Rocking the boat

KAREN KISSANE TALKS TO JENNY WARFE   The co-ordinator of the Blue Wedges coalition against dredging in the bay returned to her childhood home for a quiet life. She got anything but.
JENNY Warfe was born in a small local hospital across the road from Dromana beach. Her mother told her that the nurse who delivered her had sand on her feet because she had just returned from walking there.
Warfe herself spent all the warm months of her childhood on that same beach, playing in the curve of its bay with her brothers and a brood of cousins while the aunties knitted and chatted in deckchairs nearby. That beach was the edge of her world, the landscape of her childhood dreaming.
She left it, as you do, to enter the adult world; she studied, trained, moved interstate and had a string of serious jobs behind large desks surrounded by lots of people. Until she got sick. She doesn’t say how sick, or what her ailment was, other than to clarify that she is not facing a death sentence. But the setback made her stop and think, and what she found herself thinking about was her childhood beach. She decided, she says dryly, that she would rather die in Dromana than behind a desk.
She quit the big job and moved home, hankering for a quiet life. She found the perfect setting for it: a low, wide 1970s bungalow on a ti-treed block set into a hillside, with sweeping views of treetops and her beloved beach (Dromana is about 90 minutes south of the city on the Mornington Peninsula). From her deck she can also see the nearby roof of her childhood home, where her father and one of her brothers still live. But the second half of the equation – the quiet life – has not eventuated.
Warfe is working 80 hours a week, fielding 100 emails a day and managing an incessantly ringing phone from her dining table, which is littered with paperwork and laptops. She is the co-ordinator for Blue Wedges, the umbrella group of strange bedfellows who have united in a desperate attempt to stop the Port of Melbourne dredging millions of tonnes of silt and rock from the bottom of Port Phillip Bay. The State Government says it is an economic necessity, that without it Victoria will lose jobs and become a second-rung international port. Warfe fears it will be an environmental catastrophe.
The group suffered a big setback when it lost a Supreme Court challenge to a smaller trial dredge, which began this week. From the timber decking that runs along the back of her house, Warfe photographed the large pale clouds of sand that stained the blue surface of the water around the dredge.
It is this cloudiness – technically known as “turbid plumes” – that she dreads. Speaking wearily with her head resting on one hand, she launches into yet another explanation of why sand and silt in the water, and coating the plants and sponges on the bay’s bed, would be dangerous.
“The whole food chain of the bay is reliant upon light, and plants producing their own photosynthesis and nutrients, and higher-order organisms feeding off that. There is a nitrogen-cycling process that goes on in the bay because of all the little organisms; they filter the waste in the bay and turn it into nitrogen, which is the main component of the air we breathe. The bay provides this incredible service by this really delicate balance of an ecosystem that depends on how much light is in the water.
“If there isn’t much light in the water, if it’s cloudy (from dredging), you run the risk of the whole thing spinning out of control and tipping into a poisoned state. In areas around the bay you could have algal blooms, or in the worst possible case” – she sighs heavily – “as the (State Government) panel hearing said, the risk of a baywide catastrophic incident has not been sufficiently eliminated. If things went as badly as they possibly could, that whole ecosystem in the bay could tip over. And, however much money you threw at trying to correct that, you wouldn’t be able to bring it back to how it was.”
She argues that the cloudy water that would kill off small plants and organisms would also damage the small fish in the bay upon which three of our main tourist attractions rely: dolphins, sea lions and penguins. For example, if toxic sediments at the mouth of the Yarra are stirred up and kill off the anchovies that spawn there, this might damage the penguin colonies that rely on the anchovies.
“Until I got involved in this campaign, I didn’t realise that 20,000 penguins from Phillip Island rely on Port Phillip Bay. They make a three-day round trip into the bay to feed and then go back to Phillip Island again to feed their chicks. If there’s not enough anchovies there . . .”
A small woman, Warfe wears her thick, honey-tinted hair loose in the unstyled abandon of the ’70s, but she wears her doggedness discreetly, behind the diplomatic front of the experienced bureaucrat. In the job she threw in to return to Melbourne, she had a staff of 100 and a budget of $25 million and the often-fraught task of administering hearing services for the Federal Government (she is an audiologist by profession). It was excellent training for her current gig, she says cheerily – constant interruptions, too much to do, big issues to cope with – but she does rather miss having staff to whom she can outsource problems. And that $25 million budget. Blue Wedges has never had more than a couple of thousand dollars in the bank.
“We’ve got about $1000 in the bank now. And a bill for $1000 for the pamphlets for the last rally. Contrast that with the Port of Melbourne Authority, who have access to taxpayers’ funds to print their glossy brochures and put on their information nights.”
It’s a battle that has been likened to David and Goliath, or more prosaically, as she points out, The Mouse that Roared. Does she think they have a hope?
“Yeah!” she yelps, as if startled by the idea of doubt. “Of course! Because we are right! I just think common sense and reason have to prevail.”
She will not be drawn on the group’s future tactics – perhaps it has yet to decide them – except to say that it is time to become more structured, dividing up and assigning roles such as fund-raising and media management, and that Blue Wedges is still considering whether to appeal against the Supreme Court ruling. But she is wary of pouring too much time and energy down the legal route. “We have to keep the ability to be reactive. I’m not attracted to being locked into the legal system.”
It could be argued that the very fact that the group still exists as a group is a triumph in itself, consisting as it does of people who would normally be at loggerheads, such as deep greens who are opposed to the whole capitalist system and commercial fishermen worried about their livelihoods.
Monash University marine biologist Simon Roberts says Warfe and her brother Len have held the group together because they have not played power games and listen to the different concerns of all parties. He says Warfe “is morally very sound. She’s genuinely altruistic and is there because she feels she has to protect something. She’s not putting herself up for the sake of kudos. She’s not power hungry at all.”
Asked to name her weakness, he nominates the flip side of the same quality: the fact that she is not a charismatic speaker who demands to be the centre of media attention. But, he says, while a pushy personality might have made a bigger blip on the public radar, he or she would not have been able to maintain the fragile unity of the group.
Warfe herself doesn’t see it as fragile and nor does she believe that her personal qualities have held it together. The members’ fear for the bay is a unifying factor that overrides all other differences. Looking back, the only thing she would have changed about the group’s strategies was to “go harder” earlier, “come out with economic arguments sooner than we did, rather than talking about it in isolation as an environmental issue”. She believes that dredging risks destroying local jobs already based in the bay in the fishing and diving industries to increase profits for foreign shipping companies. How can the dredging be necessary, she asks, when the Port itself estimates that its business will quadruple by 2030 either way?
Her chief opponent in the debate, Port of Melbourne chief executive Steve Bradford, says he believes Warfe is misguided and “has not understood our debate”. But, he says, he has found her unfailingly courteous. He says Blue Wedges had more success early on and that some protesters’ actions, such as sailing surfboards dangerously close to the dredge, have been seen by the public as misguided.
Warfe, in her turn, says that the Port has moved into “shutdown mode” to try to deprive the debate of oxygen and accuses it of releasing “sanitised” information. She has been waiting nine months to see the results of toxicity testing from the Yarra, she says.
She is used to the role of thorn in the side; at her previous workplace she was often told she was like a broken record. She was politicised by an English teacher in her teens, who once told her class that they always had the right to question. “From that time on I’ve always felt like having a say, or at least thinking a bit differently . . . I was probably a bit like that in the organisation I worked in. I always liked to pose an alternative view on the executive.”
She looks over with her direct gaze. “There wouldn’t be any change in society if people didn’t challenge things. We’d still be sending kids up bloody chimneys.”
Warfe is adept at side-stepping difficult questions (she received media training as a bureaucrat that included the advice, “Don’t answer the question they ask; answer the question you want to answer”.) So she will not be drawn on what it will be like for her if Blue Wedges fails.
But there is no doubt that this experience has changed her life. After years as a single woman, she has a new partner, Queenscliff diver Len Salter, whom she met at the panel hearings into dredging. He strode up to her one day thrusting his mobile at her and demanding that she speak to the person on the other end of it, who wanted to know something about the issue. He recently moved in with her, and they did this interview like a couple, her talking about the beaches and him describing the bright corals, sponges, fishes and caverns in their depths.
Her beloved bay has thrown up a different kind of happiness for her now.
· Boxing Day 1954.
· Completes a Bachelor of Science at La Trobe University.
· Trains as an audiologist at Melbourne University.
· Works in Melbourne as a pediatric audiologist, a manager of hearing centres and a trainer of other audiologists. Moves to Sydney to work with Australian Hearing.
· Retires to Melbourne after a health problem.
· Attends first public meeting of 20 people that would develop into Blue Wedges.

First published in The Age.