The woman who tried to save Lake Peddar

Whatever happened to Brenda Hean?

Directed by Scott Millwood

Written by Scott Millwood & Mira Robertson

Distributed by Gill Scrine & Little Films

Whatever happened to Brenda Hean?

By Scott Millwood

Allen & Unwin, 2008

256 pages, $26.95 (pb)

As the dam waters began rising over Lake Pedder in 1972, Brenda Hean and Max Price flew out of Hobart in a Tiger Moth, heading to Canberra to write "Save Lake Pedder" in the sky over Parliament House. It was a last ditch effort to draw national attention to the destruction of a precious and beautiful part of Tasmania, but within hours their plane had disappeared and no wreckage or bodies have ever been found.

Hence the title of the book and film created by Scott Millwood - Whatever happened to Brenda Hean?

Millwood sets out to uncover what happened to Hean and Price by interviewing family members, old Pedder campaigners and witnesses who saw their plane that day, as well as researching old police records and newspaper archives. He offered a $100,000 reward for any information leading to conclusive evidence, and people who had never spoken up before contacted him to tell their story.

It leads to a fascinating look at the rise of the environment movement in Tasmania and the effects that had on people, the close links between business and government and the fierce environmental battles that have taken place ever since.

Hean seemed the least likely person to be an environmental radical. She was a respected member of Hobart society, a dedicated Christian and a loyal monarchist. She also enjoyed bushwalking in remote parts of Tasmania and had the chance to visit Lake Pedder, an isolated glacial beach in the Tasmanian south-west.

In 1969 it was announced that this lake would be flooded and turned into a dam. The Hydro-Electric Commission was intent on industrialising Tasmania, and this dam would provide cheap electricity to attract business and jobs to the island.

Many of those who had visited this lake described it as a place of momentous beauty with a transformative power, and became determined to save it.

Hean was almost 60 when she became the spokesperson for the Lake Peddar campaign, using her connections with powerful people in the state to lobby for the lake's preservation, including presenting a petition to the Queen. But she became more and more frustrated when her pleas were politely listened to and then ignored.

Millwood firmly places the story of Hean and the Pedder campaign within the context of current environmental struggles in Tasmania, such as the campaign to stop the Gunns pulp mill and ongoing forest campaigns.

The book recounts an anecdote of how the heads of the two most powerful government divisions, the Hydro-Electric Commission and the Forestry Commission, met up over a great map of Tasmania and divided the land between them to be chopped up or dammed.

This history sets the stage for the Tasmania of today, where the enormous power of the hydro commission has been replaced by the power of forestry and Gunns Ltd. Millwood compares the Tasmanian parliament of 1972 that retrospectively declared it legal to flood an area inside a national park, to the parliament of 2007 that made it legal for the pulp mill to skip the mandatory assessment for projects of state significance.

The book also includes an article by Richard Flanagan, one of the most outspoken critics of forest destruction in Tasmania.

The book and the film follow the same structure, although the book includes more detail such as the original police reports, old newspaper articles and editorials, letters to the editor and from Hean to family members. It traces the campaign to save Peddar from its beginnings, through the 1972 election with large street protests, until the dam was built and the lake was slowly flooded.

The book goes into more detail about the founding of the United Tasmania Group, the precursor to the first Green party in the world, which Hean played a central role in setting up and for which she ran as a candidate. It also reports the meeting Hean had with BLF leader Jack Mundey, who offered to lead "blue bans" to save the lake much like the successful green bans in which workers refused to demolish areas in Sydney of great national significance.

Because Mundey was a communist, Hean refused, turning down a source of power that could have undermined the authority of the government and saved Lake Pedder, which in turn could have shaped the environment movement in Australia into something very different from what it is today.

Perhaps the jobs versus environment rut that has plagued the forest debate since and is a major obstacle in the climate-change movement's efforts to close down the coal industry, could have been weakened from the start.

In the 35 years since Hean's plane disappeared, many theories have circulated as to what actually happened. Millwood investigates them all.

Did the plane crash in Bass Strait and the strong currents drag all the wreckage out to New Zealand? Did they land in the thick forest in the state's north-east and is that why the highly conservative Premier Reece unexpectedly turned it into a national park the following year?

Then there are those who claim that Hean wasn't the target after all but her pilot, Max Price, who had enemies of his own.

The most damning evidence Millwood uncovers is how unsatisfactory the original police investigation was. Key witnesses were not interviewed and evidence, such as the death threat Hean received by phone the night before she flew and the hangar that was broken into, were discounted. Millwood suggests that the police were instructed by the government to find nothing.

Injustice is not a thing of the past and the film explores in more detail the violence against conservationists today to which the police turn a blind eye. Revealing footage shows the ugly violence directed against protesters, and forest activists give testimonies about the abuse and assaults they have received.

Greens Senator Christine Milne speaks of the death threats she has received and recounts the case of Greens Senator Bob Brown who was shot at by a logger at Farmhouse Creek in 1986. The police were reluctant to investigate it as an attempted murder and eventually charged the man with the minor offence of discharging a rifle on a Sunday.

Geoff Law of the Wilderness Society tells how he was grabbed by his collar and shoved up against a wall by government official Paul Lennon, who went on to become Tasmania's premier. Today's conservationists believe Brenda Hean was murdered because they have experienced firsthand this type of violence.

This is a story set in Tasmania, but the collusion between government and big business is not something unique to this state as the book and film imply. Remarkably, Lake Peddar has not been completely destroyed by the flood waters and underneath a layer of silt it is intact. There is a campaign to drain the lake and restore it to what is was.

Millwood argues that such an act could be an acknowledgement of the destruction that took place and help reconcile a divided state.