John Sinclair of K'Gari (Fraser Island) 1939 - 2019

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One of the great joys of life is having an association with someone who has truly made a difference. Such a person is John Sinclair AO.

There are very few conservationists who have sacrificed so much yet despite all the trials and tribulations have achieved so much. A man whose life centred on Fraser Island (or Kgari) was able to turn this sand island from being decimated by mining and forestry to a World Heritage natural wonder. He was a born leader, an inspirer, an environmental fighter, and a person of greater humanity. John showed how to communicate to the nation and later internationally what it takes to stand up to the forces of greed and ignorance and win.

John has published several books related to his life and times on Fraser Island. The autobiography written with Peter Corris (“Fighting for Fraser Island”, 1994, Kerr Publishing) explains how he gathered supporters from all over Australia to address the challenges of the sand miners and their political allies. In the book he notes “I had some marvellous people working with me, some who suffered for their beliefs as I did, and their support and encouragement helped me through the black spots like nothing else could have” (p.59). Documenting the pain must have been extremely hard involving family, friends, financially and professionally. Yet he persisted and to the end he was committed to ensuring Kgari had to remain a natural wonder for all to enjoy.

Maryborough was a close knit community in the 60s and 70s and the Sinclair’s were insiders.  John had strong community interests and made many contributions through his role as an adult education officer and volunteering. His family had connections to the Island and he was inspired by what he described as “a steady stream of stories about the wonders of Fraser”. His passion for protection was roused by the efforts of Arthur Harold to save the Cooloola sands. Harold was a medico who became part of that wave of voluntary conservationists in the 60s that included prominent figures such as the poet, Judith Wright. John writes:

 “It was inevitable that the manner of saving of Cooloola would have a big impact on me. I considered myself to be something of an expert in leadership, organisation and public education. The Cooloola fight had provided object lessons in all three areas and I was fascinated. Moreover, I was impressed by the way the public had got behind the conservationists and concerned at the big guns that had been brought in on the other side” (p.40).

Plans to mine Fraser for rutile and zircon by international firms such as Dillingham and degrade it like at Cooloola pointed to the need for action: “the alarm bells were ringing loud and clear”.

All these leadership and organisational traits came to the fore through the 70s as the battle to save Kgari began. The Fraser Island Defence Organisation or FIDO got underway and newsletters like the memorable MOONBI kept us aware and committed to the cause. Much has been written about the way Whitlam then Fraser federal governments worked their way through reports of inquiries and the intense lobbying of miners. Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland Government did all to resist efforts to stop sand mining. By 1976 the first phase of the battle had been won and the Fraser Government banned the export of the heavy minerals and the powers of the Commonwealth Government were confirmed in the High Court. His role was recognised with “The Australian” newspaper declaring John “Australian of the Year” for 1976. Today it may seem to some odd that this newspaper would say things like:

“Mr Sinclair … was ostracized by his own community, attacked by sandmining lobbies and smeared in Parliament. He fought back with the conviction that right was on his side. The result was that Fraser Island a remarkable ecological wonderland was saved for Australia. What elevated John Sinclair in the eyes of the panel was that he demonstrated that the individual was still a force in our society…In his case it was against the huge and unrelenting financial and legal resources of corporation lobbies and governments…By his emergence as a unique individual fighting the cause of a unique ecological island John Sinclair made his most striking impact on Australia in 1976”.

The fight did not stop in 1976. His continued promotion of the natural values of Kgari continued with successive governments leading to his contributions to environmental protection being recognised by many awards both nationally and at an international level. These efforts and achievements should never be forgotten.

It is important to reflect on the way John Sinclair encouraged science. He was always asking questions of nature. He sought answers from a range of disciplines including geomorphology, soils, plant and animal ecology, limnology, archaeology and others. He requested my involvement as an expert witness on dune landforms at the 1975 Fraser Island Environmental Inquiry. This required me being subpoenaed under the federal Environmental Protection Act 1974 to allow time away from my day job at ANU and give me legal protection. I took part in an exciting field visit in May and two days in the witness box in September, 1975. This included being questioned by John. Sadly the mining companies and Queensland Government had withdrawn from the Inquiry at this stage so I was not subject to adversarial cross examination. I was one of many scientists that gave evidence which assisted the Commissioners come to the conclusion that export of minerals be banned and “the whole of Fraser Island be recorded as part of the National Estate as soon as possible”.

In more recent decades, John has met newer generations of scientists and much excellent research has been the outcome of stimulating discussions. He has left an incredible legacy for all the follow, in research, in coastal management, in education, and in commitment to conservation.

We will all miss his passion and enthusiasm for doing the “right thing” by nature.

Bruce Thom

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author's thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2019, for correspondence about this blog post please email austcoastsoc@gmail.com

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