A voice in the (suburban) wilderness An extract from Defending the Little Desert

by Libby Robin

© all rights reserved

At a time when we are told that primary producers are facing many problems in satisfactorily disposing of their present level of production, it seems incredible that Sir William McDonald is intent on opening up yet more Crown Land…
Gwynnyth Taylor, President of the Victorian National Parks Association, in a letter to the Age, 28 April 1969

In the Melbourne suburb of Greensborough, Valerie Honey read this letter and saw red. Sir William McDonald, the Victorian Minister for Lands, was proposing to put farms on the Little Desert, an isolated area of undeveloped country near her birthplace in Western Victoria. Honey had nostalgic memories of visiting the area near her uncle’s farm, where she sometimes spent school holidays:

I didn’t know it was the Little Desert . . . we used to call it ‘the scrub’ . . . It was sunset and the sun was going with rays across this little salt lake… There were birds and parrots and the salt lake had turned red . . . It was the most magnificent sight!

Honey loved the wild country of Victoria’s north-west. She and her family holidayed at Wyperfeld National Park in the same region, a little further north.

I knew there was something going on because we’d [talked with the ranger] at Wyperfeld and from then on I seemed to be seeing . . . letters in theAge . . . And these letters kept coming . . . and then the one that fired me up finally was one from Gwynnyth Taylor.

Honey’s personal association with the Little Desert was just a distant memory of twenty years earlier, but when McDonald proposed agricultural development it began to stir. The part of the Little Desert she remembered, the eastern end, was never seriously under threat from any agricultural scheme, but by the time letters started appearing in metropolitan newspapers in 1969 about the ‘Little Desert’ the whole area was acquiring a unity in the mind of Melbourne people.

Honey’s childhood memory was sufficient to galvanise her into what she described as an ‘obsessive’ eight-month campaign about the Little Desert. She researched her subject thoroughly and sought a hearing with the Premier via her local Member of Parliament. She joined the VNPA in order to campaign, and enlisted the support of its president, Gwynnyth Taylor, for her deputation to the Premier. Taylor was a very experienced campaigner who was active in eleven different conservation and natural history societies at the time.

By the time the Acting Premier received Honey and Taylor with their well-researched case for the Little Desert in July 1969, Honey had single-handedly gathered a petition with nearly 4,000 signatures. She wrote to conservation organisations and set up a little stand with information about the Little Desert wherever local traders would tolerate it.

Honey also used the media, regularly contributing to talkback radio programmes, despite the fact that she did not have a telephone at home. Anxious ‘not to impose too much’, she borrowed two different neighbours’ telephones. By sheer persistence, she persuaded two key radio announcers, Gerald Lyons of 3DB and Ormsby Wilkins of 3AW, to look at the material she had prepared about the Little Desert. Honey also approached the Age , which duly covered her deputation.

By the time Honey actually visited the Little Desert in September 1969, she was a well-known campaigner and something of a celebrity. She was shown around the Little Desert by local personalities, PL Williams, Alec Hicks and Avelyn Coutts, who referred to themselves as ‘Three Blind Mice’, because they refused to see the advantages of development in the Little Desert. While she was there, she happened to meet Sir William McDonald himself:

He strode across to us, shook hands and said ‘McDonald’s the name’. He obviously thought we were prospective farmers, and then I said ‘Valerie Honey’s the name’ and the smile went off his face immediately.

Honey’s effectiveness as a lone campaigner was based on her ability to tap into the resources of the natural history societies. She borrowed mailing lists from the Bird Observers’ Club, the VNPA and the naturalist and journalist Graham Pizzey. The case she prepared about settlement in the Little Desert was a synthesis of expert opinions from diverse sources.

Because Honey was outside all interest groups, she was able to infuse the information with her personal passion. ‘Who knows what scientists will discover in the ability of plants to flourish in this harsh climate, or what drugs may be available from them?’ she asked. She was angry that reserves for national parks were not a primary consideration of government.

‘[W]hen land is recognised as useless for any other development, then it will suffice for a national park’, she wrote in her submission. Although she was aware that ’emotional arguments just don’t carry water with the people who pull the strings’, she articulated the rights of nature to exist, and angrily addressed those in power who would destroy it. Her energy and commitment permeated the rational face of her document:

Economic arguments must be overwhelmingly strong before they justify the extinction of any species of animal or plant life. …I feel it my duty to object to … unnecessary alienation of rapidly diminishing Crown Land, for extremely doubtful end-results, and offer herewith the signatures of [those] objecting to the State Government’s land development scheme for the Little Desert.

She spoke for all those with no ‘authority’ (and perhaps less preparedness to undertake rigorous research than herself). To the politicians she portrayed herself as ‘the ordinary voter’.

She could not be written off as simply a ‘birds-and-bugs fanatic’. Fanatic she perhaps was, but she was a new sort. She represented an emerging class of citizens concerned about ‘quality of life’ issues, who looked to the bush as, paradoxically, an important part of urban culture.

The campaign for the protection of the Little Desert focused on the ‘rights’ of people (and their unborn children) to enjoy the pleasures of the bush. It was a public right to seek ‘relief from the stresses and strains of everyday life’ in bushland and national parks. This notion of escape from the metropolis, of an ‘other’ that counterbalanced life in the city, was part of the larger international conservation movement of the time.

President Johnson’s message to the US Congress on February 1966 spoke of the citizen’s rights to water, air, and places of beauty where nature can be enjoyed. Conservationists concerned about the Little Desert were not just against marginal development; they were for a particular vision of bushland preservation through national parks. It was this new, more strident voice, calling for another sort of democratic right, that emerged with the Little Desert dispute and became the basis for later environmentalism.


Libby Robin is Curator of People and the Environment at the National Museum of Australia, and has written extensively on the history of Australian science, conservation and the environment movement.

This is an edited extract from Defending the Little Desert (Melbourne University Press, $24.95), which will be available from 12 October.

Quotes come from Libby Robin’s interview with Valerie Honey, 20 November, 1990 and from Valerie Honey’s submission to the Acting Premier of Victoria, July, 1969.

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