MARGARET Hancock has a vision: she’s driving a bulldozer and knocking down the eyesore at the end of the Nobbies, to the cheers of the surrounding crowd.
“Although time is taking its toll,” she muses. “When itdoes happen, it might not be me that’s driving the bulldozer.”
To her that building, erected by the state government, represents what happens when planning is left in the hands of the philistines. “You used to be able to drive out to the Nobbies in stormy weather and it was like you were coming to the end of the world. And now you come to this building!”
The battle over development at the Nobbies was one of many during her almost-30-year reign as president of the Phillip Island Conservation Society (1982-2011) at a time when shark-like developers circled the island with grand plans for marinas, cliffside hotels and heliports.
“We’ve had some wonderful public meetings,” she says mildly. “The ones with the police present are the best. Although some have been a bit unpleasant. But I like a good fight.”
Of course there were threats over the years. A councillor warned her once, for her own safety, not to go near a certain waterside restaurant. She was at her plant nursery when two people came in and told her what would happen if she didn’t back off . “The next time I was at VCAT, one of my adversaries mentioned them. By that time one of them had been murdered and the other was in jail.”
We are sitting in the meeting room of St Phillip’s Anglican Church in Cowes – of which she is parish secretary and former organist – when she tells me this, and she smiles sedately. After almost 50 years of fighting to defend her island, she can afford to take the long view.
Last March, more than 100 people crowded into the Cowes Parish Hall at a meeting called by the conservation society to hear about the state government’s plan for a massive expansion of the Port of Hastings. There was a growing sense of dismay as Phillip Islanders became aware of the consequences for their island and bay.
The meeting was chaired by the president of the conservation society, Anne Davie, who called on Margaret Hancock, her long-time friend and comrade in arms, to provide some historical context.
Speaking from a few scribbled notes, Margaret recalled the 1960s, when then premier Henry Bolte announced his dream of the bay becoming Victoria’s “Little Ruhr”, possibly including a nuclear reactor on French Island. The reactor didn’t proceed but in 1993, an oil terminal was planned for Crib Point. “We were told that if the terminal did not go ahead, the state of Victoria would be financially ruined and the world as we knew it would end.
“The terminal did not go ahead,” Margaret said, her imperious voice effortlessly filling the hall. “The state of Victoria was not financially ruined and the world is still much as we knew it.”
As she sat down, a kind of calm settled over the packed hall. Yes, the situation was dire, but it had been dire before. It was time to get to work once more to save the bay. And so the Preserve Western Port action group was born.
Seven months later, the Liberal Government was gone and the port plan is on the backburner. It was cause for celebration for opponents of the port, but the war isn’t over and it never will be. In conservation, there are only temporary victories, ceasefires and an occasional treaty with your opponents.
Margaret Hancock first saw Phillip Island in 1957 when she came for a holiday. She was teaching in Ballarat, where she had grown up, but soon after she crossed the bridge, she knew the island was going to be her home.
A few years later, she returned with a £600 inheritance and bought a hut in Cowes. It was about three metres by five metres, had no electricity, no mains water and no sewerage. “It was lovely,” she recalls. “There were sheep grazing all around it. If you were disciplined, you could sleep four. It was great fun.”
Over the years she put on electricity and water, added a septic tank, added a room to the hut, and finally built a new house, but the old hut remains. For the first few years it was a holiday house – the drive from Ballarat took six hours in those days – and she moved down permanently in 1970 after both her parents had died.
By then she’d had enough of teaching and started working as a gardener for Freda Davey, a Collins Street farmer who had scandalised the local gentry by fencing off a creek on her property. “All the local farmers said ‘Stupid woman. What’s she doing that for?’.
“Freda had started a local branch of the Tree and Garden Association. She said we should be planting street trees. We had no idea what would grow. All our glorious experiments! All our mistakes! We had endless working bees. Then we’d go up to Freda’s place, Sheoak Hill. It was wonderful coming into a community and being one of the workers.”
After working for Freda for three or four years, she took over the Tamba nursery in Cowes, where she specialised in growing Phillip Island’s indigenous plants and became more deeply involved in the conservation battles.
“Those were exciting times,” she says. “The white shoe brigade had arrived. The Herald ran an article saying we were going to have an avenue of palm trees from the bridge to Cowes.”
The conservation society saw off the palm dates as it saw off so many other grand plans.
One of the memorable victories, in 2008, was against trucking magnate Lindsay Fox’s plans for a massive golf course resort on coastal farmland next to the Grand Prix track.
The schoolgirl Margaret Hancock
The hut, Rita Avenue, Cowes, 1961. No power, no mains water, no sewerage. “It was great fun,” Margaret Hancock recalls.
Bluebell time at the Rita Avenue garden.
Another was convincing the state government to buy back properties in the Summerlands Estate, next to what is now the Penguin Parade. She credits this to the persistence of Ailsa Swan, another of the island’s conservation warriors, and a great mentor to her.
It was Ailsa Swan who taught her to argue on planning grounds and to make her presence felt when she went to the Town and Country Planning Board and its successor, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). “You don’t sit in a chair, you go to the table. You are not a minion,” Ailsa advised. “You’re a part of the process.”
“Ailsa was unfailingly polite. She taught me a great deal about not getting too uptight, and to listen very carefully to what the other side is saying because there will be something valuable, however mad it seems at the time.”
All those years as a teacher also came in handy. “You’ve got to make things fun,” Margaret says. “The class gets very unruly if they’re not being entertained.”
Anne Davies says she is a fearless proponent at VCAT, where she presents the case with strength, clarity and conviction. “She is quite feared by PICS’s opponents at the tribunal. She is the planning guru of Phillip Island and her knowledge and experience is awesome.”
Another society stalwart, Penny Manning, says PICS’s good reputation at VCAT is due to Margaret's polite and detailed presentations. “She can present a forceful and detailed argument in a calm voice with humour as appropriate. She always includes or ends a presentation with a comment on any good aspect of a development.”
Given her success at VCAT, should she perhaps have been a barrister or town planner?
“I think I prefer to fight,” Margaret says. “I find it very entertaining. It’s good fun. You’ve got to look at it that way. I know it matters but VCAT is a sort of game. I don’t lose sleep. It must be very wearing to have a temperament that gets upset. It’s no good snapping at people. You’ve got to work with them and try and get their trust.”
And you have to pick your battles. “You can’t oppose everything.” PICS supported the eco-resort at Cowes, to the consternation of many local people. In its early years, it’s true that it looked like an army barracks, but 10 years of tree growth have softened it.
She says the key to appropriate development on the island is sticking to the settlement boundaries. “So much work went into them – if we can hold those, we’ve made real progress.”
At 83, her time leading the troops in battle is coming to an end but she is optimistic about the next generation. “There are some extraordinary people. You need people to rally about specific things but you also need a nuclear group and we have that on the island.”
That doesn’t mean she’s slowing down, merely that she has so many other things on her plate. Apart from her work with the church and conservation society (where she is a life member), she’s on the committee of Friends of Phillip Island Library, Red Cross, Friends of Koalas and the Phillip Island Arts and Cultural Committee.
She also twice stood unsuccessfully for the council, but was perceived as being “too green”, Anne Davie says. “This was in the 1990s and fortunately thinking has changed.” So much so that in 2013 Margaret Hancock was named as the shire’s environmental ambassador.
And there’s always a project or two. Her current passion is for the Blue Gum Reserve, which has a newly created Friends group of which she is, of course, a founding member, and where she walks her beloved dogs.
“If I need to talk with Margaret about something,” Anne says, “I know that I must ring her between 7.15 and 7.30am, otherwise the chances of catching her are slim.”
Reference: An Island Worth Conserving: a History of the Phillip Island Conservation Society, by Christine Grayden.