Australian Biography

Shirley Strickland de la Hunty - full interview transcript

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When did your interest in the environment begin?

I suspect it was latent really because of my origins in the bush and also the enjoyment I had from the bush. In particular because it was a fairly arid area we couldn't grow much in the way of flowers, except geraniums and things like that, so that it was a wilderness of wild flowers, and I became increasingly concerned when I subsequently returned to that area, to discover how much had gone. And I think that probably started me worrying about what was happening around the country. I didn't challenge that my father and my brother needed to clear, but I started to worry about the road verges, and I think I wrote the first pamphlet for the National Trust on the importance of maintaining road verges. I don't know what's happened to it now, but that was because I became aware of that loss that was taking place. So I became the first secretary of the Wild Flower Society which we formed mainly, initially, to enjoy them and document them, but later to protect them, protect the areas.

So it wasn't just the areas of wild flowers. You feel that even species were lost?

Oh yes, I'm quite sure we've lost a lot of species, particularly in the wheat belts. I know that some of the flowers that I grew up with, that particularly my father's favourite which was apparently a Myrtecordia has never been seen again. I used to do tours with the tourist buses as the amateur botanist because I knew all the flowers, and then I began looking to see what the name of this flower was, and trying to search on the farm to find it, and it had gone. It had gone, and probably it was only one of many species that had gone.

So how did you move from wild life and wild flower lover into environmentalist?

Oh I suppose the next move was when I was asked by a group of people to help form the Tree Society which was based on the British concept of Men of the Trees. And I did that, I'm a foundation member of the Tree Society, and was active with them for many years and include - in fact, president for quite a few years of the Tree Society, which is still one of our most respected and our most enduring conservation groups.

What do you feel you accomplished with the Tree Society?

It broadened the concept more to the total environment, and to not just wild flowers but the whole ecology of wild flowers and trees and fauna of course. And then as my view broadened I was invited to consider the National Trust which was going to include both landscape and conservation as one arm, and preservation of our built heritage and sites as the other, and I served on those committees for quite a long time, particularly the landscape and conservation committee. But I was also chairman of a group of people - a sub-committee that restored old buildings, so I had a big relationship with some of our old buildings that we managed to retain and we restored them in the period when they were built. So it meant collecting materials, and I chaired that committee for quite a long time too. And later I became involved with the Australian Conservation Council, again because people asked me to chair that, and I chaired that local chapter for quite some time and was instrumental with my groups, with my group in expanding the membership of that particular national body because I realised that Australia had to become national about its environment. I expanded that.

Since then I have really been a lobbyist, and in particular I have been concentrating on the foreshore area which is very much under threat. It's really encouraging to me to see how many people now appreciate and understand the threat to the environment, both built and native, aware of pollution, aware of what we're losing. It's really great to think that that has moved from people like me being considered strange and emotive, to it now being accepted that it's everybody's business, and that it's a national problem and it has to be handled both locally and nationally. And I suppose if you get me rolling on these sorts of things, I was asked to chair Ian Kiernan's first Clean-up Australia in Perth, which I was very reluctant to do, but I finally did that. So that those sorts of spin-offs are taking place, with I suppose thirty or forty years being concerned with various aspects of the environment.

Why were you reluctant to be concerned with the Clean-up Australia?

Oh, mainly because I'd been very ill, I seemed to have suffered from regular pneumonic attacks. And also because I was under the impression that Perth was clean, and of course it wasn't as clean as we thought it should [be]. And so Ian Kiernan convinced me that it was not only a very important thing to do, to pick up other people's rubbish, I thought it was better to educate people not to throw it in the first place, but it's an awareness-raising exercise which I think is well worth the exercise, and so you know that sort of campaign is helpful.

So you've given an enormous amount of your time to the environmental movement. What convinced you in the first place that it was really urgent and necessary?

I was invited to attend a conference by Australian Frontier. It's a group that I had never heard of, and typically I didn't respond because I was busy and I didn't know what it was. And finally they rang me and said, would I please come? So I agreed. It always works on a personal level with me. It doesn't work on a - through mail. And I went and I heard the addresses by a series of scientists, including Stephen Boyden from the Australian National University. And his address was so good, so well based on science and statistics, that I suddenly - the penny fell and I suddenly realised that long term this world could be in serious trouble. It was the drive home from the university, which is only about ten minutes or fifteen minutes, [which] was I think one of the longest drives I've ever had in my life, because I thought, My God I hadn't even thought about this. And it really changed my whole attitude to what I might have to do in this world. And the reasons for doing it. And I think that really started to direct me into all sorts of environmental concerns and issues and awareness. One of the things about being a scientist, I was well versed in the important cycles of the world, and I have actually done quite a lot of lecturing in environmental history, so I was well aware of what was happening in other countries of the world as well. And so it really meant that this became and has since become the overriding, I suppose you could say obsession - I prefer to use the word conviction - that whatever I could [do] to change that direction based on the knowledge we already have, I would do, short of setting myself round the total twist.

And so that's why I've become very accessible and very active in environmental matters, as long as mind and body hold. But it's really because ... I think I would not be quite so convinced and quite so concerned, if I didn't have children. But having borne four children and starting to wonder with the changes we've seen in my time, what is going to face not only them, but perhaps more exquisitely my grandchildren which are now appearing, and their grandchildren. I mean how far are we looking ahead? It appears to me we're looking in short-term levels, ah, the politically, three years at a time, or four years at a time, and it's just impossible to, to affect any change in that short space of time.

You came from a farm, from the land. Traditionally there's been antipathy between environmentalists and farmers. How do you deal with that?

I think the farmers themselves have realised this. I know that on our farm my nephew and his wife would be the most environmentally concerned people I know. They will be doing their best, and I think there's a lot of attitude short of economic deprivation and, and this recession and all those things that take people's minds off the long term. I think there's a lot of understanding about that. I know there have - a lot of measures have been put in place to try and prevent the further degradation of our wheatlands. [INTERRUPTION]

What do you think has brought about the change in attitude so that people like your nephew have developed an environmental approach to farming? What do you think has brought that success, because it's been in a relatively short space of time, hasn't it?

I guess it's a relatively short space of time. I think the visual evidence of degradation, for instance seeing salt rising, seeing the incursions of dust storms, those sorts of things I think farmers can well appreciate. I suppose there are other effects that will affect them, but also I think the fact that we're on the information highway now means that these sorts of - those local issues, but also the global issues are coming through now, on the multimedia network, and people's information and education is being enhanced by that. And also I'm really so delighted that so many scientists are now standing up for their convictions and becoming outspoken. Whereas for a long time I gave up any hope that scientists would come out and be vocal. I mean it was always ... most of the scientists, in this state, I suspect in Australia, were in government employ, and not free to speak about their well-founded concerns. Now, I find more and more they are either prepared to - sometimes they lose their jobs - but more of them are independent, and I think through the universities some of those scientists are now speaking out much more strongly and freely, and I think the community, certainly the westernised community, is willing to listen. But of course you've got a long way to go before the third world countries can shake off their shackles of economy and deprivation and overpopulation, so that they can look at the long term.

Your activities in the environmental movement have actually been quite closely associated with educational activities too. Do you think that environmental education is very important?

Yes I think it's important, but I'm not too sure. I haven't had a lot to do with environmental education, just in the series of lectures I gave, it was a once off, but mine has mainly been nuts and bolts, computers, mathematics and that sort of thing. But I think that gradually our children and our students - the courses they are offered, have a larger environmental aspect and it also has to be based on sound scientific facts, and I suppose moral judgements. But many universities now have whole environmental science degrees, so that whole emergence of a new type of professional that deals with the ecology which was a new word twenty or thirty years ago. No-one understood what even it meant. Now I think most people do understand it. And that's a whole new professional field. Hopefully that will have some effect. I'm just hoping it will have an effect in time.

Were you brought up with any particular political affiliations or attitudes in the household?

Ah, in my time I don't think we even discussed politics. Certainly as I grew older and into adulthood, it was one of those secrets nobody ever bothered to ask anybody else, you know, 'Who do you vote for?' That was very, very secret. I don't know whether husbands and wives discussed it, but certainly no-one dared challenge anyone's secret voting power. Now that's a far cry from today. But I became aware that ... I was challenged in London actually, because I had during the war assisted a youth group, a working class youth group with physical education, called the Eureka Youth League - when I was in London someone challenged me and said, 'Who do you vote for?' And I said, 'None of your business'. Now that was the first time not responding had been seen as guilt, and in my absence, and in my ignorance of this response, it became a big write-up back in Australia. You know, she must be a communist, because she worked for this group which was not communist at the time, but apparently had communist leanings in the post-war period. She must have been a communist. So I came back and I had my parents in great distress, because they didn't know if I was a closet communist. It was just unbelievable.

And then you went to Poland?

And then I went to Poland. That was a little bit later, but you know, it was just amazing that this paranoia of communists, communism, was starting to draw me in for some reason, so that was just one episode. But I did in later years realise the power of politics, and also the limited evidence that politicians made decisions on, and I got drawn in to conservation. I was already a conservationist by that time, and I resolved that if I could get elected to the State Parliament, at least I could table all the information, because I discovered that some of the best intentioned politicians didn't know, didn't understand. It came to light because Dryandra Forest, which was not a reserve, was under threat for, I think it was mining, and I rang at that particular time forty politicians. It's a long time ago and I wonder why I had the courage. I rang them and asked them if they understood the wildlife, this world-wide recognised wildlife area, was under threat and they knew nothing about it. So I also took Vincent Serventy's book on the area to one of the key players, and they changed their mind. And I thought, I've got to do this. I have to make sure they get the information. And I stood as an independent.

Why didn't you stand for one of the parties? Did none of them want you?

I was requested to stand by all of the three major parties at that stage. All the three only parties.

All three?

All three.

How did that happen?

I think that's how you recruit politicians, embryo politicians. You get someone who's well known, and I think that still applies, but I didn't fancy a life of politics, it seemed to be pretty dull and boring, but I was committed in a way, and I said, 'Well, while I would perhaps join you and follow this role, I would need to be independent on environmental issues, I'd need to have a conscience vote on matters I understand, which is education, sport and the environment'. And they all refused and I said, 'Well, that's the end of that story'. But it wasn't until the Democrats - my husband and I went to the Democrats meeting in the Perth Town Hall in 1977, and they had a conscience vote, and they were new, and I thought they might be able to become more attuned to the times, and we joined that night, and I spent ten long hard years with the Democrats.

Why were they hard?

Because it was a very small party it - well lots of reasons. One of the reasons it was hard was because grass-roots democracy is a very slow and tedious and sometimes not necessarily wise route to go, and we - I battled through that, and battled through the fact that we had no money, and so it all came out of the pockets of ourselves: you were short of members, you were short of suitable candidates, and as soon as we appeared to be becoming perhaps an influence and a force by getting people appointed, then the competition for places came out, and that's why they were hard.

Why didn't you run as a candidate for them?

I did.

Oh you did.

Many times in unwinnable places. But it would take a long time to build up and win. I always hoped I'd get more votes. I did get sometimes quite a lot of votes, but I think I got more votes as an independent, and one of the issues that started to take place was, we were getting enough votes to influence a decision, and I was against direction of preferences, and of course that became a hot issue.

Why did you actually leave?

Because it became untenable. There were certain things happening in the party that our control procedures in the party were unable to handle. And I realised that I was just working very hard for nothing, and also putting up with things I shouldn't have to put up with. And I had no way of redressing those things, and I felt that I would be better as an independent, if I wanted to stand as an independent which I have done since then, or as an independent lobbyist. And I don't regret the decision. I think it was a wise one. Otherwise I would have been sidelined for years.

Standing as an independent, you stood mainly on environmental issues?


And how did that go? What was that like as an experience?

It's always hard standing as an independent at your own expense. Ah, you know, I hate to think, and I hope I never do add up how much standing on those sorts of principles has cost me. Because money isn't the important thing, but it certainly does become important when you're not wealthy. I think it drew attention to environmental issues perhaps, and my last - ah, second last time I stood was as a group, a green group. Not the Greens from Western Australia, that's two individual people. But there're three groups; my group which was battling on the brewery and foreshores, another group was battling on Buckland Hill and another area down near Fremantle, and another group that was trying to save Hepburn Heights, and we were all working very hard, and I said, 'Let's do it', and we did it. But we didn't win, but I think we influenced the result, which was another of the things you have to consider.

Given that you've worked so hard at these other causes, and you are a graduate in nuclear physics, you've taught science and mathematics at tertiary level, does it ever worry you that you're still always and dominatingly Shirley Strickland, the Olympic gold medal winner?

I'm not sure what you say is true. I can always tell the age of a person by what my name - what they think my name is. That's (laughter) every Strickland slips out, I say, 'Well that dates you'. I think I've been known as de la Hunty for a very long time. And I think it's not always that - but there was a time that I felt that, I wasn't sorry for my sporting records, I mean you couldn't be sorry for what you did - there's no regrets, but I just wish that, I had wished that I was seen, and hoped to be seen ultimately as someone more than just a sports person.

What do you think your sporting background did for you in relation to your public life?

It gave me personally not only the rewards of travel and self-esteem, or self-identity, not so much esteem, but it also opened doors for me, it opened doors where - well people wouldn't have asked me to stand for their party if I hadn't been well known. And being well known opens doors. And, it enabled me to take a leading role in those evolving conservation groups. All of that period when those conservation groups emerged, I was able to take a role in that, because people would ask me, and understand - they understood where I was coming from and they would ask me to come and help. So that's what I think has been the motivation for [that].

That's an advantage of fame. What are the disadvantages of fame?

Disadvantages are that people presume what you're - they're not major disadvantages, but people presume what they think about you before they meet you. Sometimes my joy is to move into a party where I can have fun but also know, nobody knows me, and they can just accept me or reject me for what I am, being what I am. And perhaps you can understand that yourself, but sometimes it's nice to know that people like me because of me, or they dislike me because of me, and not because of some preconception of what they have made of me.

Have you ever found recognition on the street a problem?

I used to, but people don't recognise me so much these days. Age has sort of helped that particular way. Sometimes they do, but it does have a daunting effect on your children and your - not my mother and father because they thoroughly enjoyed everything I did, but on my children. Sometimes I felt a bit guilty that they were overexposed, because they had my husband's name, and my name, and there was nothing I could do about that, and I think it's a problem for any person who's in the public eye that their children may get overexposure in a way that children don't like, or that it's detrimental, but there's nothing you can do about that.

Was it ever a problem do you think for the children to have such a high achiever as a mother?

Perhaps. I don't know.

... Set a high standard?

Well I don't think I did for them. I tried very hard, but, you know, my medals were never in evidence. My children didn't even know I was an athlete, until I was asked to go down and coach the local primary school when my first son went to school. And I went down and coached the other children, and my children came home and said, 'Why don't you coach us?' And I would never have dreamt of suggesting that I coach my children. They didn't even know at that stage, but as they got older of course it became quite obvious, through teachers at the - teachers' impression of them. I can remember them saying to some of my children, 'What's wrong with you? You're, you're Shirley Strickland's child?'. You know, those sorts of things. But from me they never had any pressure. I felt, as I was dedicated to them, that I would make as much, as many opportunities as possible available to them, and they were all highly intelligent children, as was proved by their work, sport-wise whatever they wanted to do. And I made the opportunities available to them, you know. But I think they didn't suffer through having to achieve with me. They didn't know much about me frankly.

You were just mum?


Would you describe yourself as a feminist?

Yes, I am a feminist. I am aware of the disabilities of being a female. I wasn't aware when I started my life, as evident in my attempts to do certain things. But I am a feminist because I'm quite well aware of the problems women have had in achieving, through - some of the things you can't change - I mean I had to take time out for children, and there's nothing I would say can compensate you for that. But I remember talking to one of my colleagues at the Edith Cowan University. One of my dear friends, and we were talking about feminism or something, and he looked at me and said, 'But you're not one of those feminists are you?'. And I immediately felt the barrier, that really I should deny that I was a feminist because I'd be more popular if I wasn't a feminist. And I wanted to be popular with my male colleagues. There were more - many more males than women in my career, in my profession anyhow. And so I said, I paused for a moment and I said, 'Well, as a matter of fact, I am'. And he said, 'Oh no, you think like a man.' Now if you follow that through you can see what a challenging statement that is. That made me hesitate and wonder what on earth was going on.

Well it was clearly the highest accolade he could think of.

... That's right, and he was doing it kindly. He was meaning to be kind.

So what form does your feminism take? Where do you, where do you see women's position? How have you seen it change? What makes you care about the situation of women in the world?

I have never been drawn into too much feminism because of my concern about environment, I mean you can't follow too many stars can you? And I think things have improved, and certainly we now have a lot of very clever women. I spent three years on the National Women's Consultative Committee in Canberra working on feminine issues. I am one of the foundation members of the Women In Sport Foundation. I have done a lot of work in sport on behalf of girls and women and fought with the authorities to get an equal chance for women. We've had some classic battles and some classic wins, but sometimes they slide back. As soon as you take the pressure off it slides back into the same old situation. But it's not my abiding conviction. I think it will happen, but it doesn't override my concern about environmental issues.

What was one of the classic wins you had? Is there anything you remember as a particular incident where you had to fight?

Well, we were under the pressure of the Federal Government to amalgamate our two independent, athletics bodies; the women's association, and the men's association. The men's association had the dominate control all the time, they controlled the programs, they controlled the selection, they controlled who went overseas, they controlled everything. But we were sixty per cent of the supporters, we did all the hard work, and - classic, just [a] classic example of where women's role was. So when the Federal Government enforced that unless we amalgamated there would be no further funding, this is in the days when funding started to become crucial, we decided we had to get the best we could out of it. And three women and three men - three young men and three older women, we got together and we hammered out for ages and finally worked - got a fifty per cent equality right through the board, and the first woman's president in Australia, and we achieved that and we had a compulsion on that that was to last, I think, five years. So that worked. But as soon as that started to fade in time, we've slid back now to the same sort of representation, the same sort of deal because we're not fully represented, and the tragic part is that when you have elected people to boards, you get perhaps some brave women putting up for election, they quite often will get no men's votes, because they didn't - they're old-fashioned men of the '40s and '50s which ran the sport in those days, didn't trust women's judgement. But the women would not vote for the women either; they would vote for the men, the old paternalistic bit. So it's very difficult in an open environment without affirmative action to get that balance persisting. That was a win, but it - you know it was a win temporary.

The same thing happens in education. I can remember going into one [when] affirmative action was enforced on the university. We, I went to a compulsory conference with top educators, and everyone had to go. I didn't want to go because I was close to retirement, but they said, 'No you must go'. So we had this address by the presenter and everything was great. The men were sitting there all happy - yes, this is a great concept that women - you know. But then the presenter started to describe what affirmative action was about. Well, he lost the male audience totally. And I think affirmative action in those universities is still not practised. Every time I hear a little bit of a rumour from somewhere, it's still not practised. But women just don't get invited to selection committees, they just don't get on the boards, so it's a very difficult problem, but not one that I'm prepared to spend the rest of my life on.

Well you've done quite a lot in pioneering things for women anyway in the course of your life. Were you conscious of that at the time?

I don't think so. I think it became, with my awareness of what was happening in the sport, and the way the local manager was controlling my whole life. I mean, I did a modelling course - I wanted to accept a position, and as a courtesy I notified him that I was going to take a modelling course, and he said, 'No, you can't do that. You can't use your name in modelling. That's going to attract attention'. Well, I went over his head, and I won, but you know that's the sort of attitude that I was being controlled by. So I became aware in a lot of different ways.

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