25 years on — celebrating the saving of the Franklin

The campaign to stop the damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania's south-west wilderness resulted in a historic victory for the environment movement in 1983. More than 1000 people came together on July 1 to mark the 25th anniversary of this victory in a night of celebration at the Grand Chancellor's Federation Ballroom.

Greens Senator Bob Brown hosted the event — which included archival film footage, music and speakers — and received a standing ovation for his leadership of the campaign and his ongoing championing of environmental causes.

Determination to save the Franklin arose out of the defeat of the battle to save Lake Peddar from being dammed. The Tasmanian state government held a referendum in December 1981 that gave people a choice of two dam locations. Thirty-two per cent of voters wrote "No dams" on their ballot papers.

Broadcaster Peter Thompson proclaimed that the Franklin campaign "defined our generation" and "was the birth of environmentalism".

Wilderness Society (TWS) campaigner Geoff Law explained how, in the face of the full force of the state, it was often difficult to see how the campaign could prevail. There were many clashes with dam construction workers and police, and more than 1200 people were arrested and 500 jailed. Thousands came from inter-state to take part in the blockade. Massive pubic meetings and marches took place all over the country.

The mass movement forced the federal Labor opposition to take a position against the dam, and active campaigning in marginal seats as well as the ongoing blockade meant that the dam became a significant election issue in 1983. Ultimately the river was saved when Bob Hawke and the Labor Party won the federal election (even though the ALP lost every Tasmanian seat) and agreed to stop the dam. The Tasmanian Liberal government led by Robin Gray refused to consent and the matter was settled in the High Court when it ruled that the Commonwealth could use its powers to stop the dam.

The "No dams" green triangles were the precursor to today's Greens triangles, and the campaign led to Brown's election to state parliament (when the anti-dam Democrat Norm Sanders quit parliament in disgust at the jailing of protesters and the recount led to Brown's victory while he was still locked up in Risdon prison!) The campaign also gave birth to TWS and the Australian Greens.

Aboriginal activists Michael Mansell and Ros Langford, who were both arrested during the blockade, spoke at the celebration event of the work they undertook to counteract racism within the no-dams movement. They pointed out that it was Aboriginal land and that the existence of sacred caves and other important Indigenous sites within the Franklin played a significant part in saving the river.

Hawke told the gathering that "Australia can have both environment and development". He said the campaign won "because of a combination of unparalleled leadership, passion and bravery shown by the protesters and leadership in government". He said the victory could best be celebrated by fighting global warming today.

Award-winning writer Richard Flanagan, who nearly drowned on the first day of the blockade when he was leading a party down the river in a raft, said the campaign liberated him and led him to becoming a writer. "The Franklin was a moment when people all across this nation said that there were things that mattered more than power and money", Flanagan said.

He highlighted the power of the mass movement, saying, "Despite the great bravery of the blockaders, it was mortgage-belt Australia who saved the Franklin. It taught the lesson that great things happen because ordinary people are too often dismissed as being ordinary."

"Even if it takes civil disobedience on the level of the Franklin", Flanagan said, "we will stop Gunns' pulp mill". The mill, which has been approved by the state and federal governments for construction in the Tamar Valley, is widely opposed. "We will again go to jail in our tens and our hundreds and our thousands and that mill will never be built!" The audience stood up and erupted in wild applause at this, leaving Tasmanian Labor Premier David Bartlett undoubtedly feeling uncomfortable in his seat at the front of the room.