Ian Kiernan will go anywhere if there’s a chance he can collect some garbage. He’s on a mission to clean up the world. He took time out from his global scrub-up to talk to KAREN KISSANE.
EVERY man is a hero to his dog – in Ian Kiernan’s case, an adoring blue cattle dog named Max – but few can be heroes to their wives. Kiernan, Australia’s king of the clean-up, inspires half a million people to scour the nation for garbage each year in the country’s biggest community event. But, at home, he admits with a great crack of laughter, he “hangs his clothes on the floor” for his wife to pick up. He cleans up the world, she cleans up after him.
It’s almost a relief to hear it. Even Achilles had his heel, after all, to make more human the man behind the myth. And Kiernan’s image has long been gaining mythic proportions.
The activity for which he is best known, chairman of the Clean Up Australia campaign, is so worthy that it would relegate any ordinary person to the obscurity of life in the do-good lane. Kiernan, though, has captured the public imagination with his cause the way the late Fred Hollows did with his eye-surgery crusade, and for much the same reasons. Like Hollows, Kiernan has the unifying power of the visionary, the common touch of the archetypal Aussie bloke, and the tenacity of a bulldog.
In Melbourne to launch this year’s clean-up on 3 March, he’s staying gratis in a suite at South Yarra’s Como Hotel.
Its owner, Singaporean Midas, Arthur Tan, made the offer after reading Kiernan’s biography, Coming Clean. Kiernan got to the hotel from the city courtesy of a stranger who recognised him standing on a pavement and offered him a lift just for the chance to talk to him. And then there were the school kids who walked up to him to thank him gravely for cleaning up their world. Life as a national icon has its satisfactions.
Today he wears a quiet subversion of the corporate uniform: the shirt soft rather than tailored, the footwear elastic- sided bushman’s boots, the tie swimming with bright tropical fish. His talk, full of uncontrived “g’days” and “you beauts”, is as egalitarian as his clothes. When it comes to fighting pollution, he says, “Ordinary people need to lead and not sit there and think that governments are going to spoonfeed them and look after them and look after the country, because they won’t. We’ve got to tell them what we want.” If the powers-that-be don’t listen, Kiernan leads a more rebellious charge. Generally, they find useful his ability to energise people; in 1995, Clean Up Day saw 10,000 tonnes of rubbish collected from more than 7000 sites across Australia.
More than 80 countries and 35 million people participate in Clean Up the World, launched in 1993.
But at times authorities find Kiernan a thorn. Take the redevelopment of the old blue-collar suburb of Pyrmont in Sydney. “I am totally opposed to elitism, and when it first kicked off it looked like the best land was going to be for elite developments. We said `Whoa! Public housing! And what about open space?”‘ Kiernan and the locals grabbed an overgrown vacant block and turned it into Interim Park. “The residents and the kids got out and did the work, and we got the grass and the soil and the bricks and fencing and gates and trees and plants given,” Kiernan says. “They called us `urban guerrillas’.
” We need bureaucrats, just like we need politicians, he says, but “bullshit” makes him angry. “What I dislike intensely is when the bureaucrats become totally proprietary about an issue. They shouldn’t be doing that. They are our servants and these are our assets.” In fact he has won many of them over. Jeff Floyd, chief executive of Melbourne Parks and Waterways, says Kiernan is “the sort of guy that seems to get up every morning with a burning mission. The other thing about him is that there’s no side about Ian. Yes, he’s been Australian of the Year, he’s a public figure, and yet he treats everyone . . . with the same approach.”
KIERNAN, 55, has always been one for the grand scheme. In the ’70s he was a developer with a $20 million portfolio (subsequently lost in a property crash); in the ’80s he sailed solo around the world in the BOC Challenge.
He can’t describe how “the vision thing” developed in him but knows he has been thinking big since he was a child.
“I can remember as a 10-year-old in boarding school the senior housemaster saying to me, `Kiernan, why do you always have to try to be bigger and better than everyone else?’ ” It was at boarding school that Kiernan first heard of the fabled Sargasso Sea, where he later had the moment of revelation that led to Clean Up.
“It’s in a smoky blue ocean, it’s part of the Atlantic, ” he says. “It’s got this golden seaweed where the eels breed; it’s an important place in terms of connections in the cycle, an incredibly important nursery for all sorts of marine creatures.
The myth was that the halcyon bird – this mythical bird like a big kingfisher – used to charm the sea to calm and land on these rafts of golden seaweed, lay its eggs, raise its fledglings . . . It’s Boys’ Own stuff, I suppose.
” He sailed over it during his solo yacht trip. But as his boat cut through the glassy water, garbage shot to the surface on either side of the bow. “A thong, a plastic toothpaste tube, a comb, broken plastic buckets, plastic bags, disposable nappies . . . It was like finding a filthy dump in a rainforest.
” Kiernan, who had long been passionate about the natural world, had plenty of time to think the problem through. His friend Richard Bawden, professor of systemic development at the University of Western Sydney, says yachties are like taxi drivers: “They spend a lot of time by themselves, and they philosophise. And as yachtsman they are totally in touch with natural forces, life and its rhythms. Ian sees pollution as a perturbation of the natural order, and therefore as a very profound problem.”
Kiernan sees his clean-up crusade as a natural progression from his work as a developer; both stemmed from a sense that valuable things should be looked after. “I was certainly never a multi-storey chandeliers-and-gold-taps type of developer.
I was more interested in preserving the history of inner- city architecture and streetscape, and breathing new life into old buildings.”
This second phase of his working life has mirrored the first in another way too. He began his construction career as a builder’s laborer and worked his way up; he began his anti- pollution drive in gumboots picking up garbage with everyone else, and now he runs the big projects. He has raised $2 million and cajoled 20-odd authorities to cooperate in building a wastewater treatment plant at Taronga Park Zoo, part of a vast scheme to restore 2001 environmental assets to the community by the year 2001.
The mayor of Seoul toured Taronga and decided his city needed just such a plant and with help from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, that will now happen, Kiernan says. Foreign Minister Gareth Evans says Clean Up has become one of Australia’s greatest exports.
Kiernan himself sees no boundaries. Jeff Floyd tells of visiting his Sydney office: “On the ground floor he’s got Clean Up Australia, and on the second floor it’s Clean Up the World. The third floor is vacant and I joked that he must be keeping it for Clean Up the Universe. He looked at me seriously and said, `Well, we are getting very concerned about all that junk being left in space . . .”‘
First published in The Age.