A reflection on Geoff’s enduring drive, strongly held beliefs and activism in Port Phillip
Geoff is a legend, not that he would ever agree with this praise, for in his own words he said – “No person achieves change on their own”. It always happens as a collective group and he saw himself as one of the many like-minded and engaged local community voices for change.
His sense of purpose and ability to advocate for a better future – for a greener, safer, sustainable local environment for all – took him down many roads of community building.
Long standing advocate
Geoff was so active, and well known, especially in Elwood, for “fighting the good fight”, years before he became a founding member of the now named YWNA. His local reputation and public identity were formed after the 2011 Elwood floods when he took it on himself, with local disaffected residents, to help form a strong community voice.
Few people knew Elwood was built on an old swampland, remaining vulnerable to inundation, until Elster creek overflowed causing severe flooding of streets, homes, and public spaces.
Geoff banded with others to establish the Elwood Floods Action Group (EFLAG). Members joined determined to demonstrate how a lack of preparedness on the part of government and service providers, undermined their ability to respond to the flood risks.
Their aim was to make Elwood more resilient to extreme weather events by getting the clear message out to everyone – “Flooding is caused by stormwater runoff, will not go away and can be prevented by education, evidence and better statutory planning and infrastructure”.
His relentless energy, willingness to stand up and speak at well over a hundred council meetings, led him to be a public spokesperson, outspoken, clearly spoken and a meditator to bring about changes. Council liked his style and he was savvy at engaging them in debates.
Next he became a member of the Bayside Council Deliberative Panel in 2016, one of 24, and welcomed the chance to call for Elsternwick Park to transform from a golf course to a unique nature reserve. For Elster Creek to have flood mitigation storage, to redesign the wetlands and feature new water urban design solutions.
Geoff taught himself about planning laws and with comrades then built a watertight case for new local council and state planning laws set in place for new buildings. Not an easy feat!
He worked on the principle that if you repeatedly deliver the same message to councillors and politicians … “one day it will sink in and they will repeat the words to you, as if they are their own – then you clap them for being progressive and listening to community. That’s success!”
Lots of meetings later, the group convinced Port Phillip Council to update planning laws for land in flood zones, and set building standards for height above flood waters, whilst also making sure residents knew what this meant. These laws are now commonly applied to all building applications. A huge change and success for all!
Geoff and his comrades armed themselves with the tools of community engagement, holding public meetings. He adopted a forthright advocacy style to directly confront issues, ensuring a presence at all relevant meetings. They found partners to have constructive dialogue between the community groups and decision makers, like Melbourne Water, State Emergency Service. They wanted new laws, new infrastructure, warning systems, and more.
In 2015 Monash Research Centre took up a brave challenge by choosing Elwood as an international case study. Evidence showed it is the most ‘at risk suburb in Melbourne’- threatened by sea level rise, storms, climate change. Geoff grabbed the chance, was invited to participate to create a vision, and case for action with others.
Geoff was in his niche, sitting with planners and researchers – on a sure path for building agreement on the most innovative redesign of all of Elwood- emulating some forward-thinking European cities. He imagined of course this would engage the public’s opinion and involvement and lead to local solutions. The new mantra was Adapt, Defend and Retreat if you live in Elwood. He never stopped letting everyone know the report findings, that – “Elwood is a hotspot of flooding and change can happen if politicians see it as a problem to be addressed”.
Again, Geoff and local activists joined forces – frustrated by lack of real change- they formed the Elsternwick Park Coalition in 2016 to speed up the process, increase community voice and argue for a multi-council plan.
The result was the Elster Creek Catchment Project in 2018, a new partnership of four councils and Melbourne Water – launched after persistent calls, press and forums. This was a big win for Elsternwick Park’s case. Many applauded when the new Flood Management Action Plan for 2019-2024 was endorsed.
The art and skills of community building, of working with all sides for small and bigger changes, reflects Geoff’s leadership of “one among equals” and how he built the forces of influence with “the collective” towards establishing agreements.
Geoff went to nearly every meeting, speaking calmly, quoting facts, giving solutions. Eventually, of course, he was chosen as member of the new Project Community Advisory Group which meets regularly to give advice on all matters on flood mitigation. His wisdom, knowledge and advice will be sorely missed and always appreciated by Melbourne Water and the group.
Never still, on he marched with confidence, determination and great humour to step by step bring alongside new and young players. He was part of forming the Yalukit Willam Nature Association in 2018 as a formal committee – working to build a case for Bayside Council to establish a 10 year Masterplan and make sure Flood mitigation was a key theme for action- which is what has happened. He thrived on “Walking the talk”- showing how to understand your local environment, take local action to effect bigger plans.
He had a brilliant way of speaking of a blue-sky vision while working on the ground beside you planting, handing out leaflets, having a glass of wine and grinning when he heard you say “there is a new comrade to convert to our way of thinking” Go Geoff! He had no hesitation at any public social gathering, at getting ‘in the ear’ of newly elected councillors.
Over recent years he has also been a huge part of YWNA (epa) committee life, the creation of the Reserve, development of our community engagement work and Waterwatch. People like Geoff are long distillations of activism, practice, politics, fun and in Geoff’s case, combined with a sharp dress code topped by the many dashing hats he wore so well.
He told us he loved working with the YWNA team. We will personally miss his sound advice and support and having fun with him on Waterwatch days. He kept up his valuable ability to contribute to YWNA right up to his last days.
We celebrate Geoff for his long-dedicated commitment to working tirelessly with us and on our behalf, to realise a new vision for the local community. His know-how, used to create and embed new learnings, led to others seeing major public problems become new projects to find solutions for our community. He walked hand in hand to realise his hope for the future of Elwood.
Most of the time along the path he did NOT know what would happen next! Although he knew wisely from” little things big things grow” and said what you need is many stalwarts, voices and to be flexible when a new critic or potential ally looks to you for advice.
Thank you, Geoff, for all you so generously gave us in helping to pave the way for a safer and more environmentally friendly place. You will be fondly remembered for your role in building the future.
Over the years, Geoff, when asked – Why he kept up his work as a community activist? He would say that he admired and was motivated by his mother, who was a strong community builder and who with other women, banded together to speak up for the community. They won a long struggle for a new St Kilda Public Library to be built for families, children, students and all who like books.
He was so proud to go to the library and remember her collective win!
Likewise, our committee acknowledges all his contributions to the reserve and flood mitigation. He, himself said, it gave him much reward to be part of some wins along the way. We will so miss his pithy wit and helpful guidance as we continue to work as a collective to help deliver the YWNR Masterplan and grow as part of this wonderful community.
Our deep sympathies are always with his partner Francesca, friends and family.
Vale Geoffrey Love!
Gina Fiske and the YWNA committee