As a campaigner for green causes, Sue Higginson knew a law degree would be her most useful weapon. Now she’s at the vanguard of the fight, heading the NSW Environmental Defenders Office. By Mick Daley.

Environmental Defenders lawyer Sue Higginson

Sue Higginson has become an expert in public interest environmental law.
Sue Higginson has become an expert in public interest environmental law.
Credit: Dean Sewell/Oculi

The morning Sue Higginson invites me to court, she is there to hear the decision on a New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) case disputing Chinese coal company Yancoal’s bid to expand operations in the Hunter Valley town of Camberwell.

Higginson is principal litigator and lately chief executive of the defenders office which, in this instance, had represented widowed octogenarian farmer Wendy Bowman’s property against Yancoal.

In the courtroom, a bewigged justice read the verdict.

“I dismiss the appeal,” he uttered dryly, “with costs.” And with that, a landmark case against Big Coal was won.

It was another in a series of astonishing victories for the legal centre. Higginson and her outfit have a formidable record, having been responsible for a series of victories against multinational corporations.

“We’re very small and we punch way above our weight,” Higginson observes. “But change is slow in a system as big as ours.”

The legal centre suffered an enormous blow in December 2013, when then prime minister Tony Abbott pulled vital federal funding. The following year the NSW government also reduced state funding.

But Higginson and the EDO are nothing if not resilient. Since then, they’ve undertaken ambitious fund-raising drives that have helped facilitate recent wins over Japanese whalers, the Indian Adani corporation and its massive Carmichael coal project in Queensland, and now Yancoal at Camberwell.

Higginson’s is an amazing story. In 10 years, she’s risen to become head of an institution that is on the front line of environmental advocacy in Australia.

In an age of potentially disastrous global warming crises, women such as Higginson have formed the vanguard of Australia’s environmental protection. From Indigenous spokeswomen to corporate warriors, they are bringing the fight for survival from the fringe of activism to our mainstream courts and stock exchanges.

With up to 90 per cent of Australia’s landmass under exploration or mining licences, many of these issues directly relate to mining and the extraction of fossil fuels.

Sue Higginson’s story is particularly germane, as her role means she is directly involved in legal battles across the spectrum of environmental issues. It’s a role she relishes, one she’s been working towards since she came to the struggle in her mid-teens, while at school in Melbourne.

“I picked up that in NSW we were logging old-growth forest and that there was very little left. And as an inquisitive young person I kept looking for the sense in that,” she says.

She left home for northern NSW, where she joined the North East Forest Alliance. “It was an organisation that had a plan, and I need a plan,” Higginson says. “I’m not just an emotional operator, I need to operate on the basis of scientific evidence and most importantly within a context.”

Higginson spent years on the remote front line of forestry campaigns, negotiating with loggers and police at often-volatile blockades. After the forest alliance won seven landmark court cases and successfully stopped old-growth logging in NSW, she found herself sitting across from government ministers, helping carve out the deals that created the forest reserve system that stands today.

“I found myself having to master all these skills. I learnt a lot about the legal system, about social movements, and I saw a very clear line in that you do it through science and evidence,” she says.

“So I got myself into university and I could see all the way from day one that the law was going to be the tool to further the actual purpose that I was put on the earth to do, and that was to protect the environment.”

Graduating with first-class honours, Higginson began working in private practice. Three years later, she took a job with the Environmental Defenders Office. After seven years, she became principal solicitor. In 2015, she became chief executive.

“I’ve become an expert in public interest environmental law, and the best vehicle in this country to assist the community is the organisation I work for,” she says. “Becoming CEO means that I can have a seriously committed attempt at keeping this organisation the best it can be.”

That is a very high standard. The office has operated with remarkable success for 30 years, so well that it has made very powerful enemies.

In 2012 the Minerals Council’s chief executive, Stephen Galilee, accused the EDO of a “deliberate campaign of economic sabotage” and the next year lobbied for punitive measures from attorney-general George Brandis and then NSW premier Barry O’Farrell, who later stood down over evidence given to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Indeed, two Labor and 12 Liberal MPs have been dragged before ICAC over corruption allegations related to the approval of coal and coal seam gas mining projects in recent years. Nonetheless, Higginson’s outfit lost most state and federal funding.

Private funding by tax-deductible donations is also endangered, as the Coalition has sought to revoke the office’s charitable status.

“It’s times like that that I have a rare moment of questioning the effectiveness of what we’re doing,” Higginson confides.

“We’ve got a political system that has privileged the rights of these multinational corporations over the top of community and environmental rights.”

In 2013, the office represented the citizens of Bulga, a small town in the Hunter Valley, against the extension of an open-cut mine owned by Rio Tinto. The office won the case, at which point O’Farrell changed legislation so the miners could appeal. After a second loss, and O’Farrell’s disgrace, the Baird government has amended its rules in a third attempt to force the mine expansion.

“So that’s the other thing, you’ve gotta be a fighter in this job,” Higginson says. “The sense of injustice is just horrific when that happens.”

Such injustice has provoked considerable civil unrest as citizens, many of them farmers, are becoming aware of the power that multinational miners hold over their country.

“Now we’re seeing this massive growing movement throughout NSW and Queensland. Farmers who have never protested against anything before are standing up to say, ‘Enough’,” Higginson says. “When I started my foray into environmental protection, there was a lot of polarised conflict. It was loggers versus greenies or farmers versus greenies.

“But in the last five years, traditional National Party voters are seeing reason in what the greener side of politics is speaking.

“You throw in the very serious issue of climate change and you’re getting a very complex alliance of people.”

This first manifested when farmers, assisted by the Environmental Defenders Office, began mobilising against massive coal and CSG projects in Queensland. It came into its own in the Northern Rivers of NSW, where a coalition of farmers and townspeople combined to see off speculative CSG mining company Metgasco.

More recently on the NSW Liverpool Plains, a similar alliance has vowed to stop Shenhua’s planned 35-square-kilometre open-cut mine in some of the finest agricultural land in the country.

In the Pilliga Forest, where mining company Santos seeks to drill more than 800 CSG wells in the recharge area for the Great Artesian Basin, farmers from all over north-western NSW are joining activists to blockade drilling rigs.

“The clients that I work with…” Higginson says. “It’s hard to explain just how dedicated and committed these groups and individuals are and the burden that they carry, in most cases on behalf of all Australians, of generations that haven’t yet come.”

This workload takes a heavy toll on Higginson, as she commutes between work in Sydney and family in Lismore. But she is resolute that the sacrifices she makes are more than compensated for by the importance of her work and of the law centre.

“I know this office really well. When I say this office, I’m talking about an institution that has developed over 30 years and needs to be here, not just in the next 30 years but as long as we have a civil society that is governed by a legal system. This office is fundamental.

“Some nights, when it’s hard to sleep because I’ve got a massive case the next day, I long for the day when somebody taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘My turn,’” says Higginson.

“But at the end of the day I know that seeking environmental justice is not about one case. This is a lifetime engagement and it will go beyond my years.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2016 as "Cause of action".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription