How the Franklin was saved
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
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Thirty summers ago, on 14 December, the blockade of the Franklin Dam site began. Tasmania’s Liberal government, then headed by premier Robin Gray, who once described the Franklin River as a “brown leech-ridden ditch”, had turned down a $500 million offer from prime minister Malcolm Fraser to forgo the dam. Instead Gray sent the bulldozers rumbling into the valley, and Fraser decided against direct intervention.
Representing the Wilderness Society, I went out to Hobart’s Elwick Racecourse, full of trepidation, to ask Reg Morrison, an ardent punter, Huon piner and owner of the Strahan-based Gordon River cruise boats, if he would ferry protesters upriver to blockade the dam works. Between races, Morrison gave me the nod. He offered his old cruise boat, the J Lee M, with fellow ex-piner Denny Hamill at the helm, at his own expense.
Anticipating protest, Gray’s government had passed a new law making it illegal to “lurk, loiter or secrete” in the riverside rainforests. The night before the blockade, four hapless Franklin rafters who had spent two weeks negotiating the river’s rapids were nabbed by police on the banks of the Gordon River (into which the Franklin River flows; the proposed hydro-electric scheme was just downstream of their confluence). The police did not accept their pleas that they knew nothing about the proposed blockade and took them 40 kilometres down the river and across Macquarie Harbour to the port town of Strahan.
The blockade began the next morning. Some 53 protesters were arrested under the new law. But there were other fronts. Bruce Heckinger, a resident of the Bronx, had stepped in front of Malcolm Fraser at the America’s Cup challenge in Massachusetts, holding up a ‘No dams’ placard. Meanwhile in Paris, hundreds of people gathered outside the meeting of the United Nations World Heritage Committee which was considering the nomination of the Tasmanian wilderness, and chanted, “Non aux barrages en Tasmanie.”
As news of the first blockade arrests travelled across Australia, the committee’s decision to inscribe the Tasmanian wilderness, including the Franklin and Gordon rivers, on the World Heritage List caused the protest camps at Strahan and upriver to erupt in jubilation.
It was one of the momentous days on which the fate of Tasmania’s wild Franklin River swung. But there were many others; it was always a close-run thing.
Four months earlier, at its national conference at Canberra’s Lakeside Hotel, the Labor Party had come under pressure to reverse its pro-dam policy. Notably, the conference also had uranium mining on its agenda. A last-minute vote reversal by three key delegates (including Tasmania’s future premier Michael Field) saw Labor drop its no uranium mines policy in favour of allowing three mines. Labor’s Left was in disarray. Some delegates fled the conference in tears.
Those of us lobbying for the Franklin were flummoxed. The debate on the proposed hydro scheme was up next and the missing delegates were vital to a ‘no dams’ outcome. Neville Wran saved the day. Chairing the evening session, he called on delegate after delegate to put his or her position until the 10 pm deadline, when he cut debate and announced that the decision would be held over. The next morning, with everyone in attendance, the Franklin was saved by a three-vote margin. Opposition leader Bill Hayden voted pro dam, aspirant Bob Hawke no dam. “Did you see how I voted?” Hawke asked us. We were riveted.
Back in Strahan, throughout the summer of 1982–83, the blockade drew more than 6000 supporters. Some 1217 were arrested and nearly 500 jailed after refusing bail conditions, including future Supreme Court judge Pierre Slicer, state Labor MP Andrew Lohrey and future Greens leader Christine Milne.
I was arrested on 16 December, with scores of others, and spent nearly three weeks in Risdon Prison. (None of us was convicted in the end.) The jail warders were cheerful. With the prison suddenly full, Gray gave in to months of entreaties and awarded them a pay rise. The regular prisoners had new entertainment with blockade songs (including the ever-popular chorus “We’re gonna lurk, loiter and secrete …”) resounding through the cell blocks.
A couple of curious memories linger of that Christmas in Risdon Prison. First, the authorities banned me from reading HD Thoreau’s 1854 classic Walden because it included his essay ‘Civil Disobedience’. At the same time, we were threatened with solitary confinement if we did not go to the prison theatre (with all the other prisoners, murderers and rapists included) to watch the unexpurgated version of Caligula.
Second, the Australian newspaper declared me ‘Australian of the Year’, though the accompanying editorial disowned that decision. Also jailed was the television celebrity and self-proclaimed “Pommie botanist”, David Bellamy, who turned 50 with hundreds of wellwishers outside singing ‘Happy Birthday’. Fleet Street loved that one.
On 3 February 1983, Malcolm Fraser called a snap election. Mobile phones, text messages and Twitter were but science fiction back then; Fraser was not to know that at the very same time Bill Hayden was resigning, opening the way for Hawke to become opposition leader.
The next day, 20,000 people rallied in Hobart in support of the Franklin. In Melbourne, Hawke addressed 15,000 people who roared in approval as Hazel, his then wife, put on a pair of bright yellow ‘no dams’ earrings. On election night at Melbourne’s elegant Hotel Windsor, where Hobart businesswoman Judy Mahon had booked a stateroom, dozens of ecstatic greenies jumped up and down on the king-sized bed when the victorious Hawke reaffirmed his commitment that “the Franklin Dam will not be built”.
His government duly overrode state laws authorising dam works by passing the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act. Gray’s government argued it was unconstitutional, and continued the works. When the High Court judges ruled 4–3 that the federal law prevailed, on 1 July 1983, it was clear the World Heritage listing had been pivotal. A key figure in the nomination’s success was Tasmania’s highly popular premier Doug Lowe, who’d prepared and promoted it. On 11 November 1981, the day of Lowe’s political assassination by his Labor colleagues, a watchful aide saw the signed nomination on Lowe’s desk. He put it in an envelope and sent it to Canberra before the incoming, pro-dam premier, Harry Holgate, got to the desk. Equally remarkably, Malcolm Fraser sent the nomination on to Paris, against the wishes of his Tasmanian colleagues. Without these actions the dam would have been built.
Tens of thousands of tourists now flock to Tasmania’s wild-river areas each year, providing investment, jobs and pride of place for the locals. This year Outside, the US travel magazine, declared the Franklin the world’s best whitewater-rafting destination. So the Franklin has retained its global significance. But remove from the story Hawke, Lowe, Wran, Fraser, Morrison or Hamill, or Peter Dombrovskis, whose iconic photo of the Franklin’s Rock Island Bend lit up the campaign, let alone the thousands of Australians who protested, and the river and its surrounding rainforest would instead be a methane-emitting impoundment.
Thirty years after the blockade, Julia Gillard’s Labor government, backed by Tony Abbott’s Liberals, is responding to calls from the Business Council of Australia to reduce ‘green tape’, by moving to hand back to the states a parcel of federal powers held under the 1999 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. These powers include those that flowed from the Whitlam government’s ratification of the World Heritage Convention in 1975, and which were so boldly used by Hawke and upheld by the High Court. Unlike Whitlam or Hawke, it seems Gillard would have let Robin Gray dam the Franklin.