…And Don't Come Back


The Australian leg of the World Rally Championship held earlier this month in the Northern Rivers of NSW attracted very little national media attention from sports writers or the TV networks.

Perhaps that’s because rallying doesn’t rate very highly here, compared with Europe where top drivers are idolised. Perhaps it was because there weren’t any leading Australian drivers competing. Perhaps it was also a bit because the event wasn’t being held close to Sydney, the organisers instead having chosen one of the most environmentally sensitive and diverse regions of Australia to stage the three-day motor race.

But it did rate a mention on the news pages of the Sydney Morning Herald for an incident of rock-throwing that supposedly happened on the first day of the competition. Except no one knows for sure if rocks were actually hurled at a rally car, leading to the cancellation of one leg of the race.

Two weeks later and even the organisers, Rally Australia, can’t be certain, although conflicting reports have gone out to the media from spokesman Garry Connelly. The incident was also condemned by the two "offical" protest groups and no-one has yet been charged or questioned.

However, none of that matters. It has now been enshrined in folklore, taken up by international media, probably meaning that rallying in this country is now firmly associated with protest. Ask someone about Rally Australia and they’ll probably say: "That’s when the rocks were thrown."

The weeks leading up to this event drew the best and the worst out of people. Rent-a-crowd protestors began to descend on this most beautiful of regions, the Green Cauldron, urging people to come out and take direct action. The atmosphere was as highly charged as the rally cars.

A day or two before racing was due to start the local police chief claimed dead koalas had been frozen and would be thrown on to the rally route as "evidence" of road kill by the rally cars. Of course, this was just spin, but the local media lapped it up.

Then the man who had led the anti-rally protest through months of painstaking and careful negotiation with police, politicians and officials quit before the event was due to start. He could no longer stand to see activists, especially those who had arrived on the scene lately, taking the lead, with some people arguing that the fight to stop the event should be taken to the next level. Where letter-writing and petitions had failed, where court battles had been stymied, so direct action would win, that argument went. Revolution was in the air.

That’s why, when the AAP reported the rock-throwing story, few even bothered to question whether or not it was true. It was as if that type of action was a foregone conclusion.

And what of the rally drivers? One of the best in the world, the man leading the championship and a legend in the sport, could see both sides.

Sebastien Loeb, a Frenchman, wrote on his website: "We had a demonstration by environmentalists, and two stages were cancelled … I understand them. I had a discussion with some of them. They live in the middle of nature, in tranquility. They are understandably not delighted to have cars passing sometimes just in front of their home, and what’s more, some stages went through [national]parks! Normally, these parks are completely closed to traffic. So they have a grudge against their politicians, who circumvented the law so that the rally is held here and partly in the parks."

And further: "There can’t be a rally culture here, or rather, we saw that there was an anti-culture with demonstrations by environmentalists. I understand, I did not come here against them. So, it became uncomfortable to run in hostile terrain. I prefer to go where people are happy to see us."

Is any of this important? It was just a motor race. It was only three days. It is only coming here every other year, alternating with New Zealand. There wasn’t the carnage of wildlife that anti-rally groups had feared, according to preliminary reports. No-one was hurt, despite the fact that it is not uncommon for spectators and competitors to be seriously injured or killed in rally events. Some local business claim to have done well over the weekend. The rally organisers have trumpeted at how well ticket sales went, and have said they intend to come back.

So does any of this really matter? Yes, it does. The NSW Government made the event happen through special legislation, denying residents the opportunity to have their say. That’s the reason hundreds came out over the three days, lining the route, heckling, waving home-made banners, arguing passionately with officials and drivers at every opportunity. They believed — and still believe — that democracy has been denied, that the mandarins and politicos in Macquarie Street don’t care what people in general, or their constituents in particular, think, feel or say.

Now, post-rally, a survey will be conducted to determine what economic benefit this event has had to the region. It’s already tacitly understood that the social benefits were zero.

What does Rally Australia have to say? Nothing. I put in a request to their leg man in the Tweed, Gary Upson, for an interview, with him, with Connelly and with chairman of Rally Australia and former NRMA boss, Alan Evans.

Upson’s reply was: "Unfortunately due to business and other commitments neither Alan Evans nor Garry Connelly are available for an interview. I must also advise that my current workload prevents myself from being available for an interview."

What a shame. Although my hunch is the rally won’t be coming back to the Northern Rivers again. Two cheers for democracy. But if it doesn’t return here, where will it go? And wherever that is, will that community be overruled too?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.