01.07.2012 Environment

The Strength of Belief

Bob Brown inspired the protest movement to save Tasmania's last wild river, the Franklin. Adrian Glamorgan recalls those days

The first few days of January 1983 were spent by a much younger me, training in a park in Strahan, Tasmania with hundreds of others. Our aim was to stop the desecration of a river and a region.

Both parties in the Tasmanian Parliament were committed to damming the wild, remote Franklin River, partly to make electricity, and partly to open the whole South West wilderness. Various arguments were put up by successive premiers, but one by one these arguments were knocked down by a group of people who called themselves The Wilderness Society. There was no need for the extra electricity, and even if there was, there were other ways of getting it.

The plans would create a reservoir 27 times the size of Sydney harbour, knocking down a valley-full of Huon pine (largarostrobos franklinii) trees up to 30 metres high, including many specimens more than 2,000 years old. None of this mattered: the Hydro Electric Commission had unfettered influence in state planning.

In June 1980, 10,000 Tasmanians marched through Hobart, protesting the building of such a dam. The pristine value of the Franklin River was highlighted the next year when, quite by chance, caves were discovered in the land to be flooded, complete with Aboriginal hand stencils, campfires and stone tools as they had been left between 8,000 and 24,000 years ago. But nothing would stop the old forces that had run Tasmania. They would flood 35 kilometres of the river all the same. The State Government gave Tasmanians a referendum, so they could choose between two two dam sites, refusing voters the choice to not have a dam at all. Yet 45% of Tasmanians voted informally.

So I ended up joining thousands of people around the country protesting the environmental vandalism that was shaming us all, in Australia and also across the world. But what got me inspired? In the spring of 1982, I went to a meeting in an old cinema in Queanbeyan, near Canberra. I watched a film, The Last Wild River, and one of the adventurous rafters featured in the film got up to speak. He was a doctor, gentle in manner: his style was laconic, humorous, passionate, steadfast, determined. His name was Bob Brown.

He and his mate Geoff Law called us to action. Groups made up of 10 or 12 people got together across the country, to make 'affinity groups'. We trained in nonviolence, the theory and the actuality. We practised being arrested peacefully, and we made all our decisions together by consensus. By the time we got to the shores of Macquarie Harbour in January 1982, we were able to take part in a meeting of 200 people at a time, making decisions that everyone owned together without using majority voting. When a local vented his anger by revving up and riding his motorcycle into our meeting circle, we responded quickly, but peacefully. Our affinity groups could take responsibility, and act as one. A little later Bob Brown was assaulted, but he would not be cowed by ignorant, fearful, braggardly behaviour. He urged us to carry on, and got on with it himself.

Brown did not shrink from his determination to stop the violation of the South West. First activated by the wanton flooding of Lake Pedder, he knew that it was not a single decision but a system at work that needed to be changed. Not everyone embraced connecting the dots. Part of the training in our affinity group was around issues of race and gender. Snarled one angry man: "I came here to stop bulldozers, not sexism." But the organisers knew that we were doing more than fighting bulldozers: we were standing up to injustice and disrespect in all of its manifestations. We couldn't separate out the harm being done to Aboriginal people by the reserve system in Queensland, from the humiliations piled on women by casual exclusions or unfair expectations in the workplace, at home, or in our heroic struggle. As we were to learn, if a group or government is allowed to bully in one place, it can readily bully in another. Justice and the environment are connected.

Upriver, when we got to a spot just near Warners' Landing, I walked in the magic of the ancient land. I cannot describe it adequately. Imagine a place where humans have seldom walked, at least for centuries. There is no sound, but if there is, it might as easily be the axe of a convict, selectively logging for masts for the British Navy. It could be tens of thousands of years ago, with the quiet Tasmanian tiger padding across the moss. And then there is the thunder sound of the HEC helicopters, and the drama of the barges with bulldozers. Protestors witnessed a huon pine being chain sawed down in front of them, just to provoke. But the protestors were committed to nonviolence, including not making the people wrong - just their ill considered actions. But as the police and the chain saws and the bulldozers came, and the politicians fudged their promises, there seemed no hope.

We defied the systemic foolishness anyway. More than 1200 people ended up getting arrested, tossed into the back of paddy wagons, and driven up the nauseous curved road back to Queenstown before being sent, in many cases, to Risdon Gaol. But the day Bob Brown walked out of his cell, he was elected into the Tasmanian Parliament, as a replacement for Norm Sanders, from the Australian Democrats, who had just been elected to the Federal Senate.

That election was my introduction into the hard yards of campaigning for an issue, not a party. I joined many knocking on doors in nearby marginal electorates, having to explain that the "No Dams" sticker applied to a state, Tasmania, that rarely experienced drought, and had (and would have for many years) excess electricity supply.

I met Bob Brown again outside the High Court later in 1983, while it was hearing the appeal that became the Franklin Dam Case. Brown was determined, as ever - when was he not? - and his mind was clicking over all the possibilities. When at last the High Court approved the actions of the Federal Government to make the South West a UNESCO World Heritage Area and protect its values, including stopping the dam, I went to see him speak in someone's house. Thirty of us huddled together in a small lounge room as he announced that now the Franklin campaign was over, a protest against native trees being woodchipped would be his priority.

And so it was. After leaving the Tasmanian Parliament, Brown would come up to the Australian Parliament, drink a milkshake at Aussie's deli for parliamentary staff, and then go off to lobby backbenchers. Members of all persuasions who would see him go by would leave their desks and call him into their offices. They liked him: they liked him a lot. Brown's simplicity, and good humoured willingness to listen and share, meant in turn they also listened with interest, for their own party's role in widespread foolishness, to how we could lose money selling our native forests to Japan so they could be turned into disposable chopsticks. He changed hearts.

And then he was a Senator himself. And now he is not. Bob Brown, once a doctor, then an activist, then a parliamentarian, is now retired with his partner Paul. When he came through Broome last month, Brown's message to the 450 strong meeting was this - the desecration of land at James Price Point, to construct a gas hub over dinosaur footprints and Aboriginal songlines, must not go ahead. He is back campaigning.

I've met Bob Brown a dozen times or so, and seen him speak and win over audiences of all kinds. I've also seen some people dig their heels in, and grow angry and frustrated that he should be so successful at promoting the environment, and a clean, green vision for the future, but I've seen them change too. But what has impressed me about Bob Brown has not been his call for hope, though he makes that call many times. He knows there are times when there is no hope, but he won't let it rest there. When there is no hope, Brown has given me, and many others, courage. That vision for the future: hope, and courage where there appears to be no hope, will live on, long after Bob Brown is a distant memory.

Adrian Glamorgan

Adrian Glamorgan is a passionate advocate of social change and environmentalism