Lessons from the campaign that saved the Franklin


The River Runs Free: Exploring & Defending Tasmania's Wilderness

By Geoff Law

Viking, 2008

292 pages, $32.95

The victorious campaign to save the Franklin River in Tasmania's south-west wilderness has gone down in history as one of the greatest environmental campaigns in Australia, and 25 years on it still serves to demonstrate the power of mass action to people young and old.

Geoff Law's book The River Runs Free provides an exciting personal account of his involvement in this ground-breaking campaign.

As a young bushwalker growing up in Victoria, Law, who is now a prominent campaigner for the Wilderness Society in Tasmania, realised that "wilderness refreshed the human spirit", but felt powerless to save the forests of the Victorian Alps from logging and development.

His similarly fatalistic attitude that the destruction of the Franklin River in Tasmania would be impossible to stop, was soon challenged by others, and he was drawn into the campaign.

Law describes media stunts, like floating a giant platypus on the Yarra river and parading sheep dressed like politicians on the lawns outside Parliament House in Hobart, along with national information tours by Bob Brown. Brown, now a Greens senator, helped to found the Tasmanian Wilderness Society and gave up his medical practice to focus on saving the Franklin after being one of the first people to successfully raft down it in 1976.

Law notes that due to the campaign, "everyone was talking about the Franklin. Rafting that wild river was the thing to do if you were young and adventurous in the summer of '81." His story of negotiating the raging river rapids as an inexperienced rafter with a mismatched companion is a humourous and enjoyable read.

However activists today will probably be more interested in the chapters that follow the many twists and turns in the campaign to save the river from flooding and destruction. A key tactic was to "promote the mainstream appeal of the south-west's stunning natural beauty".

This included placing the first-ever full colour advertisements in mainland newspapers featuring photographer Peter Dombrovskis' iconic picture of Rock Island Bend on the lower Franklin.

The Tasmanian state government held a referendum in December 1981 that gave people a choice of two dam locations. Thanks to some TV ads and a state-wide door-knocking campaign, the referendum made Australian electoral history, with 45% of voters casting an informal vote and 32% of these writing "no dams" on their ballot papers. Law writes that this strategy "clearly appealed to a larrikin streak in voters who resented being deprived of a choice". The fact that protestors had been able to bring the issue to national awareness was demonstrated by the fact that 40% of people also wrote "no dams" on their ballot papers in a federal by-election in Flinders, Victoria in December 1982.

As news of the Tasmanian government's plans to dam the beautiful and remote Franklin River in order to generate electricity spread, rallies and marches took place all over the country. For example, more than 15,000 in Melbourne on November 13 1982 and an unprecedented 20,000 people took to the streets in Hobart to protest in March 1983.

Thousands of people travelled from interstate to take part in the remote river blockade, which ran from December 14, 1982 until March 1, 1983. Over 1200 people were arrested during the campaign and over 500 were jailed.

The River Runs Free gives some insight into the discussions and debates held at the leadership level and the rationale behind some of the hard tactical decisions that were made.

For example, whether a blockade would turn the public offside and the pros and cons of Bob Brown standing for parliament were "debated endlessly". Brown ended up standing as a "no-dams" independent in the May 1982 elections after the Democrat Norm Sanders brought down the state government with a no-confidence motion.

As campaign co-ordinator in Braddon, Law illustrates the difficulties that "no-dams" candidates faced in that rural electorate at the time. The movement suffered a defeat at the polls.

However, later in the campaign, Sanders quit parliament in protest against the state government's treatment of protesters and Brown was elected on a recount. On January 5 1983, Brown found himself walking out of prison and into parliament.

The mass movement, combined with determined lobbying, forced the federal Labor opposition to take a position against the dam. The dam became a significant election issue in 1983.

The dam was stopped after the election of the Hawke Labor government. The Tasmanian Liberal government led by Robin Gray (who is now on the board of logging company Gunns Ltd) refused to consent and the matter was settled in the High Court when it ruled on July 1, 1983 that the Commonwealth could use its powers to stop the dam.

Although blockaders generally maintained a disciplined non-violence stance, Law recounts many instances of aggression by pro-dam forces, including once when he escaped from a hydro workers' camp after being captured by a driver.

Law grounds the campaign in its political and economic context, explaining how heavy industry, such as the owners of aluminium and zinc smelters and pulp-and-paper mills, were driving the plan for 39 dams to be constructed in Tasmania to generate cheap electricity.

These companies formed a "formidable alliance" with the powerful Hydro-Electric Commission, certain unions and the state government to drive forward the hydro-industrialisation policy, and to question this in the small island state at the time was "political heresy".

Law highlights some of the innovations in environmental campaigning that came out of the Franklin campaign, such as the use of opinion polls to demonstrate community opposition, the use of single-issue marginal seat election campaigning and of course the strategy of direct-action blockading combined with mass demonstrations in the cities.

Law effectively portrays the ups and downs of being a committed grassroots activist, but no doubt leaves readers inspired. He notes that once work had been started on the dam, "The antidote to despair was action", and that even in the face of impossible obstacles, activists gave each other hope.

The roles of some key women who helped to lead and carry out the campaign are given prominence.

The saving of the Franklin means the story has a happy ending, yet Law urges us to continue the fight for the wilderness that is still under assault, saying that "The biggest and fastest destroyer of wild country in Tasmania today is logging". As one of the original 20 defendants in Gunns' law suit against environmentalists, Law is personally feeling the wrath of the giant logging company's quest for profits.

He points out that the support by governments for Gunns' proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill, has ignited a huge fight on the scale of the Franklin campaign.

He laments that "Governments everywhere let down the people they represent by backing resource-hungry corporations".