A passion for the wild

Published 21 Jan 2021 
by Hannah James

Bush Heritage’s new President Sue O’Connor is happiest photographing a wind-whipped coast at dawn, or out in the bush learning about our reserves and partnerships.​

Meet Sue O’Connor, the new President of Bush Heritage Australia.

Bush Heritage President Sue O'Connor. Photo by Annette Ruzicka

“I believe everyone has a superpower,” explains Sue. “Your superpower is the combination of your skills, expertise and passion. It enables you to do something to make things better. That could be getting involved with Bush Heritage. It could be volunteering to plant trees or replace fences. It could be influencing climate change policies. It could be donating to a cause you care about. Everyone has a superpower and everyone can take action.”

So what’s Sue’s superpower? We’ll get to that.

Meanwhile, she accepts that the COVID movement restrictions have temporarily put paid to the one thing she can hardly wait to do in her new role.

“I have to be honest, I’m really interested in being able to get out on country,” she says. “That’s my real priority, because that will help me meet our partners, deepen our relationships with Traditional Owners and the agricultural sector, and understand everything better.”

Back in the boardroom for now, Sue has spent her career in senior leadership roles at various technology companies (including a stint as group general manager at Telstra), and, for the past 12 years, as a company Director and Chair.

She’s used to negotiating, strategising and holding her own among Australia’s top corporate players. So she’s simply forging ahead anyway, moving online to  meet Bush Heritage’s Board and executive team,  give presentations on climate change and announce Bush Heritage news.

Fortunately, much of the work of a president, which she describes as “providing input into the strategic direction of the organisation; working with the board, and with and through the CEO; and engaging with donors, stakeholders, and volunteers so that we collectively all make a difference,” can be done remotely.

For Sue, “The role of a president is both to lead and to serve.”

It’s obvious from her desire to get out on country that ‘remote’ isn’t a frightening word for Sue. And that doesn’t just apply to her work for Bush Heritage.

“I’ve always been attracted to places with big horizons. That’s where I feel the most alive,” she says. That means snowy mountains, the depths of the ocean (she’s a keen open water swimmer) and Australian deserts.

“There are two places that really make my heart sing: one is down on the Surf Coast in Victoria, hearing the waves booming on the shore. The other is out in the desert, with horizons that seem to go forever.”

Once in these remote areas, she loves walking and photography. “To be out in the wild with my camera, either at dawn or as the sun is setting, is so magnificent for me,” Sue says. “I use photography to express how the bush makes me feel and to convey that connection that humans have to country and place.”

Sue’s interest in the environment began at university, where she studied science. Having grown up in suburban Melbourne at a time when high-school  girls were discouraged from camping, it wasn’t until those student years that she discovered her love of outdoor pursuits. And her board career has taken that interest to a whole new level (she is also Chair of Yarra Valley Water and on the board of ClimateWorks Australia).

“I have a choice here,” she says of this stage in her career, “and the choice I take is to be an active participant in building resilience in the face of climate change, particularly as it affects the natural world.”

So what’s Sue’s superpower? Boundless energy and optimism, coupled with corporate knowhow, perhaps. But even more than that: it’s her passion “to use my skills and to work with others to cherish and restore the natural environment.”

And that’s a superpower we all share.