Taking a moral stand

Lawyer-turned-activist David Ritter will become the new head of Greenpeace Australia Pacific tomorrow. He talks exclusively to Deborah Snow.

Lawyer-turned-activist David Ritter will become the new head of Greenpeace Australia Pacific tomorrow. He talks exclusively to Deborah Snow.

At the age of nearly 27, David Ritter returned to his hotel room one night after a celebratory evening out with clients, looked in the mirror and didn't like what he saw.

As a rising star in a large Perth legal practice, he had just raked in 468 per cent of his monthly budget in fees and should have been feeling pumped. Instead, "I was literally looking at myself in the mirror afterwards thinking, 'This is all going very well, mate, but this is not who you are.' "

A year later, he would become legal officer for the Yamatji Marlpa Land Council, with territory covering a million square kilometres in the continent's remote north-west. It was the start of a journey, "working outside the frame of the profit motive", which will see him formally announced tomorrow as the new head of Greenpeace for Australia and the Pacific.

The 41-year-old defies easy stereotypes. He has spent the past five years working for Greenpeace in London, but is also a former academic (with double honours in history and law ) who remains a visiting fellow in the legal faculty of the University of Western Australia. He once worked on native title for the man who is now the Chief Justice of the High Court, Robert French. He has seen mining companies from both ends, as client and adversary.

"You cannot expect corporations to be what they are not," he says. "They are legally mandated to maximise profit. Ultimately they are amoral entities."

Nevertheless his British experience, where he worked on biodiversity and oceans, has left him convinced that the environmental movement can find ways to work with "all sorts of unconventional allies".

In Britain, he says he built up "very close working relationships" with the retail giants Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's and Selfridges on sustainable fish stocks and forestry supply chains.

Born and raised in Perth, the son of a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, Mr Ritter is the youngest of seven children. He grew up in a home that thrived on political debate.

Having returned from London a month ago, he is now living with his wife and young daughter in Newtown and admits seeing a need to bring Greenpeace Australia "in from the cold".

"If the environment movement, and Greenpeace in particular, has lost its way, it's because we all, to some extent, became preoccupied with targets and quotas and figures and imagining that we could turn to the science all the time" he says. "The environment is not something that is separate from society or the economy. It's all part of our home, the place that we live, the community that we are, the way we want to live our lives."

He says recent attempts by senior Labor figures, including the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to paint the green movement as out of touch set up a "false dichotomy". "No one wants a job without a clean sky, without clean water, beaches that their kids can't go to," Mr Ritter says.

He won't comment on last year's controversial destruction of a CSIRO experimental wheat crop by Greenpeace activists opposed to genetically modified crops, which remains before the courts. But he says he feels no discomfort about the transition from lawyer to activist. "Gandhi was an ex-lawyer," he said. Nor does he make apologies for the organisation's leaked plans to use legal challenges to spike some new coal projects.

"In a country with a strong rule of law, an environmental organisation will use the rule of law and free speech to agitate its case," Mr Ritter says. "It is our role to be pushing boundaries."

For Mr Ritter, climate change remains of grave concern given recent scientific evidence that worst case scenarios are advancing, not receding. "You keep on fighting until there is simply no chance. I can't look into the eyes of my three-and-a-half-year old, and say, ' I'm sorry Josie,

I gave up."'

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