Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Saving the Franklin

Peter Dombrovskis's "Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend" became the iconic image of the Franklin Campaign

In February 1976 Bob Brown (then a Launceston GP) accepted forester Paul Smith’s invitation to raft the Franklin River using inflatable rubber rafts. It had been canoed once before in 1958 (that party having come to grief in two previous attempts), and had been descended (a hair-raising and near-fatal trip) in lashed timber and inner tube rafts in 1971, but the 1976 trip was the first time anyone had used inflatable rafts on the river.

During the trip, Brown and Smith came across evidence confirming that the hydro was planning to dam the river.

Determined to pre-empt the hydro’s plans, Paul Smith prepared to make a film about the river and to publicise its beauty.

In June 1976 at Bob Brown’s home in Liffey a meeting of conservationists changed the name of the South West Tasmania Action Committee to the Tasmanian Wilderness Society.

Kevin Kiernan, who had been a key figure in the struggle for Pedder, initially headed the organisation. In 1979 Bob Brown took over as director.

By this time, it was clear that the hydro wanted to flood the Franklin – the last major wild river in Tasmania. Campaigning was under way in earnest, with Paul Smith’s film being made and shown on Tasmanian television, and with public meetings and stalls being held to publicise the issue.

In October 1979 the Hydro Electric Commission formally and publicly recommended the flooding of the Franklin River by the building of a dam on the Gordon River below its confluence with the Franklin. There were covert plans for further dams right up the Franklin and on the Davey and King Rivers.

The decision did not make sense. As so often is the case when projects like this are mooted, the destruction of this priceless area of wilderness was to take place without any demonstrably defined economic benefit.

There was a strong reaction. Large public meetings were held which some thousands of people attended. The campaign was developing a momentum.

Bob Brown, in countless meetings and media interviews, articulated a vision of a better Tasmania which valued things more important than money and which did not need the dam. He inspired people all over Australia and beyond.

In 1980, a public opinion poll was commissioned by the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, and it showed that most Tasmanians were opposed to the construction of the dam. It received front page coverage in the Launceston Examiner.

On 11th July 1980 the Labor government under Premier Doug Lowe reached a compromise decision: a dam would be built on the Gordon River above the Franklin confluence (the “Gordon-above-Olga dam”), thus saving the Franklin River itself.

It was the first time any government had taken on the all-powerful "hydro" and refused to follow its recommendation.

It appeared the Franklin had been saved.

In November 1980 Tasmania’s Legislative Assembly passed the legislation for the Gordon-above-Olga dam to proceed.

However, the following month a Legislative Council (upper house) Select Committee recommended construction of the Gordon below Franklin dam. The chairman of that committee, Harry Braid, had accepted an invitation from Bob Brown to raft the Franklin, and had appeared genuinely impressed by what he saw, but, after a return visit to the area courtesy of the Hydro Electric Commission, came out in favour of the dam.

The Legislative Council wanted to flood the Franklin, and amended the legislation to permit the Gordon below Franklin dam to proceed.

Tasmania’s two houses of parliament were deadlocked.

In February 1981 a further dimension to the issue came to light when Kevin Kiernan discovered the archaeological significance of the Kutikina Cave (then called Fraser Cave) on the lower Franklin River. The cave had been occupied by humans from 21,000 years ago until 14,000 years ago. The fireplaces and even the bones picked clean by the early occupants were still readily visible. The dam would flood this heritage forever.

Impatient with the obstruction of the upper house, Premier Doug Lowe proclaimed the Franklin-Lower Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.

In June 1981, the union-led majority at the ALP state conference pushed through a motion calling for a referendum to settle the Franklin issue. This was tantamount to a back-down to the Legislative Council’s refusal to support the government’s position.

That August the first secret meetings occurred of a few people in the Wilderness Society preparing for an eventuality they hoped would not be needed – a non-violent blockade of the dam works.

In September the ALP caucus voted to hold the referendum. When Premier Lowe announced the decision, he was asked whether the referendum would have a “No Dams” option, and answered “Yes”.

The State President of the Labor Party then wrote to all members requiring them to remove the “No Dams” option, and the Premier was forced to hold a press conference announcing that this option would be removed. The lack of logic in this position outraged many in the community.

That month, in Canberra, the Senate voted to establish a select committee to examine the issue: the first Federal involvement.

Back in Tasmania, the referendum detail was put in place and the campaign got under way for a vote on 12th December 1981. The only options offered to the people of Tasmania were the two dam projects – it was the first referendum in Australian history without “No” as an option.

The Tasmanian Wilderness Society adopted a risky strategy: voters would be urged not to mark either option, but to write “No Dams” across their ballot papers.

Soon cars began sporting green triangular stickers with the words “NO DAMS”. This became one of the enduring images of the campaign - and the source of today's Greens triangle.

On 10th November 1981 Robin Gray, a hard-liner for the dam, was elected Tasmanian opposition leader.

Late that day, Doug Lowe, following years of lobbying from Geoff Mosley, director of the ACF, and others, signed the nomination of the area for inscription under the World Heritage Convention. He did not pass the nomination through Cabinet. He was about to put the letter through the normal out tray, but an official offered to post it personally and immediately.

The following morning, 11th November 1981, Doug Lowe was defeated in Caucus and resigned as Premier of Tasmania in favour of Harry Holgate, a former journalist who had been working to replace Lowe for some time.

At question time that afternoon Doug Lowe entered the chamber but instead of moving to the back bench he shocked the parliament by walking quietly to the cross benches to sit as an independent.

The following week, with the referendum campaign well under way, Mary Willey (now Dalyell), the government whip and a fervent opponent of the dam, crossed the floor to join Doug Lowe on the cross benches. The Franklin issue was creating havoc in Tasmanian politics.

When the referendum was held, the informal vote was 45% - the highest in Australian history. The vote for the Gordon-below-Franklin was 47% (still not a majority) and the vote for the Gordon-above-Olga dam was 8%.

The result created further trouble for the doomed Labor government. In January 1982 the Holgate government moved to change policy and support the flooding of the Franklin – a project not supported by the majority of Tasmanians at the referendum.

That month the first secret reconnaissance missions into the area for the purpose of preparing for the non-violent blockade of the dam-building works took place. The key people engaged in blockade planning were Pam Waud, Cathie Plowman and Ian Skinner.

There was, at that time, only limited history of non-violent blockades in Australia – now reasonably commonplace in logging disputes. It had occurred at Terania Creek and Nightcap, but was little known in the wider conservation movement. It seemed a risky strategy, and many were afraid of the prospect of violence. To avoid this, careful preparation and training in non-violent action were undertaken over a long time.

The blockade planners had three goals in view: to generate enormous publicity with a view to placing pressure on the politicians; to make a show of commitment, strength and determination – by having many people arrested and jailed; and to slow down and even stop work.

In an attempt to sell the dam, the government announced the appointment of TV naturalist Harry Butler to advise on conservation issues with the dam. Harry Butler had already appeared on an ACF ad opposed to the dam.

On 26th March 1982 Parliament was recalled. A motion of no confidence in the government over its handling of the dams dispute was moved, and the government fell. An election was called for 15th May. The dams legislation had still not been passed, but opposition leader Robin Gray promised to do so as soon as he won the election.

At this election, Bob Brown stood as an independent candidate in the Hobart seat of Denison. He had to endure a sustained and vindictive smear campaign by those supporting the dam because he was gay. The Pro-dam Opponents launched balloons carrying the slogan “Brown is a Green Queen” and letter-boxed every house in the city.

The result of the election was a landslide to the pro-dam Liberals led by Robin Gray. Bob Brown narrowly failed to win a seat (probably just as well – he was needed elsewhere now), but his preferences ensured that Norm Sanders, the only Democrat in the Tasmanian parliament, and a strong force against the dam, was re-elected.

The Gray government’s first legislative initiative was the bill for the Gordon below Franklin dam. It passed on 16th June 1982.

The next day, the Wilderness Society applied to the High Court to prevent funding to Tasmania for the dam via the Loans Council, but Justice Mason dismissed the arguments. This was interpreted as a green light for the dam.

Big business and the hydro had finally won control in Tasmania, and the only hope for the Franklin – a slim one - was intervention by the Federal government.

Bob Brown went to Canberra and met the Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, hoping for Federal intervention. Fraser had quite a good environmental record, and already had taken the hard decision to end whaling in Australia.

Fraser was preoccupied, and told Brown that people with lost causes in Tasmania should not come to Canberra expecting rescue. The meeting lasted only minutes.

It looked like the dam would be built.

In July 1982, the national ALP conference was held in Canberra. A strong conservation contingent, led by Bob Brown, attended and lobbied each delegate. After considerable manoeuvring, the conference passed, by a slim majority, the following motion: “A Labor government will oppose the construction of a hydro-electric power scheme on the Gordon and Franklin Rivers.”

This meant that the dam would be an issue at the Federal election.

On 17th July 1982, in secrecy and under cover of darkness, the first bulldozers were moved onto the Kelly Basin Road and the trucks commenced running.

Work on the dam had finally commenced.

Soon after, the Wilderness Society announced plans to blockade the dam-building works.

Plans for the blockade had been carefully made. A prefabricated communications centre had been constructed in Hobart, and food was being stockpiled. Tourist Operator and former Huon Piner, Reg Morrison, of Strahan, allowed his ferry, the Jay-Lee-M, to be at the disposal of the Wilderness Society. An aircraft was made available also. Non-violent workshops were conducted around the country.

Bob Brown said that conservationists would oppose the construction of the dam “to the last bucket of cement”.

On 2nd September 1982, the Robin Gray government revoked the reserve status of large parts of the Wild Rivers National Park, and vested the land in the HEC. That day a “Redeclaration Party” was held on the Gordon River. An advance party there pledged to preserve the area and declared it, on behalf of all people “an inviolable national park for all time”.

The heat built up over the issue. In Parliament Robin Gray described the Franklin as “nothing but a brown ditch, leech-ridden, unattractive to the majority of people”.

On 16 September 1982 Robin Gray threatened that Tasmania would secede from the Commonwealth if the Federal government intervened to stop work on the dam.

It was made illegal to enter lands vested in the HEC without a written permit.

On 9th October 1982, in pouring rain, 4000 people attended a Sydney rally opposing the dam. Momentum was beginning to build on the mainland.

With work under way on the dam, Robin Gray issued a press statement referring to “Dr Brown and his cronies”:

Conservationists training for the south-west blockade are like guerrilla forces in third world countries.

The Tasmanian people have spoken. Only one isolated group, determined to get its way through misinformation, obstruction and, if need be, violence, has not come to terms with the reality of the situation in this state.

But Robin Gray did not hold all the cards. On 14th November in Melbourne a “Walk for Wilderness” rally was held with self-professed “Pommie Botanist” and TV celebrity Professor David Bellamy. Well over 15,000 people walked, making this the largest conservation gathering in Australian history.

Bob Brown spoke, along with representatives of both the Labor and Liberal Parties. Malcolm Fraser was in hospital, and a huge “get well” card was prepared for him, asking him to come back and save the Franklin.

On 23rd November 1982 the Senate Select Committee presented an interim report on power in Tasmania: it found that no new power scheme was needed in Tasmania for at least three years, if ever. The decision to build the dam was now nationally exposed as economic nonsense.

The next day the Tasmanian government amended the Police Offences Act to make trespass (which carried a maximum penalty of $100) an arrestable offence.

On 4th December 1982 a by-election was held in Flinders in Victoria. 40.4% of voters wrote “No Dams” on their ballot papers.

The by-election over, the Fraser government announced that it would not intervene to save the Franklin.

The blockade was due to commence in less than a week.

Day One of the Blockade was 14th December 1982, the day that South West Tasmania became a World Heritage Area. The World Heritage Committee expressed its concern about the prospects of a dam and recommended that Australian authorities take all possible measures to protect the integrity of the property.

That day the Senate passed the Democrats’ World Heritage Protection Bill.

On the river, rubber duckies trailed out to make a blockade across the Gordon River at Warner’s Landing. Ross Scott suggested that everyone hold up their paddles vertically, and the resultant striking image was seen across the country.

There were also actions at the adit site and on drill rigs, as well as other actions further upstream on the Franklin.

In all, 54 people were arrested that day. The media coverage was extraordinary and unprecedented. Spontaneous rallies, with thousands attending, occurred at Sydney, Canberra, Bendigo, Hobart and Launceston.

The first person processed in court was Bob Burton (winner of the Wild Environmentalist of the Year Award in 1999), who had been working on the Franklin campaign for some years already. When asked whether he would accept the bail condition that he would not “lurk, loiter, hide or secrete” himself on HEC property, he declined, and was remanded in jail.

He was joined by 45 others on that day alone.

The restriction on where people could go was widely seen as an abuse by the authorities of the bail process. The maximum penalty for the offence, on conviction, was a $100 fine, but people were held in prison for weeks for refusing to accept mere conditions of bail imposed ancillary to that charge.

There were daily actions and arrests. On 16th December Bob Brown, wearing a jumper and tie, was arrested at Sir John Falls. News footage around the country captured him smiling and shaking the hand of the arresting officer. He did not accept the bail conditions and was remanded in custody.

On 22nd December the workers left the area for Christmas. But already until that time there had been 202 arrests, with 167 imprisoned.

By now the issue had become global. Prince Charles said in Wales that he found the argument for the Franklin dam “not terribly convincing”.

Norm Sanders resigned his seat in parliament so he could run for the Federal senate. That meant that Bob Brown could, if he chose, contest a recount of the seat and possibly replace Sanders in Parliament. He had to consider this in prison over Christmas.

After Christmas large numbers of rafters commenced the trip down the Franklin River to join the blockade. Others travelled direct to Strahan, where the Wilderness Society had a shop premises and there was a large base camp for protesters. Media communications were being handled by Bob Burton and Geoff Law, and an impressive legal team was headed by Lincoln Siliakis.

On 1st January 1983, Bob Brown, still in prison, was announced to be The Australian newspaper’s “Australian of the Year”.

On 4th January Bob Brown accepted the bail conditions “with the utmost protest” and was released from custody. He was already in a commanding lead in the recount, and the following day was declared elected to parliament.

On the river, protests continued. Thousands were coming to Strahan to participate in the blockade.

Soon new bail conditions were imposed preventing blockaders from returning to the Municipality of Gormanston west of the King River (ie Strahan and Queenstown).

Then things began to get nasty. On 12th January, in the small hours, rocks were hurled through the windows of the Wilderness Society’s Info Centre in Strahan, radio equipment was jammed, all public telephones in Queenstown and Strahan simultaneously were out of order, and the telex cables into and out of the Info Centre were cut. That morning the road to the protesters’ base camp was blocked by a police car and any protesters attempting to pass were arrested. Eighty police escorted the first bulldozer on a low loader into Strahan. Protesters were pulled from underneath the wheels of the moving truck and were arrested. The bulldozer was successfully loaded onto a barge.

The following day the dozer left Strahan at dawn on a barge towed by the Cape Martin. The boat ploughed through a duckie blockade without slowing and passed over a submerged diver in flagrant disregard of the diver’s flag. Police did nothing to prevent this dangerous situation from developing. The dozer was unloaded and began to destroy the rainforest at Warner’s Landing.

That night Bob Brown was attacked in Strahan by four youths wielding a wheel brace. Bob managed to get hold of the wheel brace and the men fled. They later admitted kicking him in the head a number of times. They appeared in court the next day and were released (unlike many of the protesters) to be feted as heroes in Queenstown.

The Supreme Court upheld an appeal against the extreme bail conditions, and they would no longer be imposed. The Supreme Court also disqualified a magistrate for bias.

Professor David Bellamy, with 53 others, was arrested at Warner’s Landing. Footage of his arrest was shown in 32 countries and created banner headlines in London’s Fleet Street newspapers. He was remanded in custody. All up, some 1,500 people were arrested during the blockade and more than 500 were jailed.

On 19th January Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser made an offer of $500 million for Tasmania to stop the construction of the dam. Bob Brown described this as a “charade”: the Prime Minister knew of its rejection in advance. Premier Robin Gray described it as “totally unacceptable”.

Bob Brown announced that the Wilderness Society would campaign against the coalition at the forthcoming Federal election.

Opposition Leader Bill Hayden toured the Franklin with Bob Brown. In the Gordon River gorge, workers set off an explosion in an adit, cannoning boulders out over the river less than 100 metres behind Hayden’s boat. Hayden reaffirmed the Labor Party’s commitment to saving the River.

But Bill Hayden was in trouble in his own party. Bob Hawke was the rising star in the Labor Party, and could take over at any time. Malcolm Fraser knew this, and wanted an election before the more popular Bob Hawke became his opponent.

To pre-empt the Labor party change of leaders, on 3rd February Fraser drove to Yarralumla and advised the Governor-General to hold an election on 5th March 1983.

But before he could announce the date the dramatic news came that Bill Hayden had resigned the leadership of the Labor Party. Fraser would have to campaign against Bob Hawke.

On 4th February a rally was held against the dam in Hobart. An extraordinary 20,000 people attended, giving Bob Brown a huge ovation.

In the election campaign that followed, the Wilderness Society urged voters to put the Democrats first in the Senate, and Labor first in the lower house.

Two days before the election an advertisement was placed in the Melbourne Age and in the Sydney Morning Herald. It was a stunning full page colour poster of a Peter Dombrovskis photograph of Rock Island Bend on the Franklin River. It had the caption “Would you vote for a Party that would destroy this?” Up to this time, colour was almost unknown in Australian newspapers. The poster was electrifying.

Labor won the election, but lost all five Tasmanian federal seats. Bob Hawke claimed victory, and his only election night commitment was “The dam will not be built”.

But it was not over yet.

On 31st March 1983 the Commonwealth passed regulations making work on the dam illegal. The Commonwealth relied on several of the powers given to it under the Constitution, but chiefly the power to make laws to enforce its treaty obligations, pointing to its obligations to the Franklin under the World Heritage Convention.

The next day Premier Robin Gray announced that the regulations would be ignored, and a challenge mounted in the High Court.

Legislation was also passed by the Commonwealth parliament to prevent the dam being constructed.

The High Court now prepared to hear what is still the most important case in Australian constitutional history: the Franklin Dam case.

At issue was not the merit of the dam proposal, but whether the Commonwealth had power to override a State in this matter. The case was argued for two weeks.

On 1st July 1983 the parties gathered in the High Court in Brisbane for the result. Everyone knew it would be close. By four justices to three, the Court upheld the Commonwealth’s legislation.

The Franklin River was saved and so runs free to the sea.


  1. What a brilliant account, Brian!
    I'm not sure of the exact date in January 1983, but my family and I were holidaying in Tassie and were on the Franklin River (doing a boat cruise) and I'll never forget my father leaning out over the railings to shake Bob Brown's hand as he paddled alongside us on his canoe!

  2. Great story, great photo - thank goodness for Bob Brown a true leader who inspires others and acts on values...

  3. Great recollection. I was on the river and arrested Feb / Mar 1983, ands nice to see the events so clearly recounted.