Tasmania's High Water Mark


On 3 February 1983, in an attempt to catch the Labor Party off guard, Malcolm Fraser called an early Federal election for 5 March. Labor replaced Bill Hayden with Bob Hawke as its leader on the same day and quickly swung into the campaign.

Bob Brown told the national media that The Wilderness Society (TWS) and the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), which had joined together in a ‘National South-West Coalition’, would support the Labor Party, as well as the Democrats in the Senate. TWS and ACF also organised a large number of Franklin volunteers to campaign in 17 marginal seats where Labor had a good chance of winning. This national single-issue marginal seat campaigning was a first in Australia.

On 4 February, 20,000 people attended TWS’s Rally for Reason in Hobart, making it one of the largest per-capita rallies ever held in Australia. On 8 February the third and final stage of the Franklin blockade began, culminating in a large action on ‘G-day’, the last day before the Federal election media blackout began on 1 March (231 people were eventually arrested on that day).

On 17 February the 1000th arrest at the blockade took place and, audaciously, a week later then-Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray made camping in the national park in which the blockade was situated illegal, and many protesters were forcibly evicted.

Although TWS felt it and the Labor and Democrat parties had run an effective election campaign, it was not sure Hawke would win the election. In an echo of the brazenly political role it played in the 1972 Tasmanian State election at the height of the Lake Pedder campaign, the Hydro Electric Commission (HEC) tried to help Fraser by placing advertisements in major newspapers defending the Franklin scheme.

Not to be outdone, however, the National South-West Coalition placed the first-ever full-colour advertisements in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald featuring photographer Peter Dombrovskis’s unforgettable picture of Rock Island Bend on the lower Franklin. It showed a rocky island in the middle of the river surrounded by swirls of mist and water and was accompanied by the headline: "Could you vote for a Party that will destroy this?".

Another image of the campaign that TWS pushed at every turn was its "No Dams" triangular logo, the basic triangular form of which remains the logo of Green parties around Australia to this day.

Despite the uncertainty, in the end Labor was swept to power with a comfortable margin, winning 75 of the 125 seats in the House of Representatives thanks, in part, to the effective Franklin marginal seat campaign. As part of his election-night victory speech, Hawke reaffirmed that "the dam will not be built". One disgruntled Federal Liberal Party politician said of TWS’s part in the Hawke victory: "I cannot understand why an organisation with one thing on its mind should seek to turf out a democratically elected government".

Hawke quickly made good on his Franklin promise and, with HEC earthworks continuing apace, at the end of March Federal regulations forbidding dam works in the World Heritage Area were passed, backed by the passage of the Federal World Heritage Properties Conservation Act in May (which was similar to earlier legislation introduced by the Democrats).

The day after the regulations were put in place, the Tasmanian Government made it clear it would not take the loss lying down, declaring it would challenge the validity of the legislation in the High Court, an action which the pre-development Queensland Government joined.

The seven High Court judges considered the case from the end of May until mid June. The case largely rested on whether the Federal Government’s signing of the international World Heritage Convention gave it the external affairs power to override the Tasmanian legislation. TWS had its own representation in the courtroom but was only allowed a short address to the court, and was not allowed to show the judges photos of the Franklin. The Court’s Chief Justice said they could "inflame our minds with irrelevancies".

Brown and TWS grew frustrated with the legalities of the case, which seemed far removed from its perceptions of wilderness. TWS had no certainty of winning the case, although the court had upheld the Federal Government’s use of external affairs power in its 1982 Queensland Koowarta decision, which allowed it to intervene in an Aboriginal issue in that State. The Federal Government also argued its power over corporations and race relations gave it the power to intervene. Hawke raised the stakes by quietly indicating to TWS that if the court action did not go the Commonwealth’s way,
his Government would probably not pursue other measures to save the river.

The night before the Court’s decision was announced on 1 July, TWS knew it would either be ecstatic the next day or planning a continuation of the blockade. It would be heaven or hell. Brown talked about returning to jail if the case was lost and secret caches of food were placed throughout the Franklin area to enable the blockade to be continued if need be.

Heaven it was, though, when the Court announced it had decided by four to three to support the Federal Government’s halting of the scheme. The minority included the Chief Justice, Sir Harry Gibbs. Many pro-dam sympathisers argued the narrow margin meant it was a dubious victory but the margin was large enough for Brown and TWS.

The majority opinion was strengthened by the fact that three of the High Court’s four judges had been appointed by past Liberal-Country party governments. However it was viewed, TWS had won an historic victory that more than vindicated the daring it had shown throughout the campaign. Brown called it "a great day for Australia" and "a peoples’ victory".

Needless to say, there was bitterness among those who had wanted the dam. The head of the pro-dam group, The Organisation for Tasmanian Development, Kelvin McCoy, said: "as far as I’m concerned, the rest of Australia doesn’t exist". In an act of vandalism, a 3000-year-old Huon pine that was much visited by blockaders was destroyed. At the Federal level, Hawke attempted to soften the blow to the State by immediately offering significant financial compensation to the Tasmanian Government (which eventually came to $270 million).

The fight to save the Franklin River remains Australia’s biggest environment campaign. Only a handful of campaigns – including those to save the Great Barrier Reef and Fraser Island in the 1960s, the Daintree rainforests in the late 1980s, and the ultimately successful campaign to stop the Jabiluka uranium mine in Kakadu National Park in the 1990s – came close to rivalling the Franklin battle.

At the time, many of those people involved thought it would soon be eclipsed by bigger wilderness struggles but to this day it remains the biggest our country has seen. Its success was due to a combination of good management and, like so much of life, good luck. Campaigners learnt from many of the mistakes of Lake Pedder and the result was a well managed campaign carried by one organisation, which was bold, tackled the economic case against the dam and went national early on in the fight.

A major enduring downside of the Franklin victory, however, was the further polarisation of Tasmanian society, a trend that started with the Lake Pedder controversy but got much worse during the Franklin campaign; the government of Robin Gray, in particular, never seemed to resile from using the issue to divide the State.

However the victory is analysed, its significance remains with us today by forever putting mass environmental consciousness on the Australian map.

This is an edited extract from Tasmania’s Wilderness Battles: A History (Allen & Unwin, $29.95).

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