Businessman, author and activist
Friends: Richard Flanagan | Bob Brown | Graeme Wood
Geoff Cousins is not super rich and doesn't spend millions of dollars of his own money on crusading. But he wins a place in our Rich Crusaders list for his passion, commitment and ingenuity, and because he has put his reputation on the line for two famous causes.
And that, as he says, "is worth much more than money".
The charismatic Cousins—who made his fortune in advertising in the 1980s—is currently fighting to stop Woodside's huge $30 billion gas hub in the Kimberley, which will process gas from the massive Gorgon Field. But he is best known for leading the charge against the notorious Gunns pulp mill in Tasmania's Bell Bay in 2007.
The Telstra director and ex-John Howard adviser eventually stopped the $2 billion mill (though perhaps not forever) by persuading the ANZ Bank to refuse funding. But he also pushed Gunns to the brink, forced the company to stop logging old-growth forests, and famously took the fight to Liberal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with a high-profile campaign to unseat him in his constituency.
"We did far better than we expected," he tells The Power Index over coffee in the ABC canteen.
But the fight with Woodside is tougher, nastier and (so far) much less successful. Cousins is taking on the WA and federal governments, plus the might of a big multinational, and none of his opponents has been prepared to blink. But he's a fearsome opponent, and he knows how to apply pressure.
And he believes he has right on his side.
"The UN lists four or five places on the planet that are still true wilderness areas," he says. "The Amazon Basin is one, the Kimberley is another. And this will be the largest gas hub in the world. The site is 2500 hectares, but they're going to build a deepwater port as well, which means dredging 6 kilometres out to sea and continuing to do that for the next 50 years, throughout the life of the project. It's going to do huge damage to the marine environment."
Cousins' opponents accuse him of being anti-mining, anti-development, and of standing in the way of a big payday for the local indigenous people that would improve health and conditions in the Kimberley.
"But I'm not against the project," he says. "I don't just want it there. They could pump the gas to Karratha, where Woodside has its headquarters, which has already been spoilt, or to the Northern Territory, or they could do what Shell is doing and build a platform 200 kilometres offshore to process it. No Green group is opposing that."
"And if they want to fix indigenous health, they can easily use royalties from the project."
There's a whole range of possible solutions, which don't involve destroying a wonderful piece of Australian wilderness, he tells The Power Index.
But for the moment, none of these options is being considered, and Woodside is pushing ahead. "They've got no approvals from the federal government, but they've already started ripping up the land," says Cousins. "It's just wrong."
So how did he manage to stop that pulp mill? And how did he mobilise opinion so effectively against it? Part of the answer is that he is brilliant at using the tricks of his trade.
"Everyone thought we ran a big ad campaign against Malcolm Turnbull, (the minister responsible for approving the mill)," he says, "but it was just one ad in the Wentworth Courier, which cost about $4000. That put us on the front page of just about every newspaper in the country and on most of the TV news programs."
"We also pulled the odd stunt. I wrote a few ads, got them made up onto placards and called a media conference at Rushcutters Bay Park. Richard Flanagan said 'they won't fall for this', but they did, and we got on the news again."
It was Tasmanian novelist Flanagan who inspired Cousins to take up arms, with a savage critique of Gunns in The Monthly magazine. "I finished reading and I thought, 'Jesus, I gotta do something'," he says. "I'd never met Flanagan so I got in touch with him, and we met a day later. Two days after that I sat down with Bob Brown and Graeme Wood and planned a campaign."
Their first salvo was to print 50,000 copies of Flanagan's story and get the Greens to distribute one to every household in Malcolm Turnbull's seat of Wentworth and Peter Garrett's seat of Kingsford Smith.
Their second was to get onto the media and make as much noise as possible. "It was massive, massive," says Cousins, shaking his head wearily. "Some days I'd start early doing media interviews and finish late at night with phone calls. It was exhausting."
The third was to go to directors and senior executives of the ANZ Bank, armed with 20,000 signatures from their customers, to persuade them not to fund the mill. "The ANZ weren't inclined to take notice, because they thought they would be hated whatever they did. But I promised we'd say how brave they'd been if they agreed not to fund it. And they did, and we did."
The Power Index asks Cousins how much the campaign cost him and he gives a steely stare. We quickly realise he's a man you would not want on your trail. "The biggest cost is that a lot of people don't like you," he growls. "They think you've gone against your code, your class. "
Cousins and his wife, acclaimed author Darleen Bungey, were dumped by friends and berated by strangers, such as the head of a big mining company who made a beeline for them at a Sydney cocktail party. "He came right across the room to tell me, 'You're wasting everybody's time. You'll never stop it. What do you think you're doing? Are you mad?' Then he turned on his heel and went back again."
"I wouldn't do another," he confesses. "It's just too hard. It's too hard on the family."
Yet that is exactly what he's now doing. We wish him luck.