Clean Up Australia co-founder Ian Kiernan has died at 78

Patrick Riviere/Getty ImagesIan Kiernan receives the Golden Oldie Award in 2007

Ian Kiernan, founder of the “Clean up Australia” campaign has died. He was 78.

The sailor and builder turned environmental campaigner was diagnosed with cancer in July.

Born in Sydney in 1940 to George and Leslie Kiernan, Ian was educated at Scots College, and later studied to become a builder at Sydney Technical College. His father became a POW during the war, put to work on the notorious Thai-Burma railway. The son was packed off to become a boarder at The Armidale School a year after his father’s return.

George wanted his son to follow in his footsteps in importing, but Ian left it after several years to start up building supplies business in the city before turning his attention to buying, restoring and renting out inner-city slum houses with a return of 30-35%, becoming one of the city’s biggest private landowners in the process.

In a 2008 interview with the ABC he recounted how he was “a wealthy young bloke, living in a beautiful big house overlooking Balmoral beach, with a wife and two daughters and life was pretty good” although his property ventures made him “most unpopular with the brothel keepers and the criminals”. He had a blue cattle dog, Alf, as his bodyguard.

His goal was owning 500 houses.

“I only got to 398, unfortunately. But I had four major commercial blocks and a string of restaurants. And then interest rates went from 6% to 17% overnight, everybody left me, music stopped and I didn’t get a chair, so I lost the lot.”

Kiernan competed in some of the world’s great ocean races, including more than a dozen Sydney-to-Hobart races, and for Australia in the Admiral’s Cup. He was inspired to create Clean Up after competing in the BOC Challenge solo around-the-world yacht race in 1986-87. His dream was made possible thanks to the support of the eccentric and wealthy founder of FM radio station Triple M, Rod Muir.

Kiernan finished six in the fleet of 25 and set an Australian record for solo circumnavigation of the world in the purpose-built Spirit of Sydney (although the yacht lacked the pace of some of its rivals). But during his time crossing the Sargasso Sea he became shocked and disgusted by the pollution that was causing damage to the world’s oceans.

As he recounts in his 1995 autobiography “Coming Clean”, the revelation came during the race’s last leg, from Rio to Rhode Island:

First a rubber thong, then a toothpaste tube, a comb, a plastic bag. As Spirit cut through the almost glass-like sea, propelled by the lightest of breezes, the rubbish popped up on both sides of the bow.

What I saw in the Sargasso Sea helped put into perspective a number of issues I’d been thinking about for a long time.

Perhaps for the first time, as I climbed through those latitudes, it occurred to me that if I could keep a bag of garbage down below, surely a million recreational sailors around the world could do the same. Each one of us just had to come to the understanding that one person could make a difference.

Now 46, he wanted to make a difference and approached NSW politicians to support a Sydney clean up, but was ignored. So Kiernan enlisted Kim McKay, who he worked with on the solo round-the-world race – now CEO of the Australian Museum – as his Clean Up cofounder.

Among a group of mates who also helped out were John Singleton, and Alan Morris, from ad agency, MoJo, who helped with jingles (the second Clean Up day, notably, had kids singing “Yucky yucky yucky poo”).

The original plan was for a single location, but it soon spread to the whole harbour and the inaugural Clean Up Sydney Harbour Day on Sunday, January 8, 1989, attracted 40,000 volunteers collecting 5,000 tonnes of rubbish.

It was an era when Sydneysiders were increasingly concerned about pollution, especially on beaches, with the city having sewage outlets just off its two most famous beaches, Manly and Bondi. With the magic of Mojo’s marketing campaign and Kiernan, subsequently named one of the 10 most trusted people in Australia, fronting the push, it grabbed the public’s imagination.

As he once said: “Ordinary people need to lead and not sit there and think that governments are going to spoonfeed them and look after them and look after the country, because they won’t.”

A year later Clean Up went national, with sponsors such as Westpac and Telstra (then Telecom), with the first Clean Up Australia Day in January 1990 seeing more than 300,000 people play a part. The annual event subsequently moved to March.

Since then, Clean Up estimates Australians have devoted more than 33 million hours to Clean Up Australia Day removing the equivalent of “more than 350,000 ute loads [tonnes] of rubbish”.

In 1993, the campaign went international as part of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and in that first year, “Clean Up the World” involved approximately 30 million people in 80 countries. By 2017, 120 nations and 40 million people were involved.

Kiernan, received the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1991, in 1994 he was named Australian of the year, and in 1995 he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO). In 1998, he was also awarded the Sasakawa Environment prize by the United Nations Environment program.

In 1994, the burly yachtie memorably lunged at a man who appeared to have a gun and had fired it twice as he rushed onto the stage where Prince Charles was attending an Australia Day event in Sydney. It turned out to be a starter’s pistol.

The final year of his life was dogged by controversy over the naming of new ferries on Sydney Harbour. Despite being a popular choice in the public vote, and being tipped off the honour was coming, the minister named the ship “Ferry McFerryface” before subsequently backtracking and renaming it May Gibbs. It subsequently emerged that a 2014 drink driving conviction cruelled his chances of receiving the honour.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison paid tribute Kiernan saying: “The thing I think Ian did more than anything else was just tap us all on the shoulder and say ‘Hey, we’ve got to take care of this, this is our responsibility’.”

“For that, Ian, I want to say thank you. I want to say thank you for what you’ve done for our country,” he said.

“To his friends and to his family and to his loved ones, we express our deepest sympathies and our condolences.”

Craig Reucassel, from ABC TV’s War on Waste, also paid tribute on Twitter.

The organisation he co-founded said “Ian believed that Clean Up belongs to the millions of volunteers who have taken to their streets, beaches, parks, bushland and waterways to remove the rubbish that is bothering them.

“More recently this has extended to the thousands who take actions such as saying NO to a plastic bag at the checkout, refusing a single use item, or who join us via our social media campaigns.”

His co-founder Kim McKay told the ABC that Kiernan “lived life hard and lived it well”.

“He was a larger than life figure, and when larger than life figures leave us in Australia there is a void,” she said.

Kiernan was Chairman of Clean Up Australia and Clean Up The World. He is survived by his wife Judy and daughters Phillipa and Sally.

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