Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 2) The Franklin Campaign: The Law of the Land and other Legends in their own Lunchtimes

This is not a historical record. As per Trumpian logic, no apologies made for errors, exaggeration, omissions, bad taste or misrepresentations. For those with a humour deficit it’s worth pointing out that satire and sarcasm are not to be taken seriously, especially when written about individuals.

I well remember the day and a few others like it. Few campaigners have ever imitated their state premier live to air as part of their daily campaign activity. But on this day Geoff Law excelled himself. Now I write about Geoff because, in my view, he represents the archetype of a good campaigner. Smart, laconic, stubborn, persistent, talented, and immensely annoying to those in authority.

The best campaigners have, hopefully, shortened the lives of a good many corrupt and incompetent politicians by creating major amounts of stress for them. Geoff is one.

If the biggest companies in Australia had been run for the last forty years by those running environmental campaigns, instead of a bunch of incompetent, unethical, greedy losers, Australia would be the envy of the world instead of the a source of immense shame to many of its citizens.

It was the famous (or infamous) Franklin River Blockade, in Tasmania (https://www.wilderness.org.au/history-franklin-river-campaign-1976-83). The location was the Information Centre, in Strahan, from where the blockade was run.

The Franklin campaign became a national issue with tens of thousands turning out in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart in support of the campaign

Each morning between 7 am and about 10 am the four of us, Geoff Law, Pam (now Lileth) Waud, Cathie Plowman and I would staff the phones and respond to the never-ending requests for interviews from breakfast radio, around the country.

On average we’d each do 4 to 6 interviews in this time each one almost tediously the same as the previous one, one inane question after another: What’s happening today? Will anyone be arrested? What’s the weather like? Any more bulldozers? Is the Earth flat? The banality of breakfast radio can make Donald Trumps tweets look good.

It was Geoff who cracked first. On his 6th interview of the morning, no doubt, he could take it no longer. The interview was with 3AW then the station with the largest breakfast audience of all.

At some critical juncture Geoff had a stroke of apoplexy and started imitating the unmistakable gravelly tones of Tasmanian Premier, Robin Gray, live to air. Gray always sounded like he’d had a long night, too much whisky and too many cigarettes & was highly irascible. No cigarettes for Geoff, probably no whisky. But the irascible nature was common to both Geoff and Gray.

Outside the Information centre, Strahan
Outside the Information Centre (L to R – Chris Harris, Bob Brown, Sue Downey (Telegraph), Bill Lane (ABC), Geoff Law. Photo: Ian Skinner

Now in theory Geoff should have suffered eternal shame and never lived down this episode but one suspects he has dined out many times on this day’s performance (though, in a Trump-like, alternative facts, response to my query for details, he categorically denies this well documented case of mimicry ever happened). And it wasn’t his only famous case of mimicry.

Among others, Geoff liked to imitate Bob Brown, because a bit of satire is always good for the famous. Bob liked to introduce himself, often, with the phrase “G’day, I’m Bob Brown” among his other items of anachronistic speech and Geoff liked to practice to ensure that he was tone perfect. Because if you’re going to be Bob, you better be perfect.

Wandering alone across Mt Wellington one day, repeating his “G’day I’m Bob Brown” imitation, Geoff failed to notice a gobsmacked family standing by the path listening to him. At which point undeterred he looked them straight in the eye(s) and reassured them of his identity, once more repeating for their benefit “G’day I’m Bob Brown”.

The good use of mass media and editorial support of many major national papers (notably the Age and Canberra Times) was a critical factor in winning hearts and minds

I don’t remember when Geoff arrived in Tasmania. He was yet another Victorian who arrived to tell Tasmanians how they should live, abandoning his taxpayer-funded engineering or law degree or whatever it was he could have used to better himself and has spent the last 35 years wasting his life trying to stop progress – and as such is an archetype of those who worked on the Franklin Dam.

Not content with spending four years taking Tasmania back to the dark ages by preventing the Government giving yet more subsidised power to wealthy multinational companies, through stopping the Franklin Dam, he has spent the subsequent 30 years undermining the states most widespread industry, forestry. So much so that in 2004, he became one of the ‘Gunns 20’ – a group of conservationists and organisations being sued by wood chip giant, Gunns, for actions arising from the campaign to protect Tasmania’s forests.

While supporters of the Franklin campaign came from all works of life, backgrounds and ages, the core activists were primarily young professionals and students – seen here at a victory party after the High Court decision in 1983

It was not more than a few days after Geoff’s attempts to break into national live comedy on 3AW that the first bulldozer arrived in Strahan. Naively we’d imagined that the Government would not break its own laws. I was camped in the Ab Divers Inn, as it was known (where the Abalone Divers normally slept), when I was woken in the early hours of the morning by an apparition wearing a bloody headband and a mohawk.

Saul, my apparition, had been in the Information Centre when a rock thrown by supporters had sailed through a closed window, scattering glass around and hitting Saul on the head. But more importantly than his sartorial elegance, he brought news that the first bulldozer, to be used to start work on the dam, was approaching town. We would have received news earlier but the Government had illegally cut many of the phone lines to Strahan including every line in and out of the Information Centre.

The Wilderness Society functioned very informally. There was no real structure making it difficult for people to fathom where power lay. Shown here a “national” meeting in the Brindabellas (right). An informal meeting at Liffey in Tasmania and the team that worked on the Flinders by-election in Victoria (left). Photos L & R: Chris Harris. (centre image): unknown

Leaping from my bed into the dawn cold, we rushed outside and hijacked a passing car, which we assumed was being driven by a blockader. To this day I have no idea where the driver was going or even who they were but, faced by a bloodied Saul and I, they meekly surrendered their car so we could drive to the Blockaders’ camp ground a kilometre away.

I arrived equipped with bullhorn and a feeling of self-importance. No doubt rousing the blockaders from their sleep so that they could confront the bulldozers would mean, effectively, that I had saved the river single-handed. Like a demented Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer I raced around the campground summoning the faithful to lie down in front of bulldozers.

The hordes stumbled from their sloughs of sleep, scrambling into clothes and headed for the waterfront, most on foot but some in the few vehicles available. To no avail. As we approached the bridge over the creek the light of a police car parked diagonally across the bridge appeared out of the morning mist. We were stymied. At this point, like some, figure from a John Wayne movie, a shout went up “across the creek” – at which urging, the assembled masses, like lemmings, threw themselves in the water.

Meanwhile the erstwhile hero, yours truly, was stranded on the pipe across the creek, where, in my inimical courageous fashion, not wanting to get wet and cold, I had hurried thinking myself smarter than most. But a burly copper stood on the far side. So while the hordes poured across the creek to confront the dozer, I balanced dizzily on the pipe. My traumatic experience probably explains why, later, Geoff Law, unkindly, described me as standing, hornswoggled, with my mouth open.

1982-01-12 Police blockade bridge from Greenie Acres
As useless as….stuck on the steelwork protecting the pipe while Pam (Lileth) Waud negotiates with the police (photographer: unknown)

As carnage ensued in town, with dozens of blockaders attempting to get onto and around the barge, some leaping into water that couldn’t have been more than 12ºc, we attempted to get word out the world’s media, not only of the arrival of the bulldozer but of the perfidy of the Tasmanian Government which, completely careless of Australian law, had pretty much isolated Strahan, cutting all roads and most accessible phone lines, including all those to the information centre .

The lack of phone lines was a disaster, not just because we couldn’t get news out but because after weeks of being feted by the media, people, such as I, who had become media whores, had to go cold turkey. Fortunately they hadn’t thought of the line to the TWS shop and we leapt onto it like the pack of media whores we were.

My week got worse the following day when the bulldozer went upriver. I went with it, and a boatload of journalists, to witness the first confrontations of the campaign between blockaders, on one side, and workers and (ostensibly) Police on the other. Though in fact many police were sympathetic to the degree that at least one wore a ‘No Dams’ sticker on the inside of his cap.

The Franklin Campaign was gold for many cartoonists

Once again, I was part of the champagne set in the relative luxury of the shark cat while others got their hands dirty – both literally and metaphorically. Other than chatting to the assembled media I had no role but I quickly found one as the person who lost the best photographic materials of the blockade.

As Bob Burton, one of the key TWS organisers, was getting arrested he threw me an entire film of what I assumed to be the arrival of the bulldozer and the arrests. The average 8-year-old slips fielder could have caught it but, no, it sailed clean through my hands, over the side of the boat and into the depths below.

The campaign to preserve the Franklin River and prevent the construction of the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam remains one of the most famous and pivotal Australian environmental campaigns. It created a generation of activists many of whom are still active today. It brought down Governments, created a panoply of villains, martyrs and ‘heroes’ and is the source of enough anecdotes to fill several small books.

The organisation used a lot of quality advertising and materials and had significant support from professional photographers, designers and advertising agencies

A total of 1272 people were arrested, most for trespassing on Hydro land at the river, or on road works. Not one arrest was for a crime involving violence.

447 went to jail when they refused a bail condition not to return to the river.

Run, mainly, by The Wilderness Society (TWS), it was anything but a conventional campaign and was one that could never be run today since it relied entirely on volunteers and on Australia almost being a real social democratic state. It was probably the last campaign run entirely by dole bludgers (plus a few respectable employed people).

Almost the entire campaign was run by people living on the dole – a neat irony that the Australian Government, effectively, funded the campaign against itself. I spent three very good years providing social services to the Australian public undeterred by the theoretical need to actually look for work.

Each fortnight I’d drop down to the CES and receive my social wage which I then used, from the perspective of the Tasmanian Government, to undermine the entire fabric of society. Too many rallies to organise? No mind, just drop your dole form in the mail. Burnt out and need a break in the bush? I remember well going to the CES and the pleasant staff member just telling me to drop in the form a week early before I left to go bushwalking.

Left to Right – Blockaders head upriver on the J Lee M, blockaders on the Crotty Road and a letter to Geoff Law from Tasmanian Parks Minister, Geoff Pearsall, in which he refuses to meet on the grounds that TWS is not a genuine conservation organisation but a “political organisation in opposition to the Government” (photographer – centre: unknown)

Perhaps it is our fault that the current Government uses the CES’s successor, Centrelink, as some form of latter-day Inquisition through which, far from helping people, it persecutes them.

This is why the former-day CES was viewed by more recent Labor and LNP Governments as a throwback to Socialism and, so, was replaced by Centrelink, the role of which is to demonise the unemployed and ensure as few as possible actually get money from Government.

But 1982-3 was during an epoch in which Government actually believed that its role was to provide services, and public servants did not fear for their jobs on a daily basis, so the CES was stuffed full of people who actually believed that their role was to help rather than demonise the unemployed.

Thus did the baby boomers not only get a free education and use their entire carbon budget in about five years but also lived off the fat of the land doing nothing but undermine society as we know it.

The No Dams triangle was an ubiquitous symbol of the campaign. See here as a car sticker, on a banner at the blockade and draped over the front of the TWS “head office”, in Hobart, at a celebration after the dam was stopped by the High Court decision (photographers: unknown)

The people who ran the Wilderness Society were a motley bunch who had drifted in from various parts of the world and Australia – along with actual Tasmanians. Although Bob Brown was the figurehead, he didn’t run the organisation.

In fact Bob, for all his virtues, was and remains one of the world’s most disorganised people. He couldn’t, as they say, run a bath let alone an organisation. One strongly suspects that Bob will be late for his own funeral. So much so that, at various times in the campaign, the cadres in TWS had to organise minders to see that he caught his flights and attended the meetings that he was supposed to attend.

The real “master” minds behind the Franklin Campaign were people such as Vince Mahon, Geoff Law, Emma Gunn, Karen Alexander, Judy Richter (now Mahon), Bob Burton, the Lamberts, Geoff and Judy, and many others of that ilk, often un-known and unsung.

Other than the cadres who ran the organisation & blockade there were the larger than life figures such as Bob Brown, Tasmania Senator, Norm Sanders, celebrities such as Bellamy, Dick Smith and a conga line of politicians who came to visit hoping to gain political advantage.

Runner duckies (rafts) and blockaders with banners confront the first bulldozer heading up river and destruction in the rainforest (Photographers: unknown)

Norm Sanders main blockade claims to fame were piloting his 1954 war-surplus Cessna 180 around the Franklin and Gordon Rivers to undertake reconnaissance and drop supplies, such as newspapers, upriver much to the annoyance of the Tasmania Government who, if my memory is correct, tried to get him banned from flying in the area.

Aside from that role, he was best known for outraging adherents to the purity of non-violence (NVA) when he grabbed the handle bars of a local pro-dams motor cyclist who was harassing the first blockaders camp, Greenie acres. To listen to the outraged cries of protest for this breach of NVA dogma you would think he’d murdered the first-born of every pro-dam adherent in Strahan, good idea though that would have been.

The Tasmanian Government and the media always had this delusion that the Wilderness Society was a slick, well-oiled machine, powered by millions in donations. The truth was far from that. Each day, until Judy Richter took the reins of the finances, was an exercise in estimating how much more money Bob Brown could plan to spend than was coming in through the door.

The blockade, was one of the biggest sources of expenditure in the history of the campaign – and most of that expenditure was incurred out of the Information Centre.

The “use” and participation of celebrities from all walks of life, including politicians (Bob & Hazel Hawke with Karen Alexander and Bob Brown – left) and business figures such as Dick Smith (seen in the right hand photo) played a major role (photographers: unknown)

The Information Centre, in Strahan, Tasmania, was always the nerve centre of the Franklin River Blockade. This was where blockaders registered, where the organisers worked from, where the media came for information or to register to go upriver, where logistics were managed, supplies were delivered and where alarms were raised.

There were ten or more key organisers based in Strahan, working variously on media, training, legal issues, transport, logistics (food, accommodation etc) and a further half-dozen or so based in Hobart.

It was from the Info Centre that we communicated with “head office” in Hobart. The legal team operated from a desk in the window and communications were maintained with “up-river”. Scheduling was done here including supply runs, timings of training, planning for direct action and a myriad other tasks. Each day dozens of new blockaders would be registered and dispatched to camps and non-violent action training (NVA), like proverbial cannon fodder.

Teams were organised to bring new blockaders from Hobart and security was organised to protect the camp grounds and to give advance warning of bulldozers and other heavy equipment. Celebrity visits were coordinated and from here negotiations were undertaken with the Ab Divers to hire their boats to carry journos upriver at great expense to the media.

The issue of the Franklin was not just an environmental one but a social, legal, political and international issue, involving Aboriginal land rights, the world heritage treaty, High Court cases and elections.

The presence of the national media was, of course, essential to the success of the blockade but was, also to a great degree, the source of tension. The blockade wound on with each day following another, in the same pattern, often without anything very interesting occurring. The journos, under pressure from editors, started to get antsy, as each trip upriver, costing $100 odd a time, produced no deaths, disorder or violence on which to report.

Geoff’s humour did not save him from my wrath when, later in the blockade when being hassled by bored journalists, he suggested to me that we organise a stunt upriver to keep them entertained. Ever the hypocritical purist I remember shouting at him that we were not in Strahan to organise stunts for the benefit of the media. Never mind, of course, that it could be argued (though not by the purists) that in the broadest sense the entire blockade was, at that point, a giant stunt for the media.

More broadly, and cynically, one could argue that the entire process of consensus decision-making under which the blockade was run was simply an exercise to prevent anything from ever taking place. Any suggestion from the more radical elements, such as Ian Cohen, that any real action should be taken was easily blocked at any consensus based meeting.

There was a real division between some “upriver” people, who advocated blowing up bulldozers, and similar, and the core TWS activists Hobart who they viewed as a bunch hierarchical bureaucrats and control freaks.

Election night 1983

No, campaign shall be won without much laughter. After the Federal election was won by Labor, which had promised to stop the dam, in 1993. The Wilderness Society campaigned in 13 marginal seats and it’s estimated that its campaign effected up to 2% of the vote – enough to get Labor across the line (L to R Bob Brown, Margaret Robertson, Karen Alexander). Photographer: unknown.

The process of making consensus decisions took, on average, longer than it is taking to achieve peace in Palestine.

So much so that, on at least a couple of occasions, heavy equipment arrivals that were notified to us a couple of hours before they got to town, actually arrived while the so-called affinity group that were supposed to take action against it were still puffing on their metaphorical peace pipe wondering what to do. Fortunately others took the law into their own hands and simply acted in the absence of any formal decision.

I spent three months organising things for the Blockade and in the Information Centre, having been recalled from my year long stint in Canberra, before I was ordered away to work on the 1983 Federal election campaign. My first order of business was organising the communications for the Information Centre: six telephone lines, four for the media and general business, one for the legal team and a telex line.

To do this meant finding a wilderness sympathiser in what was then Telecom Australia and persuading them to carry out work in two weeks that would normally have taken two months. In the hostile political climate of Tasmania, the mere fact that we were able to rent the blockade office and get communications put in was a source of political outrage for the Government with questions being asked about how it was achieved.

The end of the road – after the High Court decision in late 1993. Banner posters from the Australian and the Herald.

The infamous telex, long consigned the IT scrapheap, was our only method of sending out media releases. To do so required you, firstly, to have several stiff drinks, and then to launch into the process which involved typing your media release on the antiquated keyboard. This then, like magic, appeared on a piece of ticker tape containing a series of punched holes – a little like a modern form of the telegraph.

Having produced this tape you then somewhat counter-intuitively fed it back into the machine which miraculously produced a print out, of what the string of punched holes meant, in a legible form at the other end. At the other end the recipient needed to don ear muffs if they were to continue work since the clatter of the telex machine drowned out most other sound (see a telex in action here).

The entire blockade was run on the cusp of the modern communications era. TWS got it’s first fax in 1983, its first computer in 1984 and of course its first mobile phone around the late 80s or early 90s. I remember getting my first flip Motorola, about the size of a brick, in 1994. Journalists had to queue for the only spare telephone in the Information Centre to file their stories in time for the following days editions.

Hubris and naivety
I titled this article in my archives “naivety and hubris”. Sometimes when one reads back the things one said, at the time, it’s surprising that anything was achieved (left to right Cathie Plowman, Chris Harris, Geoff Lea, Pam (Lileth) Waud.

Communications between base and upriver was via a secret repeater station called Echo which was staffed by Paul Dimmick. He managed blockade communications – via this crucial link which had a line-of-sight view of both Strahan and the blockaders’ camp. It took two days to cut a 2.6 kilometre hidden path up to a forest hilltop for Echo. Volunteers sat for three months under an aerial strung between trees, passing messages 24 hours a day. Police never reached them.

This was the iconic (to use a much overhyped term) Franklin Campaign. Run on a shoe-string, in an epoch when carrier pigeons had only just been retired and staffed, euphemistically, largely by a bunch of 20 something year olds who didn’t have anything better to do with the odd year or four.

This is the Second of approximately 20 anecdotal posts on environmental and social campaigns.

Previous posts in this series:

Episode 1: The Coronation Hill Campaign (Kakadu) Beating BHP with Bravado and Blue Tarps

Images from these campaigns:

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