By Sarah Stephen
Last week marked the 10th anniversary of the decision to blockade the dam site on the Gordon that would have destroyed the Franklin, Australia's last wild river. It wasn't until seven months later that the last blockaders left the area, secure in the knowledge that they had won.
After the loss of the campaign to save Lake Pedder in the 1970s, the movement was reinvigorated by the Hydro Electric Commission's 1979 proposal to construct a huge dam on the lower Gordon which would totally obliterate the Franklin.
The group that had formed to campaign to preserve south-West Tasmania changed its name to the Wilderness Society in order to focus greater attention on the south-west's most distinguishing resource.
The Wilderness Society and the long-established Tasmanian Conservation Trust were joined by the Australian Conservation Foundation to mount a public interest campaign which was later to generate 30,000 letters of support in a fortnight.
Those involved in the campaign knew that they would need the support of masses of people if the Franklin River were to be saved, and to gain that support they would have to demonstrate that the Franklin was worth saving.
Film was found to be the single most successful means of conveying a feeling for the great wilderness to a potentially vast audience. The first film made, The Last Wild River, was a big breakthrough when it won acceptance by Tasmania's two commercial TV stations.
Evocative names were devised for many features of the river, names like Transcendence Reach, the Great Ravine, Serenity Sound, Thunderush — further attempting to convey its enchantment and beauties.
In June 1980, an estimated 10,000 people marched through the streets of Hobart, demanding that the Franklin be saved. This was at least three times the size of any previous rally in Tasmania.
This put an enormous amount of pressure on the state Labor government, forcing it to oppose the Franklin dam. However, it supported an alternative — the Gordon-above-Olga scheme. This proposal, although it was above the Gordon's junction with the Franklin, would still have drowned a huge chunk of wilderness.
Despite enormous pressure to support the "compromise", the Wilderness Society stood firm by its policy of no dams in south-west Tasmania and was supported by all the Franklin campaigners.
July 1980 was a month of remarkable political drama. Conservation, industry, union and HEC interest groups had spent unprecedented sums on an advertising blitz. People were bombarded with conflicting information. The anxiety of rank and file unionists was increased by unsubstantiated claims about the employment impact of not proceeding with the HEC's proposals. Estimates of the potential job losses ran as high as 10,000 (more than twice the total employment of the HEC).
The trade union campaign for the Gordon-Franklin scheme completely sidestepped the job-creating potential of Tasmania's other principal energy options — thermal and conservation. A lack of substantial information about energy options. was broken only by the Franklin activists, who presented a range of alternative and well-thought-out proposals to the HEC, arguing that a comprehensive energy efficiency program would delay the need for a new power development for at least 10 years and lead to massive capital savings.
The Legislative Council blocked the Gordon-above-Olga compromise proposed by the Labor government and insisted that the Gordon-below-Franklin scheme go ahead. The consequences were astounding: a parliamentary deadlock stalled the bulldozers for two years.
A referendum to break the deadlock in December 1981 produced a delightful result. The ballot paper gave people a choice only between two dams in the wilderness. In Australia's greatest ever act of electoral defiance, more than a third of voters wrote "No dams" on their ballot papers. The total informal vote was even higher. In various by-elections all over Australia, people scrawled "No dams" on their ballot papers as well.
In May 1982 the Liberal Party won office against a Labor Party deeply divided by the dams issue. New Premier Robin Gray immediately legislated for the Gordon-below-Franklin dam to go ahead. He threatened that Tasmania would secede from the Commonwealth if the federal government intervened to stop the dam.
Franklin campaigners turned their efforts to the mainland to draw more support. Rallies took place in cities all over Australia as preparations were made for what would be Australia's greatest ever environmental direct action.
On November 14, 1982, the Wilderness Society, led by Dr Bob
Brown, decided to blockade dam construction after the federal government decided not to intervene.
The blockade, which began a month later, drew massive media attention. More than 2500 people came from all parts of Australia and even from overseas to do support work, or direct action, or both. Only a third of the activists were from Tasmania.
A pro-dams rally in Hobart attracted 2500 people, illustrating the way the issue had sharply divided the community, but support was overwhelmingly on the side of the blockaders and the preservation of the south-west wilderness. There had been a massive turnaround in community attitudes since the proposal to dam the Franklin had first been made, when 70% had been in favour of it. By 1982, opinion polls consistently showed a two to one majority in favour of preserving the Franklin.
Throughout January, an average of 50 blockaders arrived daily in the south-west. Makeshift laws and special bail conditions made things as difficult as possible for the protesters. A total of 1217 arrests were made, most people being arrested simply for being there. Nearly 500 people were imprisoned for refusing to accept bail conditions. It became increasingly clear to protesters whose side the law was on,
Blockaders carried out daily actions, including occupations and attempts to impede machinery. Aborigines worked with blockaders and held their own protest at the destruction of their land. In February a rally in Hobart in opposition to the Franklin dam drew 20,000 people into the streets.
On March 1, during a special day of actions (labelled Green Day), 231 people were arrested as a regatta of river craft took to the Gordon River. In Hobart the Wilderness Society flag was hoisted atop the HEC building along with the "No dams" triangle. At Mt McCutcheon near the blockade site, a giant "No dams" was painted on the helipad.
On March 5 the Hawke Labor government was elected, having made a commitment to stop the dam. The federal government soon issued regulations forbidding HEC works in the World Heritage area. Three months later the High Court ruled in favour of the Commonwealth against a challenge by the Tasmanian government.
The campaign to save the Franklin opened up people's eyes to many things, perhaps most significantly the fact that the government will try to pursue its own agenda (which often appears remarkably similar to that of industry and big business) even if this goes against the wishes of the majority.
A remark made by an HEC spokesperson, after an opinion poll
commissioned by the HEC had shown that Tasmanians opposed flooding the Franklin very neatly sums up business's contempt for democracy: "If the parliament tries to work through popular decisions, we're doomed in this state and doomed everywhere".
Put another way: The destroyers of our environment can be stopped when we join together and use our collective strength.