Lake Pedder: the beginning of a movement


By Natasha Simons

On September 8, 1972, Brenda Hean and Max Price, members of the Lake Pedder Action Group, waved goodbye to friends and relatives as their Tiger Moth plane taxied down the airstrip just outside Hobart. Their mission was to fly to Canberra and skywrite the message "Save Lake Pedder" to the federal government in an effort to stop the flooding of the lake. They have been missing ever since.

Twenty years ago the campaign to save Lake Pedder was lost, but its lessons were well learned by the new green movement. The fight to save Lake Pedder laid the foundations for the overwhelming success of the Franklin "no dams!" campaign in the early 1980s, and it inspired many environmental activists — some of whom, such as Bob Brown, hold seats in Parliament today.

Lake Pedder, in Tasmania's wild south-west, is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful regions in the world. By 1946 Pedder had become a base for expeditions into all parts of the south-west. In 1955, 24 000 hectares were set aside as the Lake Pedder National Park. Bushwalkers, tourists and nature lovers came from afar to experience the beauty of Lake Pedder.

In 1967 the Hydro-Electric Commission proposed to build a power scheme in the Middle Gordon. This meant that Lake Pedder would be drowned by the damming of the Huon and Serpentine Rivers, which lay to the east and west of the lake.

In May 1967, the proposal was tabled in the state parliament. There was an immediate public outcry. Lake Pedder supporters began a petition to stop the proposal and collected 10,000 signatures, the largest number that had ever been collected in Tasmania. As the pressure mounted, the Labor government of "Electric Eric" Reece was forced to establish a select committee to determine the viability of the HEC proposal, and to look at alternatives.

However, the committee merely rubber-stamped the proposal. Two days later, on August 24, 1967, the enabling legislation was passed. Then the campaign to save Lake Pedder really began.

In 1969 the Reece government lost office in the wake of public discontent over the issue and the new government, a coalition of the Liberal and Centre parties headed by Angus Bethune, found itself in a difficult situation.

In March 1971 Brenda Hean and Louis Shoobridge, two prominent campaigners for Lake Pedder, organised a public meeting which

packed the Hobart Town Hall. Public opinion on the issue had polarised. The public meeting proposed to call a referendum on the issue, but the "Shoobridge proposal", as it became known, was defeated by a government wholeheartedly backing the HEC.

The grassroots activists refused to give up. They formed the Lake Pedder Action Group (LPAG), which took the issue to the federal government. As a result, Prime Minister William McMahon directed his unsympathetic environment minister, Peter Howsden, to raise an alternative scheme with Bethune. The Tasmanian premier responded with a resounding "No".

Just as it seemed things were lost, the Bethune government was forced to the polls, and the environmentalists seized the opportunity. Again a public meeting was called in the Hobart Town Hall. Out of it the first green party, the United Tasmania Group (UTG), was formed. The UTG fielded candidates, among them Brenda Hean, with very diverse backgrounds but who were united in their desire to save Lake Pedder from the HEC.

The UTG polled well and, despite HEC attempts to discredit the campaign, Lake Pedder gained international attention, including support from organisations such as UNESCO. On July 24, 1972, 17,500 signatures reached the new premier, and the LPAG mounted a national campaign.

A few days before Brenda Hean and Max Price set off for Canberra, Hean had received an anonymous phone call from someone pressuring her to give up the campaign or "go for a swim". The plane hangar was found to have been broken into and the safety beacon, normally stored on the plane, had been removed. There was never a proper inquiry into the case and no wreckage was ever found.

The Pedder campaigners now put their hopes on the newly elected federal Labor government, which mounted a federal-state inquiry. The Tasmanian government refused to participate, but the committee in June 1973 reported the area was too important to destroy. The inquiry recommended a moratorium on flooding so that the feasibility of saving the lake could be addressed. It adopted LPAG's recommendations to pay the costs of the moratorium and any costs of modifying the scheme to save the lake. The weary LPAG activists could sense victory.

But the premier ignored the inquiry and gave the HEC the go-ahead. In March 1973 the vigil camp to save wildlife threatened by the rising waters was abandoned, and Lake Pedder was drowned. Tasmanian environmentalists had suffered their first great defeat.

In 1979, the HEC released details of another proposal, this time to flood the Franklin River, one of the last great wilderness areas in the world. This time it was met by a much

tougher, more unified and stronger opposition.

The Franklin activists, headed by figures like Bob Brown, had learned how to run a campaign. They didn't only argue that the Franklin should be saved, as the Pedder campaigners had done; they also presented a range of alternative and well thought-out proposals to the HEC. They gained national and international support for their campaign and employed direct action tactics as well. The Franklin was one of the biggest actions of civil disobedience the country had ever witnessed, with 1217 people arrested.

The Franklin blockade polarised the community on the West Coast. The issue tore the Tasmanian ALP apart, and it has never fully recovered from the blow.

The Franklin campaign was won, and in 1986 Bob Brown was elected to state parliament on a wave of green consciousness. Three years later, during which time the campaign for Wesley Vale was fought and won, he was joined by four other Green Independents.

"The failure of Lake Pedder was needed in a way", says Green Independent Christine Milne, "to allow the fights for the Franklin and Wesley Vale to succeed. When the lake went under, there was a wide sense of guilt that made people feel they would never again allow that to happen without doing something."

The momentum built up during the Lake Pedder and Franklin campaigns has been lost to the green movement in recent times. The electoral strategy of some sections has changed the focus from mobilising people to making changes through parliament. Lobbying the ALP has also proven largely ineffective for, while the federal Labor government has espoused green rhetoric, it has for the most part ignored environmental issues.

The recession has pushed the issue of living standards and jobs to the forefront. Big business, the government and the media all counterpose jobs to saving the environment, trying to drive a wedge between environmental and social justice issues.

The creation of jobs and defence of living standards need to be at the forefront of the green agenda, with the emphasis on environmentally sustainable jobs. By taking up more of the social justice agenda, the green movement may link up with others fighting for social change and revive the grassroots activity that can challenge the powers that be.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.