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:

Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 1) Beating BHP with Bravado and Blue Tarps


The historical information in this blog is accurate so far as I can recall. However others are welcome to add comment which correct any factual inaccuracies and the blog will be updated as people do this.


February 13, 1988. BHP’s team had been drilling at Coronation Hill near Kakadu for months. More than enough time for us to carefully prepare to confront the crew from the Big Australian, as it was then known. In 1982 the preparation for the Franklin River blockade had taken months, with hundreds being trained in non-violent protest, with offices and communications plans carefully laid.

But in the NT, we didn’t do things like that. No, the plan was laid a couple of days before over a cafe latte and a bowl of pasta at the Roma Bar which was, then, the only place in the NT where, mythology had it, you could get a decent flat white. It was also the meeting place for all things ‘left’ in the NT.

Here with a single good bomb you could have wiped out most the NT Labor Party (if you could call it left), most of the leftie-stirrers from the Northern Land Council (NLC), every progressive lawyer in Darwin and anyone else with pretensions to undermining civilisation as the NT Government, the miners and the pastoralists saw it.

“What’ja doin’ next week?”. The question forced out through a mouthful of good Italian pasta and parmigiana was, it turned out, a leading one. No invitation to a good party or a day at the beach. Or this remains the legend of how this blockade was planned by a few of us.

No the invitation was to appropriate a leased NLC vehicle, obtain an access permit from the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Authority, with the consent of traditional custodians, chuck in a couple of blue tarps and swags, an esky with enough food and drink for a week and rack off to Coronation Hill, which lay in the middle of the proposed Stage 3 of Kakadu National Park.

Kakadu is one of Australia’s best known and important national parks. For many years Governments had been promising to incorporate a third stage into the park, the areas comprising the old Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral stations. This would protect the headwaters of the South Alligator River and the famous Yellow Waters.

The discovery of gold, platinum and palladium in the old uranium mining areas of the South Alligator River Valley had started the Commonwealth Government backtracking. The Wilderness Society, ECNT and other organisations had been campaigning to ensure that the Commonwealth Government kept its promise.

The Wilderness Society had recently obtained a legal opinion written by barrister, Tim Robertson and fortified by that and a few beers later that day, the idea of occupying BHP’s drill rig was agreed.

Coronation Hill Permit
The permit from the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Authority to enter onto the South Alligator Bula Complex.

The plan was to…well…go the exploration area. We had no plan about what we would do, no idea how many people BHP had working there, what their reaction would be, how long we might have to stay. There was no plan B in case of illness, violence or police arrest. It was the ultimate fly by the seat of your pants action.

In fact you could say…strategy preparation: nil. Planning for potential confrontation and violence in an isolated area, 150 kilometres from the nearest help? Don’t you worry about that. Communications strategy?..nope. Breakdown or injury? She’ll be right. Arrest potential and strategy? WTF. Exit strategy? What? But we were well armed with hubris and over-confidence.

Coronation Hill Age article
Government announces plans to “legitimise” BHP’s right to be at Coronation Hill (in effect stating their doubt about existing rights)

At this stage there were two of us, Richard Ledgar and me who had agreed to go. Not sufficient for our major intervention. We carefully fished around for a third person, making certain that we didn’t know them or anything about them, just to be certain that we could increase the margin for error as much as possible. We found Scott Wootten who agreed to accompany us on our meticulously well planned confrontation with what was then Australia’s largest company.

Ranger water
The NT Government had a fairly blasé attitude towards Aboriginal health and welfare (cartoon, Michael Pickering)

Richard and I knew each other well but we’d only just met Scott. So there was clearly no risk, under stress, for internal tension between the three of us. Our only contact with the outside world, was two way radio, powered by car battery. In the event of that failing, we planned to resort to carrier pigeon.

So, backed by the Wilderness Society (TWS) and fortified with local support from the NT Environment Centre (ECNT), the moral backing of the traditional custodians and sanctified with the legal opinion provided to TWS, which said that the drilling at Coronation Hill was illegal, off we went into the night.

Late on the 13th a white land cruiser, with our team of three, approached the first locked gate on the road on the road to Coronation Hill. The least organised, most impromptu and most poorly resourced “blockade” in Australian history was about to start.

rotated_Michael Pickering Cartoon - Eyes of their whites
The Government’s view of the land councils was that the problem was just the white advisors of the Central and Northern Land Council (CLC, NLC) and without them the traditional owners would be compliant (cartoon Michael Pickering)

We were armed with our permit from senior Jawoyn traditional owner, Peter Jatbula, and keys which allowed us access to Coronation Hill an area designated  a sacred site by the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority. Other than that we had no right of entry and had to pass through several locked gates. The keys we had – issued as part of the Aboriginal permit, would open some, but for the rest our key was a bolt cutter.

Our legal opinion written by Wilderness Society legal counsel advised that the renewal of the mining exploration lease at Coronation was invalid as it had been incorrectly renewed. This was to be brandished at the unknown number of BHP workers, a bit like a wooden stake or cross at a vampire in the absolute knowledge that they would instantly admit defeat and pack up and leave.

Chris Harris, Richard Ledgar, Scott
How the NT News (Darwin’s newspaper) saw the Coronation Hill occupation

We planned to occupy BHPs rig and other equipment to highlight the illegality of the lease, to denounce the proposed gold mine in what had been promised by the Hawke Government as Kakadu National Park’s 3rd stage, and to condemn the desecration of Jawoyn sacred sites.

We had food for a week and expected to be arrested within a couple of days; we hoped the occupation and our arrest wouldlead to national media coverage on mining in and around Kakadu, an issue that had already been highly controversial and frequently covered by the mass media, and thus force the Government’s hand.

Our only means of communication with the outside world was via VJY, which was a short wave radio network which provided communications between remote areas in the territory. In the event of accident or any conflict with BHP staff we were more than 150 kilometres from any friendly assistance from comrades in Darwin.

Members of the Federal Government appointed Resource Assessment Commission visit Coronation Hill to inspect and report back to the Government

Just on dusk we passed through the final gate onto Coronation Hill itself, which we unlocked with our special key obtained from the hardware store. No illegal BHP chain shall go uncut!!

The proposed gold mine was the site of an old uranium mine and was part of what the Jawoyn traditional owners saw as “sickness country”. The boundaries of sickness country coincided almost exactly with the areas which had produced uranium deposits and had been mined subsequently.

Traditionally Bula, the spirit that inhabited this area, would create sickness if disturbed and this was one reason that local Aborigines were so opposed to further mining.

The drill site was quiet, with no security and no BHP employees present; everyone had knocked off for the night and were down at the main camp about 100 metres away. We did a quick recce and then set up camp just above the drill site and next to the front end loader. Camp was simply the vehicle, a tarpaulin, fridge and basic supplies, plus three swags and the radio. Satisfied that no one know we were there we turned in for the night.

Coronation Hill occupation
Occupying the drill rig while the BHP crew wait for us to make a mistake.

It was a dawn call in the morning as we were uncertain what the movements of the workers on site would be, but we were certain that they wouldn’t be offering us café latté from their BHP funded espresso machine.

We occupied the drill rig and then went to find the employees. In essence BHP had two pieces of equipment essential to their operations, the drill rig and a loader/backhoe. Due to our careful strategic planning we had just sufficient blockaders to occupy both and have a spare person to guard our camp, radio and to prepare food.

Neither machine could be left unattended at any time, so we could only change shifts when there were no BHP staff present. This left us all plenty of time to relax comfortably in the tropical sun with nothing to do and no one to talk to for hours on end, as clearly envisaged in our strategy.

We arrived in their camp and presented them with the legal opinion and a media release, as well as a notice stating that they were in illegal occupation of a sacred site and therefore liable to prosecution. All this was done with some degree of trepidation. Paranoia told us that had they so chosen the workers could have quietly murdered us, disposed of our bodies in some old mine shaft and then denied all knowledge of our arrival.

They were requested to cease operations and leave the area. The employees were clearly gob-smacked and didn’t know what action they should take. They returned to the accommodation area to discuss the unforeseen arrivals.

BHP coronation hill advert 10-3-1989
A story about BHP’s infamous advert posing the “it’s the platinum and palladium or the Pig-nose turtle” question

As it turned out in the long-run, we might just as well have pierced their entire operation with the metaphorical vampire stake since the legal opinion and the subsequent publicity that the occupation generated led directly to the abandonment of the entire mining proposal.

We returned to the drill pad and called the Environment Centre NT (ECNT)  to update them and give the go-ahead for the first media release. This set of a storm of action at our media centre under our blue tarp with numerous calls from national and local media. The media centre consisted of a portable radio and battery extracted from the NLC vehicle.

The use of the NLC vehicle and radio was another stroke of brilliant planning.  From the point of view of the NT Government, which behaved as if the proposed Coronation Hill mine was the only thing saving the NT from the next great depression, this implicated the NLC.

Monsoon forest at the creeks on the way to Coronation Hill

To the NT Government the NLC (which was the regional representative organisation of the traditional owners) was the Great Satan which continued to seduce the naive Traditional Owners from their rightful path – a path which would lead them to untold mining riches and, of course, more wealth for their white brethren.

So our use of NLC equipment, even though it was leased to Richard and technically entirely under his control, was a gift to the government. The end result being that a week later, on our exit from Coronation Hill, he lost his consultancy contract with the NLC. In our brilliance and careful planning we failed to foresee something so bleeding obvious.

But, ironically, it was our almost entirely non-existent media strategy and threadbare equipment that proved our greatest strength. Every broadcast over VJY, which is an open radio network, every media interview and every communication with our comrades in Darwin were monitored by anyone caring to listen including the Commonwealth and NT Governments, the NLC, the media, BHP and, no doubt, the intelligence services, among others. Normally one might think this a great disadvantage but it proved to be the opposite.

BHP’s chosen strategy was to intimidate us with their presence and sheer numbers. So whenever we called anyone or anyone called us, they would crowd around the radio to listen in thinking this would prevent us being able to talk for fear of communicating our deadly and secret strategies.

We quickly realised it had the opposite effect because we could bullshit away about how great our media coverage had been, or how the NT Government couldn’t intervene because it was Federal Government land and how the Federal Government had received legal advice that we were right about the leases having been incorrectly granted. For the BHP staff, listening in, it was quite demoralising.

To our support crew back in Darwin we’d tell them of our plans to stay as long as necessary, despite having no clue about how we could possibly do that since, after a week, we’d be reduced to three rice crackers between us; leaving aside the likelihood that we’d either die or heatstroke or boredom or both.

Our greatest satisfaction was knowing that our small effort at preserving Kakadu was being broadcast to the world to the world at remarkably regular intervals via a string of calls from national and regional broadcasters.

This included one ABC reporter who greeted us one day with “How is it going, Comrades?” completely unaware that every right wing philistine who thought the ABC was a nest of communist vipers was listening, and that his comment simply reinforced their prevailing views about the ABC.

Apart from this we resorted for entertainment to a range of unorthodox recreation. Among those, for me, was sitting up on the drill rig trying to learn to whistle effectively. I sat there inserting my fingers into my mouth at various different angles for a couple of days while various siffling and snuffling sounds emerged, much to the bemusement of the gathered BHP drillers, until one day a clear high pitched whistle emerged.

For the next two days I continued to practice while both my colleagues and the drillers became increasingly annoyed at being subjected to a variety of meaningless piercing whistles for no apparent reason. But at least now I could attract attention when needed.

Aside from this and reading, there was little to do except drink tea and coffee. We were ill prepared for our week long sojourn. And of course even had there been reception in this remote area of Kakadu-to-be there were no mobiles and no computers in this epoch.

By day four a sort of somnolent truce had settled over the place but on day five the BHP management decided they needed to get rid of us. This involved variously increased efforts at harassment including verbal and physical intimidation and culminating in hiring a helicopter to hover over the camp tarpaulin in an effort to blow it down and away.

Unfortunately for them, they were unaware that I had a private pilots licence and was well aware that the pilot of the chopper was acting in breach of all aviation rules. A quick call to the ECNT, assisted by the eavesdropping of the BHP interlopers, in which I said that I planned to make a formal complaint to the aviation authorities, at which point the pilot was at risk of his or her licence and the chopper quickly disappeared.

By day seven it was reasonably clear that we had successfully stopped work and elevated the issue up the national agenda. We had done this to the degree that we were shortly thereafter invited to Canberra to discuss the issue with then Resources Minister, John Kerin. Nevertheless it was clear we were not going to achieve our recently decided goal of getting ourselves arrested and therefore further elevating the issue in the public eye.

The NT Government could not arrest us because the mining lease was on Commonwealth Land and the Australian Government, we believed, was unwilling to do so because having clearly indicated that we believed we were legally on the lease, we had also earlier declared publicly that we would prosecute for unlawful arrest if anyone tried to arrest us.

By the end of day seven we made the decision to leave, leaving only the issue of how to get out of the place. The problem being that the NLC had decided to reclaim its vehicle leaving us stranded with no transport. So we had to arrange to get picked up by our colleagues in Darwin.

In keeping with the rest of the occupation, our exit from Coronation Hill was met by yet more unplanned eventualities. As we proceeded down the road back to Darwin, travelling at our normal speed of about 110 km, I was driving David Cooper’s landcruiser when I glanced out the window to see a wheel accelerating past the passenger side window. Moments later the vehicle lurched and their was a great grinding and tearing sound.

The bolts holding the rear passenger side wheel had sheered off, leaving us stranded 150 kilometres from Darwin in the middle of the night. So ensued a trip back to Pine Creek to get a new wheel and wheel studs. A glorious end to our brilliant campaign.

Postscript: While the Coronation Hill occupation elevated the issue a step or two higher on the national agenda it took another two years of vigorous campaigning by environmental and Aboriginal organisations before the Government even reduced the size of the exploration area (which it euphemistically called the “conservation area”) and until 1991 before the Commonwealth Government stopped the exploration and included the area in Kakadu National Park.

Images from these campaigns: Campaigns and Direct Actions

 

Europe 2017 (Episode 3): The Balkans: Beauty and the Beast – from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo

The trip through the mainland Balkans starts in Dubrovnik. But to get to Dubrovnik we must first leave Bari, in Italy, by ferry. We arrive at the port to find that the ferry is delayed by several hours, apparently. No one is quite sure how long and, like the quintessential Disappearing Man of Isaac Asimov novels, any staff member of Jadrolinija Ferries who could supply useful information is as disappeared as they can be.

Hence we wait in the not very salubrious terminal served by one slightly seedy takeaway that, in common with most of Corsica, from which we have just travelled takes only cash. Light entertainment is served by watching the ferry to Albania which appears to have no timetable, having been loading for appears to be give hours and is still doing so and by also watching the other passengers for our ferry.

Dubrovnik

Periodically an additional Albanian will appear and leisurely make his/her way to the ship. There appears to be no rush. I assist one of them, a young woman with child, who is struggling with her luggage. Unsurprisingly since it turns out since her suitcase weighs more than the average fully loaded semi-trailer. She claims to be carrying clothes. In which case they must be gold lined bras and panties. No damage is done other than about five herniated discs in my back.

The ferry dock cannot be seen from where most people are sitting so we are able to observe metaphorical flocks of sheep in action. About every fifteen minutes  someone will pick up their luggage and head through the doors towards the hypothetical location of the ferry. At this point, and despite there being absolutely no new information or any rationale to their decision to move, at least half of the ferry passengers will pick up their bags and follow. This is the cult/crowd mentality at its best of the sort that leads to mob lynchings, gas chambers and queues for iPhones.

We, meanwhile, are not fooled, as we are with two Kiwis, Helen and Kemp, who of course understand sheep-like behaviour extremely well. They are going to Croatia for a wedding because it always makes sense if you are from NZ to hold your weddings in the farthest corner of Croatia.

On the other hand it gives them (and us) an excuse to drink champagne. Even better it is their champagne. Given that rugby season is coming it is unlikely Australians will be buying champagne any time soon. We also consume the bottle of Corsican mead that I brought on one of the walking trails. This is the best form of travel: random meetings, good conversation, champagne, mead. In this context delays are irrelevant.

For those that have not yet visited Dubrovnik which, judging by the crowds on the main street of the old city, can only be about half a dozen people, Dubrovnik is, daily, like a beautiful dessert placed before a crowd of gluttons. It will survive for seconds before being entirely ruined. It’s beauty is best appreciated in the two hours around dawn – that is before it is effectively destroyed by the descending hordes.

Dubrovnik

Like many other places where tourism has effectively, if not actually, destroyed the goose that laid the golden egg, it is hard to appreciate the real beauty of this ancient city when fighting ones way through the thousands of visitors, not least the hordes that descent ‘en masse’ from cruise ships like some sort of biblical plague.

In the last 20 years or so the population of the old city has plummeted from 5000 to 1000 as the locals are driven out by rising rents, lack of any shops other than cafes, bars, and shops selling un-needed gifts to unthinking travellers. And that’s leaving aside the conversion of almost every available bit of sleeping space to AirBnB.

Dubrovnik

We have two stops in Dubrovnik, one on arrival in Croatia and one on departure. For some reason known only to the Idiot Traveller I have managed, on both occasions, to book AirBnBs at the very highest point of the city just inside the city walls. Thus, several times a day we are required to stagger up about 200 + steps to the top of the city. Bad for both my knee and humour.

These ascents involve a sort of game of chicken with those descending where, at the hot times of day, everyone tries to stay in the sixty centimetres of shade next to the buildings. Fortunately it is only mid thirties while we are there as opposed to the 45ºc which Croatia endures the following week.

Like every couple, Kaylee and I have points of difference in our travelling routines. I like to avoid every market and shop as if they were sources of the Black Death whereas, for Kaylee, shopping and buying is one of the pleasures of travel. It seems that every second shop sells potential gifts for friends and relatives and our trip is punctuated by approximately 652 visits to inspect potential purchases.

This difference has been exacerbated, on this trip, by the “imminent” arrival of the first MacKenzie grandchild. As a result all of Europe has been scoured for baby clothes and gifts even though “imminent” in this case means at least six months away.

We also differ on beaches and driving speeds. Kaylee feels, for whatever bizarre reason, that, since I almost killed her by rolling her Subaru station wagon some years ago, I should restrain myself from acting like Ayrton Senna on Croatia’s windy roads. Perhaps justifiably, since Senna is dead.

Night time Dubrovnik

I also feel that any beach without waves or somewhere to kayak, dive etc is not a real beach, whereas she is quite happy to be on any beach with sun and water. She is also unsupportive of puns, word plays or interesting statistical analyses, all things which any reasonable partner should be prepared to endure until death do us part. I on the other hand, being inestimably tolerant, put up with the 652 gift shop visits with good humour and patience. Such is life.

Beyond these differences we travel reasonably amicably following the itinerary which I, as resident travel agent, have picked out. Croatia is the third country on our five country European tour and, like most places, if you can get away from peak periods and peak locations, it is beautiful and relatively deserted.

Dubrovnik in the morning and at night, after most people have either not yet got up or have already gone to bed, is a magical town of tiny streets, magnificent old buildings and breeze-kissed rock rock platforms perched above the Adriatic.

Dubrovnik

Travelling through the Balkans and Turkey is like a primer in life. Sometimes it seems a hard and brutal road if you look at the history, but, at the same time one is surrounded by ineffable beauty and acts of compassion. To know and understand the history of this region is to understand the total and utter failure of the concept leadership as defined by western democracy and, more generally, humans.

Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Turkey, Armenia, Kosovo, Montenegro. These are lands swept by repeated genocides. An eye for an eye makes us all blind. So far as I can tell only the Bosnian Muslims are largely innocent, in recent times. Even so there was at least one massacre of Serbians by Bosnian troops during the siege of Sarajevo.

The Greeks murdered the Turks, the Turks the Greeks, The Armenians murdered the Kurds and Turks and vice versa. The Croats murdered the Serbians and the Bosnians. The Serbians murdered the Croats and Bosnians. And on and on.

Unlike the Jewish holocaust, but like the Rwandan, Nigerian, Syrian and other genocides, these are repeated mass murders largely already forgotten. In Srebrenica alone the Serbians murdered 31000 people. Or at least there have been 8000 bodies recovered but another 23,000 Muslims remain unaccounted for 25 years after the war ended.

These were not casualties of war but victims of a brutal civilian ethnic cleansing where the Serbs executed almost every last able bodied Muslim male they could get hold off. Those that fled to the mountains were also hunted and murdered wherever possible. In total more than 100,000 people died in the war.

Our journey, in the Balkans starts in Dubrovnik, follows the bus route to Mostar in Herzegovina and wends its way onto Sarajevo in Bosnia also by bus. As I travel I read Rose of Sarajevo and Birds without Wings, both historical novels that document the sweep of history of 40 years of massacres during the death throes of the Ottoman Empire and through to the civil war in Bosnia. An un-ending tapestry of blood and brutality.

En route Mostar to Sarajevo

Each nation – one cannot say ethnic group because all these nations are composed largely of South Slavs – Yugoslavia means South Slavia – document carefully the atrocities committed by others against them but ignore totally the identical genocidal fury they unleashed at other times, in return.

Thus we find ourselves in the old fort above Dubrovnik where, in 1991-2, a handful of ill-equipped Croats held out against the entire remnants of the old Yugoslavian army, navy and airforce (the latter two of which the Croats had none). The Serbs, in defiance, of world opinion and seemingly out a spite that achieved almost nothing, proceeded to pummel world heritage listed Dubrovnik reducing large parts to rubble.

Here the Croats have created a museum commemorating that resistance and documenting the brutality of the Serb invaders. There is no mention, of course, of either the genocidal slaughter by the Nazi backed Ustashe Croat fascists during World War 2 nor of the revenge slaughter and expulsion of Serbs, in 1995, after the Croats had rebuilt their own army.

Mostar War Damage, the old town and old bridge

From Dubrovnik we head north and east to Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia Herzegovina (The name Herzegovina means “duke’s land”, referring to the medieval duchy of Stjepan Vukčić Kosača who took title “Herzeg of Saint Sava”. Herceg is derived from the German title Herzog).

We travel from Dubrovnik to Mostar by bus mainly because in the aftermath of the war many of the train routes connecting Bosnia to Croatia and Serbia no longer operate and we are deposited at a typically ugly bus station – nowhere in Eastern Europe is immune from the plague of soviet era architecture and the descendants of that architectural style.

From here we are fleeced double the normal charge for our taxi ride from our bus station to our AirBnB. The same taxi driver offers to take us on a tour of the local area at a price that we later find is as inflated as buying smashed avocado in eastern Sydney. This is the sort of price that the Idiot Traveler would pay without checking.

But as usual we are smart and fail to take up his offer out of sheer inertia. The route to the AirBnB takes us through Mostar’s civil war front line where the Croat leaders having betrayed the Bosnians, with whom they were formerly in alliance, sent their troops to try and create a greater Croatia from stolen Bosnian land.

Mostar

Mostar is an odd city. In many ways it is nothing special – much of the city is just a pretty ordinary modern urban centre. The old city, the part for which most people visit, is a tiny part of Mostar, just a street or three wide and a few hundred metres long. There are genuinely old parts that survived largely undamaged but significant parts were entirely reconstructed after the damage of the Balkans war and many buildings remain as ruins, or are full of bullet holes.

Those few streets are an archetypal tourist trap of market shops and restaurants perched above the river selling a mixture of everything from genuinely gorgeous art pieces through to junk. The famous old bridge itself is not, of course, old having been famously, and deliberately, destroyed by the Croatians during the war.

Mostar

But despite all that one cannot but be struck by the sublime juxtaposition of the old city and bridge perched above the deep green Neretva River. Mostar is named after the ‘mostari’ (the bridge keepers). We are fortunate to have one of the best AirBnBs in Mostar with a stunning view of the bridge, a breakfast costing $5 that would cost $20 in Australia and hosts who are friendly and who also double as our tour guides to the areas around Mostar.

There are five mosques and two churches visible from the balcony a reflection of the diversity that means Bosnia has one of the world’s most complicated political systems reflecting the disparate political ambitions of Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats – something that further exacerbates an economic situation that has led to 27% unemployment including youth unemployment of 66%.

From Mostar we move onto Sarajevo arriving after a circuitous bus trip through the spectacular mountain scenery and gorges surrounding the Neretva River.

We would have preferred to go by train as the train journey is reputed to be scenically one of the best in Europe but for reasons best know to Bosnian railways the line, which re-opened in July, only has two trains a day. The first of these requires you to get up at about 5 am, or some similar ungodly hour, and the second, and last, of which deposits you in Sarajevo in the middle of the night. No one, apparently, wants to travel at any civilised time of day.

We find our AirBnB is within spitting distance of old Sarajevo. In common with Mostar much of the old and a great part of modern Sarajevo had to be rebuilt having been shelled repeatedly by the Serbs, who controlled all the hills surrounding Sarajevo and mounted a siege of the town.

Reports indicated an average of approximately 329 shell impacts per day during the course of the siege, with a maximum of 3,777 on 22 July 1993.[6] This urbicide [6] Among buildings targeted and destroyed were hospitals and medical complexes, media and communication centres, industrial complexes, government buildings and military and UN facilities.

Sarajevo: Despite the bloody war & graves, still multicultural

The Siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. After being initially besieged by the forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army, Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was besieged by the Army of Republika Srpska from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 (1,425 days) during the Bosnian War.

The siege lasted three times longer than the Battle of Stalingrad and more than a year longer than the Siege of Leningrad.[4].

More than 10,000 people died during that time and for much of the war the only access in and out of the city was via a 1.6 metre high tunnel dug by Sarajevans under the airport which was controlled by the UN. All Bosnian arms supplies came in and out of the city by this route. The siege was effectively ended by NATO intervention in 1994/5.

Sarajevo

Although Sarajevo was besieged by the Serbs and the city was divided into areas controlled by Serbs and others controlled by the Bosnian forces the population of Sarajevo under siege was a mixture and Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks and all fought together in the Bosnian armed forces.

Today Sarajevo remains a city which is proud of its continuing multicultural heritage and the city is dotted with signs proclaiming this, as well as with a multitude of cemeteries where the war dead were buried including the famous grave of the Bosnian ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Admira Ismić and Boško Brkić, a mixed Bosnian-Serbian couple who tried to cross the lines and were killed by sniper fire.

They became a symbol of the suffering in the city but it is unknown from which side the snipers opened fire . Even so, in addition to the thousands of refugees who left the city, many Sarajevo Serbs left for the Republika Srpska, which is a semi-autonomous part of Bosnia. As a result the percentage of Serbs in Sarajevo decreased from more than 30% in 1991 to slightly over 10% in 2002.

Sarajevo

The Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo (RDC) found that the siege left a total of 13,952 people dead: 9,429 Bosniaks, 3,573 Serbs, 810 Croats and 140 others. Of these, 6,137 were ARBiH soldiers and 2,241 were soldiers fighting either for the JNA (former Yugoslav army) or the VRS (Serbian militia). Of the ARBiH soldiers killed, 235 were Serbs, 328 were Croats and the rest were Bosniaks.

Sixty percent of all people killed in Sarajevo during the siege were soldiers. In particular, 44 percent of all fatalities were ARBiH personnel. A total of 5,434 civilians were killed during the siege, including 3,855 Bosniaks, 1,097 Serbs and 482 Croats. More than 66 percent of those killed during the siege were Bosniaks, 25.6 percent were Serbs, 5.8 percent were Croats and 1 percent were others.

Of the estimated 65,000 to 80,000 children in the city, at least 40% had been directly shot at by snipers; 51% had seen someone killed; 39% had seen one or more family members killed; 19% had witnessed a massacre; 48% had their home occupied by someone else; 73% had their home attacked or shelled; and 89% had lived in underground shelters.

The tunnel that saved Sarajevo and winter Olympic ruins destroyed by the Serbs

Today the old city of Sarajevo has been largely restored and provides a traffic-free pedestrian enclave of shops, churches, mosques and museums which reflect the remaining diversity of the city.

The museums, displays and ‘siege tours’ provide a salutary exposition of the futility of religious and sectarian violence as well as the human potential for both brutality and for overcoming the hatred of war.

Sarajevo also provides a reminder of the most futile and bloody of human wars, World War 1 which started as a result of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria by a Serbian extremist and act that is marked by the plaque on the corner of Zelenih Berentki St.

This post is the third in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to previous posts in the series are below:

  1. Corsica
  2. Florence

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on the links below:

Dubrovnik

Mostar

Sarajevo

The Generosity of Strangers in Strange Lands

It’s clear that Australians whose daily out outpouring of bile against Muslims, refugees and strangers, in general, have never experienced the generosity, warmth and welcome of strangers in strange lands. Had they done so it is hard to believe that they would behave towards people with different values, skin colours and religions as they have been doing.

My childhood homes for 16 years, from the age of 6 weeks, were all in countries where people had no reason to feel friendly towards white, blond haired, privileged and wealthy children but my experiences and that of my family were overwhelmingly positive.

One Bhuddist country, Thailand, two Muslim countries, Egypt and Iran and one Apartheid country, South Africa, all provided a welcome which puts Australia’s xenophobic, racist and cruel Government to shame and where the welcome and warmth of the citizens of those countries is in sharp contrast to the outpouring of bile by a minority of Australians.

Those experiences, of so long ago, are not isolated or historical. More recently, I have spent weeks or months in Egypt (2014), Turkey (2015), Jordan (2014). In every circumstance, both historical and recent, I have experienced no hostility, no racism or xenophobia and an overwhelming inclination from everyone to be friendly and helpful and to understand and be open to people from other cultures – and not just from those who might stand to benefit from the spending of tourists but more broadly from the person in the street. Perhaps I have been lucky but I like to think not.

Baron Enpain palace Cairo
Baron Enpain palace Cairo, 1968
John, Michael, Stratton, Chris Harris (gen 10, 11)
Cairo, 1960

We lived in Egypt between 1960 and 1965. This was just four years after the Suez Crisis when Israel, Britain and France had invaded Egypt in response to Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal.  So there we were, a British family (I was born in Britain in 1955 just before my family left for Thailand), living in a country which only four years previously had been invaded by the British armed forces. Despite this, the Egyptians were overwhelmingly welcoming. I had the same experience in 2014, during protests and repression in Tahrir Square when Egyptians would invite me to their homes for tea, despite their knowledge of Australia’s role in the Middle East and about its attitude to refugees.

Karadj Mountains Nr Tehran
Karadj Mountains Nr Tehran
Chris Harris outside Tehran house in snow
Outside Tehran house in snow

We moved to Iran between 1966 and 1969, to a country where the west, in the form of a CIA inspired coup had deposed the democratic, and popularly elected, Mossadeq Government in 1953, a mere 14 years previously and had restored the repressive Shah Reza Pahlavi to power. Despite this Iranians were welcoming and friendly.

We lived in South Africa between 1969 and 1972, at the height of apartheid, where no black or brown person had any reason to feel remotely friendly to people with white skin and yet, as a teenager, experienced no sense of hostility or racism. Compare this with the abuse of people of all ages, including teenagers in Australia, just for looking or being different

Michael and Chris SA
South Africa 1969

Compare this with the hostility to French people during the protests against nuclear testing in Mururoa – a small island 8700 kilometres distant.  As an example in Darlinghurst, Marc and Murielle Laucher, a couple with dual French-Australian citizenship, found the windows of their cafe, La Petite Creme, smeared with faeces – which was not an isolated incident.

More recently, I have been in Turkey, a country on the frontline of the hostilities in the Middle East, and which is dealing with hundreds of thousand of refugees. This is a country where an Islamic-leaning Government has encouraged a less secular society and where negotiations over many years to enter the EU have not exactly endeared many Turks to “western” oriented societies. Never mind Gallipoli and the history of conflict between the Ottomans and the west.

Yet every person from the most secular to the most religious was welcoming and friendly and there was no sense of people being prejudiced due to the alleged clash of western and islamic values. In fact the sense of a reconciliation of those values (women in bikinis and headscarfs) was far stronger than in Australia. None of this is to say that no racism exists in these other societies or that minorities in all societies don’t behave in the same way as the racist bigots in Australia but it seems less prevalent and less obvious.

There is something peculiarly obnoxious about the toxic mix of political conservatism, xenophobia, racism which is making Australia a less pleasant, less open and less welcoming society than many of consider it to be. It’s a subject about which we need a national debate. How do we combat this? How do we change the politics of fear that allows this prejudice to thrive. And what can every citizen do to assist?

 

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