The Bentley Effect — the story of the birth of a movement

It is rare to see such a powerful film as Brendan Shoebridge’s The Bentley Effect, which focuses on the successful struggle by Northern Rivers communities to save their land and water from the coal seam gas juggernaut at Bentley, near Lismore, NSW.

The power of community is often talked about, but this film shows how it actually happened, in a powerful tale of political awakening among several generations.

Shoebridge uses footage taken over five years to let the interviewees tell the story. He covers some of the back story to the Bentley struggle, including how key gasfield-free activists had come to this battle having learned valuable lessons during the campaign to save the Terania Forest, north of Lismore, during the 1970s.

The anti-unconventional gas movement in the Northern Rivers was really started when Arrow Energy started exploring the area in 2010 and the community sprang into action to save the Keerrong Valley.

Josh Fox’s film Gaslands was being shown around, and people quickly understood the risks associated with the industry, which was yet to set up in NSW.

Shoebridge frames his film around the unsuccessful struggle at Doubtful Creek to the ultimately successful one from 2012 to 2014 to force the NSW government to suspend Metgasco’s exploration licence. It details the birth of a mass movement and includes valuable insights into how it was done, including the painstaking and methodical reason and argument.

“Metgasco didn’t do their research”, states one activist early on, “because if they had they would never have come here.”

The reality, of course, was a lot more complicated. Experience in campaigning is only one of the necessary ingredients to win against the enormous power of the gas industry, supported by the industry body Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association (APPEA), the NSW Coalition government and the police.

Another vital ingredient was the ability to grow a diverse movement — to encourage and organise new people into taking action, to turn people who never thought they would be activists into activists. This was done by getting city and regional areas to sign up to the gasfield-free declaration; to conduct a non-binding council poll (which ended up with a massive 87% saying they wanted to be gasfield free) and with educational stalls at every available opportunity.

The non-violent direct action aspect of the campaign was also critical to its success and when violence did occur, the film showed who instigated it.

By 2014, the political pressure on the state government had built to the point where the police defied “Operation Stapler” — the order to break up the blockade at cost of $8 million — and the O’Farrell government suspended the licence.

The film showed how the Northern Rivers campaigners adopted a deliberate plan to politically diversify the movement, as well as seeking consensus on its mass and non-violence approach.

Critical mass is always what makes or breaks struggles such as this David and Goliath one. In the end, the “amber” and “red” text-outs proved that they could successfully mobilise thousands.

The Bentley Effect doesn’t prettify the struggle: it shows just how difficult the confrontations were, but also how humour deflected some of the fear. It shows bravery and courage. It shows the critical alliance between First Nations people, famers, city and regional-based people. It shows the magic that takes hold when people in struggle realise they could win. And it shows the joy of winning.

Often films of struggle centre on one or two heroes. In this case Shoebridge focuses on the 10,000 or so who put their hands up — a welcome and accurate tribute to any people-power movement.

“The Northern Rivers region of NSW has been a leading light in the battle against invasive mining and after the historic showdown at Bentley we now have a well-documented victory for the power of community and a major turning point in the battle for a safe clean future,” Shoebridge said.

“With so much hanging delicately in the balance it is ultimately unity, altruism and our connection to all we hold dear that we see emerging as the key ingredients to this timely story of hope and inspiration.”

Other struggles against other juggernauts could do worse than learn from this one, which not only won in Bentley but has set the scene for winning a gas ban in NSW similar to that achieved in Victoria this year.

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