There Was No Finer Australian Than Ian Kiernan

I'll never forget the sound. The glop and squelch of gumboots as people tried to extricate themselves from the mud.

And the stench. There's a good reason why nobody lives within 100 metres of the tidal mudflats of the Cooks River in Sydney, and it's not just because of occasional flooding.

Yet there they were on a Sunday morning, Clean Up Australia Warriors braving the mud and filth in my neighbourhood waterway while I watched with a mixture of respect and gratitude that it wasn't me out there. Ordinary Australians poking among the mangroves to beautify their local plastic-clogged waterway, inspired by an unassuming bloke called Ian Kiernan.

Kiernan was a great Australian. In an ever-polarising world, there are not many people you could say that about these days without starting an argument. But who can argue with a bloke who dedicated the second half of his life to making Australia, and then the wider world, a better, more beautiful place?

Born in Sydney, Kiernan made his name as a competitive and, later, solo yachtsman. In a sport with few household names, he became one. But while many well-known sportspeople leverage their name for personal gain, Kiernan had bigger ideas.

Ian Kiernan at the "Say No To Plastic Bags" national campaign launch in 2004 (Image: AAP)

During one of his ocean races, Kiernan noticed how much floating rubbish the oceans had. His dismay at the mess eventually led to what was called Clean Up Sydney Harbour in January 1989.

As many as 40,000 people came out to help. Regular people, all of them volunteers. A year later, the event had expanded into Clean Up Australian Day with a reported 300,000 people helping out.

By 1994, he was Australian of the Year for his efforts. But Kiernan always remained the people's environmentalist. He always came across as a bloke with no bullshit about him and a genuine concern for the state of the world.

There was nothing overtly political about his message. In fact there was no message rammed down your throats at all, apart from an implicit: "Come on guys, surely we can do better".

Prince Charles (left), reacts with surprise as he meets Ian Kiernan (right), the Chairman of Clean Up Australia Day, during a reception at Government House in Sydney, 04 March 2005 (Image: AAP)

Before long, the Clean Up movement had gone global to more than 100 countries. But as it got larger, it also got smarter. Its focus nowadays is on preventing rubbish entering the environment as well as removing the junk already there. The prevention and the cure.

I never met Kiernan. But If I had, I dare say I would have broken the golden rule of journalist/subject and shaken his hand and said "good on you, mate".

I do a fair bit of hiking and camping in my spare time, and as any lover of wild places knows, you always leave a place just like you found it.

Ian Kiernan went one step further. He left it better.