horrified to learn what it DOESN’T require, and knowing that they have support. One of my favourite things has been watching clients grow from nervous community members to committed advocates for public participation, defiantly meeting with politicians and sometimes running for Council themselves, determined to make a difference.
Our 2012 marine farming conference was a wonderful event that really kick-started public debate about how aquaculture is managed in Tasmania. I’m also pleased with the high regard in which our law reform submissions are held.
If I’m honest, I’m also still pretty proud of the “No Well, No Well” anti-fracking Christmas card, commissioning the devil lawyer design (thank you, Sam Lyne!), and the time I managed to sneak two Corey Haim questions into the quiz night.
What’s been the most disappointing environmental law decision over the past few years?
The Federal government’s decision to cut EDO funding, and subsequent efforts to reduce standing for environment groups, has been incredibly disappointing. However, the support that we have received since the funding cuts has been phenomenal. To all those who’ve donated, whether money, time or skills, who’ve spoken up on our behalf, who’ve been willing to run up mountains, to forgo alcohol, or to speak at our events, thank you. Your support has been critical, not just financially but in sending a message that the community values environmental justice.
A related frustration has been the ongoing portrayal of public participation as unnecessary red tape. Tasmanian laws explicitly recognise the value of public participation in informing good decisions, yet people who use those laws are frequently belittled or dismissed as NIMBYs or naysayers. In a robust democracy the very least the community should be able to expect is an opportunity to have their say and a requirement for their comments to be considered.
Given all the bad news on the environment, how do you stay hopeful?
Working in environmental law is not always easy. In fact, it’s not easy most of the time. The laws are often unhelpful, the opponents are well funded, accessing vital information can be difficult, the science looks bleak, and threats to the environment accumulate.
Staying positive is easier when you’re surrounded by wonderful people who are just getting on with the job of making the world better in whatever way they can. When people go outside their comfort zone to do something to protect a place they love , whether it’s Lake Malbena or a local park, you can’t help but want to help them.
My tip is to celebrate ALL the victories, however small. Don’t rest on your laurels, but don’t forget to congratulate yourself. Then refocus, re-energise, and get back at it.
It’s also comforting to know others are joining the fight. More than 100 students have volunteered with EDO Tasmania during my time in this role and many remain good friends. Watching them flourish in careers in law or environmental policy gives me much hope for the future.
What are you going to do once you finish at EDO Tas?
I’m lucky enough to be taking up a role with the Tasmania Law Reform Institute. One of the things I’ve loved most about my role with EDO Tasmania has been law reform and policy work – analysing laws and looking for practical ways to improve their effectiveness. I’m looking forward to applying those skills to a range of social justice issues.
What will you miss about EDO Tas?
My colleagues, locally and nationally. I couldn’t have asked for a more engaged, supportive, intelligent, dedicated, inspirational, hilarious, and compassionate crew. It’s been an absolute privilege to be part of Team EDO.
What won’t you miss?
The stairs to the office. And the government releasing bad news at 4:45pm on a Friday (usually 5 minutes after I’ve pressed “send” on the EDO Bulletin).
If you could make some changes to environmental law, what would they be?
Our report from a few years ago, Lifting the Standards, sets out a lot of sensible reforms to improve Tasmania’s environmental laws (if I do say so myself!). To pick a few:
- A more rigorous, transparent and legislated process for assessing development in national parks and reserves
- Threatened species laws that actually prevent activities that drive extinction and prioritise recovery actions
- Contemporary protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage, with Aboriginal management at its core
- Using the Right to Information Act 2009 as a tool to facilitate, rather than to frustrate, disclosure
- Climate laws that integrate climate considerations across the full spectrum of resource management and planning decisions
And, importantly, adequate resources to implement and enforce compliance with those laws!
Thanks to everyone who’s supported me during my time with EDO Tas, it’s been an absolute pleasure.