David Bennett – “Life after CSIRO”

September 29th, 2020

Read about David’s career and travels after he left CSIRO


The circumstances of one’s departure to some extent determine what one does subsequently. I had been totally absorbed in the work of the Division of Land Resources Management (LRM) during the ten years of its existence, and enormously annoyed in 1982 both by the elimination of the Division and by the way it was done. For example I was given twenty minutes to decide whether to join the Division of Animal Production or the Division of Groundwater Research!

Shortly after, as a consequence of the work that we had done in catchment land use, I was appointed to the honorary

position of “Expert Scientist” to the Reserves Review Committee of the WA Government. We successfully negotiated the excision of significant areas of Alcoa’s mining lease in the Darling Range of Western Australia for conservation and recreation purposes. I think as a consequence of that I was approached by Maurice Mulcahy in 1984 to become the Chief Executive Officer of the Land Resource Policy Council (LRPC). Maurice chaired the LRPC. So I left CSIRO on secondment.

Perth (1984-1991)

The Council consisted of the heads of all government departments with an interest in land issues (agriculture, lands, conservation, forests, mines, etc.), plus four representatives of public interests. It reported to the Premier and had an agenda of the issues that fell between other portfolios. These included retention of native vegetation on private land, rehabilitation after mining and various catchment issues. After nine months in this position I was head-hunted to become the inaugural Wesfarmers Professor of Rural Management at Curtin University in late 1985.

I had previously taught at the Agricultural Graduate School at Balcarce, Argentina, a school supported by all the universities in the southern zone of South America. I did not think that I made a very good teacher and approached this new professorial position with some trepidation. I set myself an exhausting teaching task, as well as trying to raise the standards of the institution and engage in a number of extra-university activities. Returning from a conference in Japan I discovered that there had been a number of complaints about my absence, so having done a SWOT analysis I found that the reasons for leaving out-weighed those for staying, so I resigned in late 1986.

The choice I faced was either to return to CSIRO, since I was still on secondment, or do something else. I was busy negotiating with the Division of Wildlife and Ecology about a research program on retention of native vegetation on private land when Sally, my wife, said “You have been there and done that, why don’t you try something else?”

Now one of the important things to do in life is to marry someone who earns lots of money; it gives you so many more opportunities! So I made the strategic decision that her career should come before mine and set up as a private consultant in land use matters, using the front bedroom as an office. Trying to work out how to attract customers is the hardest part of private enterprise. Having left Curtin in June by January I was getting quite worried about where to get

work. I was filling in my time sailing, and one Wednesday afternoon, in the Royal Perth Yacht Club’s business-man’s race, one of my fellow crew members said “I think that I have a customer for you” and he had! Work proceeded with this customer and others at an uneven pace and by 1990 I was employing someone part-time.

I was also spending quite some time on conservation activities, including being the National President as well as the State Chairman of Greening Australia; a prominent office-bearer on the Conservation Council of Western Australia (CCWA), etc. Another of my extra-mural activities was to serve on the Conservation and Environment Committee of the State ALP. In 1990 the Principal Private Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Water Resources and the North-West asked me to move into the Minister’s office as his technical consultant. So armed with the scripts of “Yes Minister” I set off for St George’s Terrace.

Ernie Bridge, the Minister, was a most engaging fellow. His family followed the Duracks overland to the Kimberley in the 19th Century and had taken up a pastoral station near Hall’s Creek. He had become the local shire president and then been asked to run for state parliament by the ALP, changing the Kimberley from a safe Liberal to a safe Labor seat. He was very keen on playing the guitar and composing songs, as well as running trotting horses. He continues to advocate a pipeline from the Kimberley to the South-West and supports many other river diversions to the inland around Australia.

He was the first Aborigine to hold a ministerial position in Australia. We got involved in many interesting projects, the most exciting ones for me were the control of an apple scab outbreak by a scorched orchard policy and controlling a plague locust outbreak with a minimum of money during the WA Inc campaign.

In 1991 Sally, who was by then the State Secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) told me that we were moving to Sydney. So I said “Yes dear” and put the house on the market.

Sydney (1991 – 2000)

We took the train to Port Augusta and then drove the rest of the way stopping in the Flinders Ranges, Hahndorf, Mildura, West Wyalong etc. The first apartment that we rented in the dockland area around Darling Harbour was full of

cockroaches, but gradually things got better, especially when we purchased a cliff-top house in Clovelly. Sally was by then the Assistant National Secretary of CPSU and spending a lot of her time flying to other cities to address the many issues that the Union faced.

The only offer that I had for a job in Sydney (by then I was 56 years old) was selling financial planning and life insurance. I had to become qualified in a hurry, so I swotted for five weeks a course that was meant to take two years and just scraped through. In the four months that I kept that job I learnt a lot more about salesmanship, which served me well later, though it did not earn me much money then.

But living on commission is a harrowing existence, so when a job in the Policy Secretariat of the Sydney Water Corporation came along I took it. And then an American who was president of a high resolution mass spectrometry laboratory offered me the job of establishing a branch of his company in Australia, so I took that instead. I formed an association with a local environmental laboratory and went off to contaminated sites and incinerators mainly in Western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, looking for customers. After about two years of trying I realised that we were never going to be a viable branch, so I told the president that I would wind up the business and find other work.

When I joined the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry in Canberra in 1961 the private agricultural consultant movement was just taking off and I had met and made friends with many of those who had become established in NSW. While I had been in Western Australia most of these consultants had consolidated into a firm called Hassall & Associates. When I first went to Sydney in 1991 the head of their Sydney Office offered me half the value of all the contracts that I brought to the office as pay. At the time I declined the offer, thinking that I knew no one who would offer a contract. But when I was

winding up the laboratory service in 1995 I approached them again. They were prepared to make me a slightly better offer. For the next five years I spent most of my time working on commission for Hassall and some of my time dealing with the residual of the laboratory work. About once a week I would go into the office in the CBD for liaison with other staff and meetings. Officially I was head of the Resource and Environmental Consulting arm of the Sydney office. We picked up work on organic farming, climate change, carbon accumulation and trading, effluent reuse and monitoring and evaluation, mainly of Commonwealth Government conservation and environment programs. The latter would quite often involve travelling to all the state and territory capitals to hold workshops and then write a report. We were quite successful.

Our house in Clovelly overlooked Gordon’s Bay which lies just north of Coogee. There is about 4 hectares of natural bush in the Bay that had been invaded by garden escapes. So shortly after we moved in we started the Gordon’s Bay Volunteer Bush Regeneration Project Inc. Once a month volunteers meet to weed out the garden escapes and allow the natives to return. Slowly Randwick Council became interested, especially after we obtained funds from the Commonwealth and State Government, bought tools and handed over some money to the Council to pay for expert supervision.

It is still going and if you want to know more have a look at http://www.gordonsbay.org.au/gordonsbay/

Then after three three-year terms Sally started to get concerned about generational transfer, and after getting stuck in a traffic jam in Randwick shortly after returning via Broken Hill from a holiday on Kangaroo Island, I was happy to return to Fremantle. We sold the house very successfully, had six weeks holiday in the South Pacific and then drove home via Darwin.

Fremantle (2000-7)

On that holiday and journey home I decided that I would do a bit more consulting, but would not chase work. Luckily friends from my earlier consulting days, plus my Eastern States contacts have been able to dribble me work at a pace that allows me to pursue other interests. I tell them that holidays come first!

I thought, being an expert on establishing voluntary organisations, and interested in bush regeneration, that I would be doing something similar in Fremantle. But I found that this area of activity was almost overcrowded. So I went to talk to my friend Rachel Siewert5, Executive Officer of CCWA, who asked me to look at transport issues. This firstly involved air pollution issues, but very rapidly became a concern about ‘Peak Oil’. The answer to both is to get out of cars and walk or cycle or take public transport. So I formed the Sustainable Transport Coalition.

I had been exposed to the famous “Hubbert” Curves when on a CSIRO postdoctoral fellowship at North Carolina State University in 1969. So the idea that this finite planet would run out of oil (and eventually, all other resources) was no surprise. What has been more intriguing to all “Hubbert” watchers has been the accuracy of his predictions. We work on all sorts of activities from making sure that traffic lights and motorists respect pedestrians, to running conferences on ‘Peak Oil’.

In WA old CSIRO staff have been running luncheons for some years. Jack Brophy ran a twice-a-year luncheon for staff who had done time in the old laboratories in Nedlands and Adrian Peck ran a once a month luncheon for mainly soil scientists. When we were approached by Jim Cullen we agreed to hold some of these activities and others under the banner of the Alumni. And as someone with experience in setting up voluntary organisations I became the Chair of the WA Committee. Apart from getting them together, which is like herding cats, my committee members are extremely helpful in compiling lists of ex-staff and organising events. But if anyone shows leadership aspirations they will find my resignation on their email the next morning