The Signwriter

When I was 2 or 3, we lived in Mt Martha in a beautiful stone cottage, Briarswood Cottage. My father was in the navy. He was sent to Cerberus when he was 13 or 14. We used to spend a lot of time on Mt Martha Beach, but we used to go on a big adventure to Point Leo. I can remember always thinking that the waves seemed so much bigger there. That’s probably my earliest memory of The Peninsula. We were there for some years.

Several years ago, for something to do and for cathartic reasons, I was picking up bits of old timber furniture, fixing them up and turning them into arty pieces. I would go to markets, like Emu Plains at Balnarring. One day this nice bloke came along with his wife and they were interested in two bedside tables and bought them. He asked if I would mind delivering them and I said, ‘No that’s not a problem.’ He said, ‘Where are you?’ and I said, ‘Crib Point’ and he replied, ‘Well I’m at Cerberus.’

It turned out that he was the Commanding Officer at the naval base so we made arrangements and he explained how we would get to the Commanding Officer’s house. I turned up and I said ‘I’m fascinated to come in here because my father was here in the 30s. He asked me if I wanted to do a quick tour of the house, and I said, ‘I’d love to.’ He showed us around the living quarters which were fairly grand. I think the house was built when the base was built, in the 20s perhaps. He took us in to the dining room which had a large dining room table. I had this slightly odd feeling when I was in there which I can’t really describe.

A few days later I was visiting my elderly mother in Main Ridge and she said, ‘How did the market go?’ I said ‘OK. Interestingly the Commanding Officer bought a couple of bedside tables, so I got to get a bit of a tour of the residence’, and she said ‘Really! That’s interesting. Your father and I met in that dining room at Cerberus.’ It turned out my mother’s father was a high ranking Australian naval Officer.

My father had been promoted to commander and was, at the time, the youngest commanding office appointed in the navy so I came to the conclusion that it was a set up and my maternal grandfather decided that my mum Ann should meet Tony, he being Captain and my father being Commander, it would all work really well, and it did. After the birth of their fourth child my father left the navy and took over my grandfather’s real estate business in the city.

In the early 70s he bought 200 acres In Boneo Rd which then incorporated Bush Rangers Bay We used to drive through there to get down to the beach. It was the most magnificent place to visit because there wasn’t anyone there. It’s a vastly different situation now. My father was what was known in those days as a Collins St farmer. He had his business in the city in the Reserve Bank building. They bought the 200 acres and put cows on it. They loved going there every weekend. Eventually they sold it and bought something smaller backing on to Green’s Bush. They called it Gwennmarlin. From there they moved to Main Ridge. My father died in the garden in Main Ridge.

Gayle, my wife, was brought up in Razorback Rd in Flinders, so she too, had connections with the peninsula. She built up a business designing a range of skincare products using indigenous plants, because a lot of them are high in nutrients, which was quite unique at the time. We moved from our house in Flinders to Red Hill, where we could have horses and then to 25 acres in Myers Rd where we built a straw bale house. Before we left Red Hill, she had a serious riding accident on the Red Hill Trail. Her horse reared up and jammed her up against a large pine tree and she shattered her pelvis totally and broke various other bones. In the midst of that we moved from Red Hill to Balnarring.

In Feb 2009 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and that was a pretty unfortunate four and a half years. She had seven operations and palliative care at home. It was very upsetting and distressing and she left us on Good Friday 2013, which was unfortunately the year my daughter was starting her VCE and my son was starting his first year at uni. It was a very difficult year. The bank pulled the pin on us and we had to sell, and I had to try and find homes for 15 horses. Some of our horses died and we lost our oldest labrador, to a rare cancer.

We had to sell and there wasn’t really any money left but I had enough to buy a house in Crib Point. Crib Point was always regarded, as some sort of mosquito ridden swamp and I think it still is by some. We’ve been in Crib Pont for seven years. I came to realise that that this is actually far from the truth. It’s a fascinating landscape, incredibly rich in flora and fauna.

We have the most amazing assortment of orchids that come up on the foreshore. Just down the road form us we have a bushland reserve. It’s full of the most extraordinary flora, especially during the winter months; orchids, chocolate lilies, acacias, kennedias, xanthorrhoea minors, not the big spectacular ones but the small ones that still manage to poke up these great stems. The bird life is terrific. We’ve got sorts of parrots and insects. It’s the natural environment that is so precious.

Since we’ve been in the house, we’ve been threatened by two fires, one coming for Warringine direction, the northwest. That one we were home for, and I can still remember the ash falling on the house. Nowadays we have a new type of fire which is driven by climate change, strong winds, low humidity, that sort of thing, so that was a bit of a worry, but the wind changed, and it was brought under control. A year or so after that there was another one that started down south where the current proposed site for the AGL jetty is, and that was being driven by a southerly. It was coming in our direction as well but once again the wind changed, and they managed to get it under control. There have been any occasions when have thought Gayle’s been at work on those situations!

I think this AGL gas plant project was announced in some form in 2017 and I remember thinking ‘This is a ridiculous suggestion and it will never happen’. It seemed like only a few months later that it was on the front page of the paper, and I thought ‘This is terrible.’ A few months later Save Western Port was revived. The mother of one of Gayle’s childhood friends started the original Save Western Port campaign in the early 70s because it was under threat then from industrialisation. The bitter irony for me is that my father, being involved in real estate, was part responsible for putting together a land package in Western Port Bay for BHP steel.

I had moved to Crib Point and had realised that, in fact, it was a really special place. Then I started to realise that Western Port bay itself was even more special. It’s clean. It’s a beautiful environment and I know this because I have walked on it every morning for the last 12 years with our dogs.

When Gayle was going through her surgeries and her 4 and a 1/2 years of dealing with ovarian cancer, chemo, radiotherapy and alternative therapies, she would swim at Merricks Beach. She was a champion swimmer when she was young and for nine months of the year, she would do laps at Merricks Beach most days. This was part of her therapy to restore herself, because she was always very fitness oriented and healthy and watched her diet.

She prompted me to try and do something to prevent the destruction and I don’t think destruction is too strong a word, because to picture what is likely to be queueing off the Nobbies and sailing into the top end of Western Port Bay is truly horrifying. It’s not just the plant itself. It’s the fact they we’ll be having huge ships coming in from overseas bringing all sorts of problems with them. If there’s any sort of problem with a ship, in terms of an oil spill, it would be a total, absolute disaster. If anyone bothered to look at a map WP is tiny compared to Port Phillip. It’s very tidal. The average depth is 6 meters so the only way these people can get away with facilitating what they plan to do is to dredge it severely which will destroy it as we know it. There’s no way this project can go ahead.

I think business and exploitation, the psychology of digging things up and shipping it out is obviously, logically flawed. You just can’t keep doing it. I’m horrified but the intrusion on our First Nations people. I wonder if AGL has even considered to ask the First Nations folk what they think of this activity they’re planning for Western Port, particularly in the light of what has just happened in WA with the destruction of 46,000 years’ worth of sacred history.

I feel duty bound in Gail’s memory to do everything to try and prevent any destruction. I think it’s a tragedy because the bay itself is really just now coming back into itself. The water is crystal clear. It’s beautiful. There are penguins, dolphins, there has been an increase in whale sightings. I believe there have been orcas sighted in Western Port which has been previously unheard of.

My general view of everything with regards to wildlife is that humans are incredibly arrogant and destructive and it’s a shocking state to have humans deciding we should be in control and the planet is just put here to be plundered. My objection is tinged by the fact that I have a history here and I feel that I have an obligation to many people, not just Gayle but to my children as well. There are a lot of children around Balnarring and Crib Point and I see them, and I think ‘Well, we owe it to them to do everything we possibly can to preserve Western Port’.

The other thing about Western Port is it is so close to Melbourne. It’s too precious. It’s a Ramsar listed wetland. Birds migrate from Siberia. What we’ve got left we need to hang on to, not to mention the economic case for tourism. For all the locals, tourism may not be their ideal but the amount of money that comes from tourism would totally eclipse any benefits to the community from any industrialisation. It can’t be justified on economic grounds. How ridiculous to have a situation where there is an increase in whale viewing, talk of a car ferry from Stony Pont to Phillip Island, and to then suggest this horrible, polluting monstrosity.

It became fairly obvious, early in the piece, that community were not aware of what was being planned, in the short term, let alone the long term. I started by putting up signs in Flinders. People pay millions for land and spectacular views of the Nobbies and Phillip Island How can they not consider the impact of queues of tankers out in front of their properties? My first signs were along the lines of ‘Do you realise what is happening, what these people are proposing?’ These people needed to know and could be in a position to stop it.

I chose the signs because there was no other way. I was putting up a sign about six months into my sign campaign. They’d already started to disappear by this stage which was encouraging me even more. Whoever it was who was taking them, I thought, ‘I don’t know why you are doing it.’ I heard there were various sources of sign removal, but it became increasingly obvious that it was an orchestrated campaign to keep the population ignorant about what was happening.

On one occasion I was putting up a sign in Balnarring itself. A gentleman approached me and said, ‘You’ve been putting up the signs.’ and I said ‘Well I have put up a couple. Why do you ask?’ and he said, ‘I’m just wondering.’ He was fairly polite and said ‘I’m a rate payer. I live in Balnarring and I just want to know why you’re doing it.’ ‘Well because the community need to know what these people are planning’, I replied, and his response was ‘But they’re messy. There’s too many of them’ and I said, ‘Really? I didn’t quite understand that, because was he aware of what was involved in the plans for Western Port and how messy that was going to potentially be?’

The more signs disappeared, the more I put up. I would say I have put up 1000s. Sometimes they would disappear within 24 hours. I spread them across the peninsula. I went as far as Tuerong. The record for disappearance is an hour and a half. I put up a couple in Balnarring went to Flinders for coffee. When I returned they were gone. The last thing I wanted to be doing was buying plastic from Bunnings and making signs, but someone is continually removing them, so I feel an obligation to continue to get the message out there.

To me, the most effective way was to put up signs that would entertain people perhaps, catch people’s attention, educate them, then maybe they would go home and look into the issue further. I’ve had various responses from people. I get abused by passers-by and congratulated. I did actually visit a café on the southern peninsula to ask them if they were aware of what was being planned and had they seen the signs and the response was ‘I’ve seen the signs, but they appear to be a little bit or mad or angry.’ I thought ‘how absurd, that is actually what I’m trying to convey’. They did get madder and angrier because that’s what it’s all about. I tried to keep them as reasonable as possible, but it made no difference. They have just disappeared.

The major tactic of AGL has been to come under the radar with this project and that has been their modus operandi from the start. They will say they have had various community meetings which they have. I went to one and wished I hadn’t. I Ieft because I was so angry. They had pictures of weedy sea dragons up on the wall and they appointed a special person, (I can’t remember what he was called, their conservation and wildlife officer or something to that effect.) The whole lot feels like a con. This company has a long history of deception and long history of fines. I think anyone who digs up fossil fuels is probably entitled to that reputation. To this day there are still a large number of people on the southern peninsula who aren’t aware of what’s involved in the industrialisation of Western Port, and specifically this project, and it has so much more relevance now because this project is dealing with fossil fuel. There’s no justification for fossil fuels being invested in or used anymore.

I have been totally withdrawn from everything for some years for personal reasons This has been an outlet for me. My son works with Indigenous people in the Pilbara. He made the comment that many people were wondering who was putting up the signs. I made the comment that he obviously wasn’t telling them it was his father. I’ve had funny circumstances where I actually outed myself to someone and the response has been ‘I’ve known that for ages’, so I’ve had a laugh about it.

Early in early on threats were made, not against me personally but to people who were working for Save Western Port, not physical threats but threats enough to be of concern. Early in the piece I was a bit concerned. There was deception going on and I didn’t want to be named. I didn’t want my activities to be interrupted by anyone or anything.

I think my job is sort of done. It’s getting to the point where I think it’s almost redundant because most of the community now is aware of what’s happening and I’m not taking credit for that. At the time that I started or at least for the first year or two there was a great need for the community to be informed.

I’m not interested in respect from the community. I’m an extremely private person and I don’t deal with social situations, I’m not at all interested in any accolades.

The one thing that will make me happy is if we can send these people packing. I think the next step once that’s done is to have all of Western Port declared a marine national park and I would also like to see Crib Point restored to its formal natural glory The Esso refinery site’s still there. The tanks are still there. I don’t even think they should necessarily be removed. They could become fantastic community assets. They could be decorated like the silos in western Victoria. They could have staircases leading to viewing decks on the top where you could see right over the mangroves, the wetlands, over to French Island, Sandy Point, into Gippsland and with binoculars you could see whale and dolphin activity. They’re sitting there waiting to be utilised. That would be the ultimate.