Vale John Sinclair AO

John SinclairLeading conservationist, John Sinclair AO, died on 3 February 2019.

John Sinclair was born in Maryborough in 1939 and educated at Maryborough Boys State High School. He left school at age 15 but obtained a Diploma of Agriculture at Queensland Agricultural College (now University of Queensland Gatton Campus) in 1959. His first job was with the Department of Education and in 1967 he took a job in the Adult Education office in Maryborough.

John was introduced to Fraser Island when his parents, who had honeymooned on the island, took him on visits to the island in his youth. He fell in love with the island and in the late 1960s he was organising safaris to the island for members of the Maryborough and Bundaberg branches of Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (WPSQ). John was Honorary Secretary of the Maryborough Branch from its formation in 1967 until 1978. During the 1980s, he served as President and Senior Vice-President of WPSQ.

In 1969, John became aware of the campaign to save Cooloola, the mainland sandmass immediately to the south of Fraser Island, from sandmining. That campaign was led by Dr Arthur Harrold and Bill and Mavis Huxley who headed The Cooloola Committee though it was really instigated by wildflower artist Kathleen McArthur who, with her friend poet Judith Wright, had conceived the idea of a Cooloola National Park back in 1953. Judith and Kathleen had, with David Fleay and Brian Clouston, formed the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland in 1962.

As part of the Cooloola campaign, Kathleen devised the first significant conservation campaign postcard distribution with 100,000 postcards being widely distributed.

Cooloola postcard

At this time, Queensland was governed by the National Party led by Joh Blelke-Petersen. In December 1969, Bjelke-Petersen announced that areas of Cooloola would be declared national park but before that happened applications were made for sandmining leases. This led to an intense campaign to stop sandmining. Despite Bjelke-Petersen’s support, sandmining was eventually rejected by the Government essentially as a result of opposition from a “Ginger Group” of more progressive Liberal Party members.

The Cooloola campaign had given John Sinclair an insight into campaigning and focused his attention on sandmining on Fraser Island. The Queensland Government had granted Dillingham-Murphyores mining leases in the 1960s and mining was occurring on the southern end of the island. Murphyores applied for additional leases in 1971 and the Mining Warden granted the leases.

That year the Fraser Island Defence Organisation, FIDO, was formed with John as President. Arthur Harrold, barrister Lew Wyvill QC and solicitor Stephen Comino, both of whom had also played a major part in the Cooloola campaign, were influential in the early days of FIDO. John and FIDO successfully appealed the Mining Warden’s decision in the High Court which ruled that mining was not in the public interest, a matter that the Mining Warden was required to consider.

As a Queensland public servant, John was vulnerable to harassment by the government and Bjelke-Petersen publicly questioned John’s ability to do his job in adult education while campaigning against sandmining. John sued him for defamation. As a result his position in Maryborough was abolished. After successfully appealing, he was transferred to Ipswich College of TAFE. John initially won $500 damages and costs for the defamation case but Bjelke-Petersen won an appeal and John was ordered to pay costs.

In May 1975, the Federal Government, which would have been required to approve export of minerals from sandmining on Fraser Island, intervened. Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who was also Minister for Environment at the time, commissioned the Fraser Island Environmental Inquiry, one of the first ever environmental impact inquiries in Australia. John was a principal witness to the Inquiry. In October 1976, the Inquiry published its findings recommending prohibiting export of minerals from Fraser Island. In the interim between May 1975 and October 1976, Gough Whitlam had been controversially dismissed by the Governor-General. Consequently, it was Whitlam’s successor, Malcolm Fraser, whose government banned mineral exports from the island.

Fraser Island IMG_5179

Photo: Mark Ash

So, sandmining had been stopped on Fraser Island but logging was still continuing. In the late 1980s, with the Bjelke-Petersen Government still in power, conservation groups began campaigning to stop logging on the island. The critical event was the election of the Labor Government led by Wayne Goss in 1989. In 1990, Goss appointed Tony Fitzgerald QC to head the Commission of Inquiry into the Conservation, Management and Use of Fraser Island and the Great Sandy Region. ARCS led the submission process for the Joint Conservation Groups and produced a major submission “The Ecological Impact of Logging Fraser Island Forests”. John Sinclair, of course, also made a number of submissions. Tony Fitzgerald was apparently convinced and recommended that logging cease and the island be nominated for World Heritage Listing.

The Goss Government implemented Fitzgerald’s recommendations and logging on Fraser Island ceased in 1991 after more than 120 years. The government also proceeded with World Heritage nomination and ARCS was commissioned to prepare the nomination as a result of the successful nomination prepared by ARCS for the Wet Tropics of Queensland. Fraser Island was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1992.

Prior to the election of the Goss Government in 1989, a national campaign was running to protect the tropical rainforests of North Queensland from logging. ARCS led the campaign. The Federal Environment Minister in the Hawke Government, Barry Cohen, set up a Working Group on Rainforest Conservation. John and Aila Keto were the environment NGO representatives. The Working Group reported to Cohen in 1995 and that led to an allocation of $22.24 million which was applied to a range of rainforest-related projects (Queensland Forestry Department applied for funds to build a road with picnic areas through rainforest in the Conondale Range.).

John-Sinclair-RESIZED4In 1992 John was appointed to a special committee to advise the Queensland Government on the management of Fraser Island and the Great Sandy Bay Region. In 1993 he was awarded the prestigious $60,000 Goldman Environmental Foundation prize in recognition of 20 years work to save Fraser Island.


In 2014, John was made an Officer in the Order of Australia “For distinguished service to conservation and the environment, through advocacy and leadership roles with a range of organisations, and to natural resource management and protection”.

John Sinclair Hon DocJohn received a number of other awards including “The Australian” newspaper’s Australian of the Year in 1976, the Global 500 Roll of Honour in 1990, and in September 2017 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by University of Sunshine Coast.

John Sinclair’s conservation interests went well beyond Fraser Island. He was a member of the Council of the Australian Conservation Foundation from 1975 to 1989 and served as Vice-President from 1977 to 1985. John was a member of the IUCN’s Commission for Environmental Planning from 1978 and attended the 15th meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in Christchurch, NZ in 1981 and the World Parks Conference in Bali in 1982. He was President of the Australian Committee of the IUCN in 1982-1983.

In 1993, John was engaged as a consultant to the South African ‘Campaign for St Lucia’ group to advise on measures to protect the St Lucia region of northern Natal and the most biologically important estuary on the African continent.

In 1998, John instituted “Go Bush Safaris” taking people to numerous places of conservation interest especially World Heritage Areas in Australia and in other countries.

I first met John around 1971 when FIDO was being formed. Subsequently, in the early 1980s, John encouraged Aila Keto and myself to form the Rainforest Conservation Society and made the newly acquired premises of WPSQ at Petrie Terrace in Brisbane available to us for meetings.

John Sinclair at climate march IMG_0683

John & the author at the Climate March in Brisbane in November 2015. Photo: Aila Keto

John will be remembered for his absolute and often selfless dedication to conservation. Some mistook his fierce determination and emphatic expression as arrogant and dogmatic. We knew him as passionate about wanting a better world for nature, as caring and considerate and actually quite humble, prepared to listen and adjust his thinking. John was stoical and to his last days, suffering pain caused by his cancer, he never complained.

Up to his death, John was working on his autobiography which will be published in the future.

Few people have lived a life so devoted to protecting nature and working tirelessly to try to ensure its future. We have fond and lasting memories of John in action. And who could forget his booming voice? We miss you John.

Keith Scott

2 Comments

Filed under Forests, Sadness, World Heritage

2 responses to “Vale John Sinclair AO

  1. Bernadette.Sinclair

    Wonderful tribute to Big John.

  2. Aila and I are so glad you feel we did John justice. He will live on in our lives as one of those extraordinarily special people who made a difference to the world and to so many people. We are all richer for having known him.

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