Rob Purves is using the fortune he made in nursing homes and railway locomotives to bankroll troops willing to fight the climate and mining wars.
He’s also president of WWF Australia, the local branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature. And in the last two decades he has probably done more than anyone else to preserve and protect Australia’s environment.
In 2004 the bespectacled businessman stumped up $10 million to start the Purves Environmental Fund, with a mission to “act as a catalyst for change” and improve policies towards the environment.
Last year the fund helped finance the largest-ever purchase of land in Australia for conservation purposes, buying up 27,000 hectares of former Gunns property in Tasmania, including Skullbone Plains next to the Cradle Mountain National Park.
In spending a total of $2 million, it also bankrolled Sydney’s Total Environment Centre, the Four Degrees climate conference in Melbourne and the advocacy group 1 Million Women, which aims to build a huge campaign to cut carbon emissions.
But that’s just the start of it. Purves has long been a mentor for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, providing core funding for the last five years “so they can keep their doors open”, which, as Purves tells The Power Index, “is always the hardest thing when you’re running an NGO”.
And, more significant than any of this, Purves has funded the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists for the last decade, having helped establish it back in November 2002.
The group, which came into being after a dinner between scientists and Purves at Sydney’s Wentworth Hotel, would not have existed or kept going without him, says Climate Commissioner and former Australian of the Year Professor Tim Flannery, who was one of its founding members. Yet Purves would never make such a claim, says Flannery: “He’s very good at giving credit to others.”
So what have its distinguished scientists achieved? According to Purves, they have halted broad-scale land clearing in Queensland and NSW, persuaded Bob Carr to introduce a natural resource program for the premier state, and forced the Commonwealth government to devise a plan (however inadequate) to restore the Murray-Darling system to health.
Despite that, Purves is deeply concerned about the threats Australia now faces to the environment.
“Queensland is allowing coal seam gas exploration to go ahead without looking at the impact on water. The Barrier Reef is threatened by the dredging up at Gladstone,” he says. “And there’s another wave of mining development about to happen in Queensland on a scale that’s never been attempted before.
“So there are heaps of old wars, and heaps of new wars about to start. And then you put climate change on top of that, plus the possibility of the Liberals returning to government.”
To forestall these dangers, Purves wants to see more effective lobby groups and more people advocating for the environment.
He says there are very few people spending money on environmental advocacy: “It probably makes up only 1% of all the money that’s given, and that’s really disappointing. Hardly any of the big donations are for advocacy. People like to buy land because it’s tangible; they can show it to their kids, or get their name on a paddock. But they have also been reluctant to give because there has been real doubt about whether advocacy was tax deductible.”
Until the Howard government was voted out of power in 2007, treasurer Peter Costello attempted to deny charitable status and government funding to a number of groups that criticised government policy or advocated changes to the law.
First he tried to have the definition of a charity changed to achieve this, then he pushed the Australian Tax Office into denying tax deductions to donors. Finally, he forced environmental organisations to open their books to show how much money was being spent on advocating change.