To the acclaim of environmental supporters and her friends, in January, Jo-Anne (Jo) Bragg, General Counsel at the Environmental Defenders Office, was awarded a medal in the General Division of the Order of Australia for her services to environmental law.

With COVID and the floods, it has taken a while for Jo’s friends and community to gather together to celebrate this honour with her, but we were able to do so last Sunday at Cranbrook Place in Orleigh Park. See the gallery of images below.

Jo’s journey to environmental law started in the leafy suburbs of Northern Sydney, where she attended what she describes as good quality public schools. She said she was something of a swat but also good at sport, being both a netballer at rep level and part of a champion debating team. That, and her family’s love of nature were influential factors in Jo’s eventual move into environmental law.

After finishing school, Jo studied law at Sydney University. She thinks others considered she had the aptitude for the law because of her academic achievements and debating skills.

“I kind of fell into it …. I didn’t really know what it was. I’d done work experience at a lawyer’s office and noticed that people seem to be drowning in paper, but I nonetheless thought it seemed like something I should have a go at.”

“I didn’t really appreciate all the possible careers that could flow, apart from being a barrister.”

After graduating, Jo first worked in the commercial law firm Minter Ellison in Sydney, but it wasn’t long before she was looking for something that was a better fit with her growing interest in the environment.

As a student and young lawyer, Jo joined several campaigns in New South Wales in the late 1980s, giving her, her first exposure to environmental law.

My entry to the conservation movement was the campaign to save the southeast forests in New South Wales.”

“I was a volunteer with the Forest Action Group. We saw the logging and destruction of the southeast forests, literally going overseas as wood chips to be disposable paper products. So, my part-time role was doing public information stalls to protest against that logging.

“As I became qualified, I was a volunteer lawyer in my spare time on the weekends, interviewing protesters, as part of providing volunteer legal advice.”

During that time, Jo met fellow activist and soon to be life-partner, Gary.

“Jo and I’d had a chat in Sydney and said, “What are we doing?” We’ve got our corporate law jobs and we’ve got our industrial chemistry jobs. What are we doing with our lives? And we decided to change our careers, to both have the environment versions of our careers. And so to get the environment version of Jo’s corporate law job, we scanned the newspapers, and there was an advertisement, a three-day part-time job in Brisbane, and we threw in our careers and haven’t looked back,” Gary said on Sunday.

Alan Wilson, retired Planning, and Supreme Court judge and now patron of the EDO, said he first met Jo when he was placed in charge of the Planning and Environment Court in about 2004.

At that stage, the Environmental Defender’s office almost consisted of one person, and that was Jo. And she began to appear before me on behalf of environment groups in connection with all sorts of environmental planning development applications. From the first she impressed me greatly in a number of ways: her ability, competence and efficiency, and her devotion to duty.

She ran the operation on a shoe-string, so she certainly wasn’t there for the money. But she provided parties who would otherwise have been representing themselves, with extremely high calibre legal representation. What principally attracted me about that was, I suppose, her ingrained notion of justice.

Jo was often facing, very rich multinational corporations with unlimited resources and law firms representing them – the big end of town and the very best QCs, but she never shirked a job or backed down, or showed any sign of cowardice or fear.

She was always brave and forthright and terrific.

Jo talked me into becoming the national patron of the EDO, which I’m more than happy to do – I think as an organisation, it provides an invaluable service to individuals and community groups who otherwise would lack good legal representation.”

Queensland and the EDO

So, in the spirit of adventure that has defined her career, in 1992, Jo left her secure commercial law job and came to Queensland after accepting a job at the then-fledgling Environmental Defender’s Office.

I asked Jo if she came was as the CEO or a lawyer.

“Well, it was everything, because I was the only lawyer. We had a part time administrator, and I had the part-time. four day a week position at the EDO. And so, I had to do everything. But as always, there were some wonderful volunteer lawyers who gave their time, so I wasn’t completely responsible for the legal work.”

On arriving in Brisbane, Jo and Gary asked for advice on the best places to live and were told, West End and Highgate Hill. So they settled on Highgate Hill and are still there today.

Based in Brisbane CBD, the EDO had a small office shared with the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland.

“It was a tiny cupboard of an office.”

Jo later oversaw the move of the EDO to West End because at that time, if not now, the rents were cheaper.

Regular funding has been an ongoing issue for the EDOs. When Jo started in 1992, the QLD EDO had modest state government funding secured by Tony Woodyatt, the first Director of LawRight/QPILCH. In 1995, all the EDOs gained additional Federal funding, mainly through the advocacy of Brisbane-based environmental lawyer Maria Comino.

“So that gave us a consistent base. But we’re really talking about enough to afford a handful of people, really.”

The emerging public focus on climate change brought with it the transformation of the Queensland office.

“Various environmentalists and conservationists realised we had to gear up and get more legal support. So from about 2009 onwards, with support from other individuals, we transformed the EDO from relying on a modest amount of government funding to being  a more -engaged public organisation, where we’d call on supporters to financially contribute.”

Barrister Dr Chris McGrath, who has worked closely with Jo Bragg and the EDO for over 20 years, said that Jo had been the anchor of the EDO in Queensland since she was its founding solicitor in 1992.

Lawyers in community legal centres like the EDO are paid relatively little and have very limited resources for their work. Many lawyers only last a few years, but Jo has been the bedrock of the EDO in Queensland as it grew over many decades. She is unwaveringly cheerful and a delight to work with. The service she has given to the community is inspiring.

Jo and a friend once bailed up the Queensland environment minister at a drinks function and argued with him about allowing the community to enforce the State’s Nature Conservation Aact. Finally the minister relented and said, ‘if you want it, you can have it.’ Jo promptly went out and bought a bunch of flowers, then presented it to the minister, thanking him for his commitment. The law was changed shortly afterwards and was almost immediately used to help protect native wildlife.

Jo embraced a vision to build a national network of environmental lawyers that do outstanding work. The EDO is now a force to be reckoned with.

Memorable Cases

“I think one of the most exciting days, if I can pick a day, was in December 2003. Because in December 2003, the EDO won a case called the Nathan Dam Case in the federal court,” Jo said.

The case was influential in changing how environmental impacts are assessed under federal legislation.

“On that same day, some law reform we’d worked on with Dr. Carol Booth commenced, giving community rights in the Nature Conservation Act.”

The reform enabled community groups or individuals to take action if the Nature Conservation Act was breached.

“So that was a very big, red-letter day in December 2003.”

“Others involved as clients or as staff in that win included, Imogen Zethoven, Larissa Waters, who was a staff member, and Dr. Chris McGrath, who was one of our barristers.”

The Oakey Coal Action Alliance case against New Acland Coal in 2021 joins Jo’s list of memorable cases.

“More recently, it was absolutely wonderful, when for the first time the EDO went to the High Court, and we were successful for the Oakey Coal Action Alliance against New Acland Coal. That was last year and it’s the first time a community group has ever won against a mining company in the highest court of the land. My colleagues, Sean Ryan and Andrew Kwan, were instrumental in that win.”

Secretary of the Oakey Coal Action Alliance, Paul King said if it hadn’t been for their meeting with Jo and her visit to the Oakey Coal Action Alliance, they wouldn’t have got past first base.

“You wouldn’t be talking about any victories. You wouldn’t be talking about anything except that the noisy dusty coalmine.”

Community Campaigner

As a West End local, in her private capacity, Jo has championed causes and supported community groups. She has been an advocate for active and sustainable transport and was one of the West End Community Association founders.

“That really grew out of concerns about overdevelopment in West End and new planning schemes being proposed, which were contrary to the majority wishes of the local community.”

“It disappoints me that issues of planning and sustainable transport at the local level, and issues about environmental protection and sustainability, at the national scale, are not fixed yet. Its disappointing we haven’t made more progress despite a number of hardcore wins.”

Mary Maher, community activist, campaigner for the environment, and co-founder of WECA, says Jo is a “big, favourite, remarkable West Ender” to her.

We met campaigning against the development boom West End was facing. She became the Local Push’s legal pillar as we tackled the Council’s rollout of four town plans for the suburb drafted over the decade from 2000. Each plan was challenged for its huge increases in allowable height and density of new buildings and lack of public benefits like open space and livable streets.

She’s a hugely talented lawyer. However, she did not choose a mainstream career in the legal profession. Instead she has been a driving force in growing, at State and national levels, the Environmental Defenders’ Office. Now the EDO is THE environmental advocacy organisation using the powers of legislation to give communities a voice in Australia. 

The key for me about Jo’s contribution is that she has made and kept and fought for the law to be accessible to groups and communities. She’s powered by a sense of justice, her love of the environment (shared by her whole lovely family), her quirky sense of humour, huge intelligence, and a definite fearlessness yet careful respect for power. 

She has gained a national profile through her big legal cases and by building the EDO and her much-loved team into this important time. . Her OAM is a testimony to the regard for her by her legal network and her array of community organisations.

I’d say she’s had fun on the way, knowing Jo. You might spot her next at Musgrave Park pool doing laps in her Swim for the Reef fundraiser for the EDO.” 

Swim for the Reef is another community initiative that combines Jo’s private interests and professional concerns. The first event was held at Musgrave Pool in 2016.

It began at a time when Queensland community, the EDO, and the international community were gravely concerned about what was happening to the Great Barrier Reef. And so it came together: people’s concern about the Reef and need to raise funds, and my keenness to swim at the local pool, which was always a very friendly venue.”

The Swim for the Reef events went from raising an impressive $30,000 in the first-year gross to raising over $70,000 in its fourth year. COVID has put a temporary stop to the fundraiser, but Jo thinks there is a lot of enthusiasm amongst EDO supporters and local swimmers to continue with the swims.

See the Westender’s report on the 2016 Swim for the Reef here

Dick Copeman, past President at Queensland Conservation Council (QCC) and Farming Team Manager at Northey Street City Farm has long been associated with Jo Bragg.

Jo has not just been a pioneering environmental lawyer. She has also been an active ongoing member of the broader environment movement in Queensland.

Some years ago, QCC went through a difficult period, and I was elected Chair with a group of new board members who were committed to getting QCC back as an effective organisation. With her knowledge of the broader movement and her quiet, common-sense advice, Jo was a great support to me and the others on the new board during that difficult period of rebuilding.

Helen and I have attended a number of fundraising events for EDO QLD over the years, notably the annual debates that involved senior members of the mainstream legal profession. We were always impressed by the respect and admiration that these judges and senior counsel displayed towards Jo. Equally, she was able to inspire younger members of her profession and of the environment movement more generally to ‘swim the length of the Barrier Reef’ as another EDO fundraiser. Through these efforts, EDO was able to survive the cuts to its funding by the Newman government.

Running for office

The EDO has been something of a proving ground for local political aspirants. Two successful political candidates have emerged from the QLD EDO, Larissa Waters, who is a Greens Senator for Queensland, and Michael Berkman, State Member for Maiwar.

“Protecting the environment is important for everyone, whether you’re a rural land holder in the interior of Queensland or on the coast, whether you’re involved in agricultural production, or you want to protect wildlife. So, I’d love it, if all our political parties had strong and effective policies to address climate change and protect resources like water. The EDO is very happy to meet and deal with all political parties. We’re not politically aligned. But it just happens a few of our former staff are now in politics. And we advocate to them as we advocate to all the other important decision makers.”

Jo has been a Green Party candidate twice, once for Brisbane Lord Mayor and once for the seat of South Brisbane. She doesn’t think she will ever have another tilt at politics but says the experience taught her a lot.

“It was good to have a go, and it certainly gave me more sophisticated understanding of how important it is to convince our politicians to protect the environment and community rights. But no, I don’t see myself doing that again in the near future.”

Revel Pointon who has worked with Jo for the past nine years said Jo grew the EDO from from one part-time lawyer to being one of the biggest EDOs in Australia.

Jo was one of the visionaries that saw that the strength of the EDO will come from us all working together across the nation and she led the way in the EDO becoming a nationalised front and is now bigger than ever with about one hundred staff. And all of that is thanks to Jo’s vision and bravery in moving the EDO from a tiny start to this incredible machine with energy to take on the likes of ADANI, the federal and state governments when they’re not making good enough decisions and leading the charge in environmental conservation.

I think having the nation recognise that the work that Jo has done and that environmental lawyers do, is a valued contribution to our nation is really heartening and inspiring. So often, we’re fighting for recognition and value, and respects – that our longest serving EDO solicitor is recognised with such a prestigious award demonstrates that it’s valued work that’s in the interest of everybody.

Hopes for the Future

Jo hopes that through good communication and awareness of the issues facing us, we will see better public participation and more robust and better environmental laws, and through compliance with those laws, climate change will be addressed more effectively.

I’m very impressed by the skills and sophistication of the young lawyers and local young people I meet. My fears and concerns are that we need strong anti-corruption legislation federally. We need a national anti-corruption commission with expansive powers. And we need strong laws limiting political donations to have a better and more effective democracy.

Jo sustains her hope through swimming with friends, bush-walking, bird watching, and strong relations and shared values with her colleagues at the EDO.

“These all help me manage the negative mental impacts of climate change and all the negativity of those impacts.”

“But maybe, above all, I’d say it’s being active and being in constant motion doing something positive to combat some of these threats to the environment. I don’t think about climate grief – I completely understand it – but I choose not to describe myself as feeling climate grief; I prefer to describe myself as channeling concern into action.”

Galley of images from Jo’s celebrations at Orleigh Park on Sunday 20 March – click on image for details.

Cover image, Jo with her son Huon Kane’s, portray “The Owl”, submitted to the Brisbane Portrait Prize.