Judith Ajani

Judith Ajani

Judith was born in country Victoria, near Maffra in 1955.  Her parents owned an irrigated dairy farm.  Her father worked on the farm and her mother, with fashion, needle work and design expertise, taught in secondary schools until her marriage, and later through adult education. . Her mother is still an active voluntary art gallery guide in her 80s and her father a voluntary welfare worker in his 90s.

Judith’s parents didn’t have religion (Dad lapsed Protestant; Mother lapsed Catholic), but the children had to go to Sunday school for some years – “until we kicked up a big fuss because it was a real waste of Sunday morning”.  These days, Judith is not religious in the way it is practiced today but deeply respects the foundations of all ‘religions’ and ancient mythologies.

Judith did three original degrees – in physical education, in arts (focused on economics), and then a post graduate diploma in teaching.  She then joined the Commonwealth public service in Canberra in the late 1970s, and worked in the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Bureau of Industry Economics, which later became part of the Productivity Commission.

Judith married Alistair and the couple moved to Melbourne in the early 1980s.

Judith loves being out and being active in the environment – walking, skiing, exploring coasts and camping – and her continuing interest in forest policy stems largely from this. Her work for the Victorian government in forest industry and wine industry policy started in the early 80s, and she stayed working on forest industry policy throughout that decade.

This was an important time for forests in Victoria – woodchipping was introduced in East Gipplsand, and there were a whole lot of national parks proposals.  We had a very considered Minister for a large part of that, and we brought some quite sophisticated arguments into that whole government policy process and Cabinet.

Judith’s first son was born when she was 31.  Judith took maternity leave and then leave without pay, in order that Andrew, her first son, didn’t go into (part time) childcare until he could walk.  Even then childcare wasn’t very satisfactory for Judith and as  Alistair wasn’t happy with his work,  the couple made the decision to buy a farm in south east NSW.   Also, Judith was disturbed by the rising politicisation of the Victorian public service with former ministerial advisors filtering into its middle levels.

For the first few years living on the farm, Judith was working part time on consultancy work, which was not altogether comfortable for her.  Listen to the extract below about how Judith felt about being a consultant,  how she gradually became more involved in forestry policy issues, and ended up preparing a significant report in the early 1990s for the Victorian Conservation Council on plantation forestry as a replacement for logging of native forests (titled Growth in the Victorian Timber Industry – Initiatives for Jobs in the 1990’s.)

By the mid 1990s Judith’s work had begun to gain traction, and Linda Parlane from the Victorian Conservation Council got funding to have the state conservation councils work with Judith on a nation wide study.  Judith’s role was to research and report on Australia’s plantation resources and processing opportunities together with researchers engaged by each of the State Conservation Councils. The report, titled Australia’s Plantations: Industry, Employment, Environment was released in 1995.

This report precipitated considerable debate about the use of plantations.  The Fenner School at the ANU set up a seminar which Judith spoke at, and Henry Nix, then Director, offered Judith a position as a Visiting Fellow.  This allowed Judith to continue to do her research, from an academic platform within the University.

Judith’s confidence in her abilities as a researcher increased over time.  While at the beginning she sometimes worried that she had missed something fundamental in her work, over the years, her work has been shown to be very accurate and prescient, and her concerns in this area have evaporated.

Judith started giving policy briefings to federal politicians, many facilitated through the environment movement, in the lead up to the 1996 Federal election.

I was bringing an economic way of thinking and observing the forestry industry … I was bringing this part of the industry to public attention.  By me working with the environment movement on this, the politicians could see that there were economically rational arguments that the forest activists actually seem to agree with.  In quite an elegant way we had a combining of economic interests and environment interests.

During this time Judith was still living on the farm and commuting regularly to Canberra.  Her second son was born in 1990, and Judith’s husband looked after him when Judith was working.

Despite there being opportunities for consultancy work with the forestry industry, Judith maintained her independence by continuing her unpaid work as an academic fellow with the ANU.  She could see a growing level of political interference in the public services – both in Victoria and at the Commonwealth level, and this precluded her feeling comfortable taking on a public service position.   

In 1998 Judith received a scholarship to do a PhD in environmental science and resource management  (which she received in 2002), and then undertook a post doctoral fellowship  for 4 years (when she wrote The Forests Wars).   Her marriage broke down during this time, and Judith moved closer to the coast so the children could finish high school and have easy/frequent access to both parents.  After that, Judith moved to Canberra, and has continued her work with ANU ever since.

Judith describes her role as an information, understanding and policy broker to the environment movement, to the industry, and all political parties.  She says “I’m not an advocate for anything really except decent policy.  I see myself as a public servant, and I fiercely defend my independence.”

But if the environment movement wasn’t so engaged in the forest policy debates, my work wouldn’t have a place.  I could look at another industry, but the forestry industry is so fascinating, I’m interested in the emotions and the intellectual debates.

It would be irresponsible of me with all my knowledge of the forestry industry – just to walk away from it and that’s the public servant in me talking.

Judith talks in the extract below about a woman who was particularly influential on her as a young woman.  I asked her whether she had been mentored by anyone:

When asked the question about differences between women and men leaders, Judith comments that her experience is primarily in academia, but that for women:

there just seems to be a greater rapport, a greater intuitive understanding of where others are coming from .  Women seem to have more items that we are playing around with – we’ve got work, and kids, and relationships – not everything is down a single path.  More relaxed, more joking, more softer ways of relating.   I do see increasing numbers of men who are in that position too, which is lovely.

When asked about financial recompense, Judith says that if she had taken on consultancies to the forestry industry, or worked in the public service, she would have earned more money, but would have been doing work that suited their agenda.  “I wouldn’t be interested – I’d go off and do something else.  I don’t see the point.  These are public interest outcomes I’m on about.”

Judith admires Christine Milne as a leader, and says that there are too few female leaders in, not just the environment movement, but in the wider world.  But she says

what inspires me more is the enormous number of people in Australia who are deeply seeking greater understanding of issues, and they want to see governments responding and doing things that are constructive, and it’s those people who inspire me, people who are engaged, not necessarily out doing big activist stuff… they’re just ordinary people who just want it better.

Judith has been the intellectual powerhouse behind the increased understanding of the Australian forestry industry for the past few decades.  Her work has contributed to numerous forestry campaigns across the country.

Comments welcome.


About Jane Elix

I don't have enough bandwidth to deal with this www.janeelix.com
This entry was posted in Ajani, Judith, Women leaders in the environment movement. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Judith Ajani

  1. Judy Lambert says:

    Judith’s professional commitment is amazing – so much very high standard work for so little personal recompense.

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