The Franklin Blockade

The Franklin Blockade

Clive Hamilton tells the story of the Franklin Blockade, one of the greatest successes of the Australian green movement

National South-West Coalition, Vote for the Franklin: Because Only Your Vote Can Save It, 1981, courtesy Australian Conservation Foundation, Tasmanian Wilderness Society and Liz Dombrovskis, nla.cat-vn6419284

When bushwalkers made the arduous trek to Lake Pedder in south-west Tasmania, they were often lost for words to describe the magic of the lake’s ancient still waters and its sparkling beach of pink quartzite. In 1972, the struggle for words ended; the lake was flooded when a dam was built downstream by the Hydro-Electric Commission (HEC). The campaign to save Lake Pedder had run for several years, with growing desperation, but now the battle was decisively lost. Some believe that the tragedy of Lake Pedder galvanised a movement and made victories elsewhere possible. And it was the prompt that led to the formation of the Australian Greens.

In 1976, four years after the bitter disappointment over the flooding of Lake Pedder, 16 activists met at Bob Brown’s house in Liffey to found the Tasmanian Wilderness Society. When Brown became its second director in 1979, the 34-year-old found himself leading the most influential campaign in Australia’s environmental history, stopping the proposed damming of the Franklin River in Tasmania’s magnificent south-west.

The planning for the Franklin blockade in the summer of 1982–1983 was long and thorough. When the time came, thousands from Tasmania and the mainland signed up and were organised into affinity groups of six–ten for mutual support. The Wilderness Society’s Blockade Handbook reinforced the commitment to non-violence: ‘For the benefit of the campaign we ask you to refrain from aggressive behaviour of any kind, including damage to property’.

In December 1981, the Labor government gave Tasmanians the opportunity to express their views in a special referendum. They could vote for a new dam on the Gordon River above its junction with the Franklin or they could vote for a new dam on the Gordon River below its junction with the Franklin. It was Hobson’s choice. After a vigorous grassroots campaign by conservation groups, 45 per cent defiantly wrote ‘No dams’ on their ballot papers.

Left: G.W.H., Franklin River Stage 3 Blockade,Tasmanian Wilderness Society poster, 1983, nla.cat-vn6419395; Right: Tasmanian Wilderness Society, Write ‘No Dams’ on Your Ballot Paper, voting card for ACT House of Assembly elections, 1982, nla.cat-vn2600354

It was necessary to shift the focus away from politicians and onto the majestic scenery of the region. The sublime photographs of Peter Dombrovskis gave mainlanders a vicarious stake in the Franklin’s preservation. Who could obliterate Rock Island Bend, featured on the poster at the top of this article? If the blockade itself could not prevent construction work, it could release a raging torrent of public opposition. Against the rising tide of ‘economic rationalism’—which saw some try to put dollar values on ‘natural assets’—the Wilderness Society decided to appeal directly to the intrinsic worth of wild places:

Whether arguing on scientific, economic or spiritual grounds, the advocates of wilderness are linked by an intuitive conviction that to destroy these last fragments of wild Earth is akin to destroying ourselves.

Huge numbers of Australians shared the campaigners’ intuitive conviction. After months of logistical planning, in mid-December 1982 they flocked to the little town of Strahan, the launching pad of the blockade. Six thousand people arrived and, over the next three months, there were 1,272 arrests. It is a fact rarely noticed that those engaged in civil disobedience are usually those who have thought most deeply about their obligations to the law. Some 450 refused to accept the bail conditions imposed by the local courts—that is, to stay away from the protest areas—and were sent down to Risdon Prison in Hobart. Almost all of those arrested subsequently had the charges dropped or were acquitted.

After the local council excluded protesters from Strahan’s campsite, a farmer offered a paddock, soon filled with tents and dubbed ‘Greenie Acres’. From Strahan and the ‘Up River’ base camp near the dam site, protesters set out to impede dam works. With their flotilla of ‘duckies’ they attempted to block the passage of earthmoving equipment. A communications centre, put together in Hobart and transported to Strahan and then upriver, was essential to getting news of the blockade to the outside world. Telephones in Strahan were scarce, with journalists competing for access.

The organisers decided to halt the blockade over Christmas. Soon after it resumed, a truck arrived in Strahan carrying a bulldozer. Despite attempts to stop it, the dozer was loaded onto a barge headed upriver for the dam site, sparking the most intense phase of the blockade. Protesters took to the river in their rubber boats but the vessel towing the barge simply ploughed through them. A couple of protesters donned scuba gear and took to the river’s icy, tea-coloured waters. By law, motorboats are banned from entering a zone within 120 metres of a diver’s flag. But the barge passed straight over the top of diver Cam Douglas. By good fortune, it did not snag the rope and chew him up. 

Jerry De Gryse, Welcome Party on Arrival at Upper River Camp via the Boat J-Lee-M, 1983, nla.cat-vn6978126

Women were heavily involved in the organisation of the blockade and the action itself. For many, it was the women’s movement in action and the mutual support and camaraderie were intense. One blockader said she could not have joined the protest without the support of six people back in Hobart, including those sharing care for her nine-year-old son, adding ‘When my son phoned his school to say that he was having the day off to visit his mum in gaol, the teacher said, “Good for her”’.

As construction work upriver proceeded and the protest dragged on, there were times of trepidation, exhaustion and despair. Protesters made music and sang to express their feelings, lift their spirits and build resolve. The music gave the events a romance that softened hearts in living rooms around the nation, and around the world where the blockade was splashed across front pages. Many of the blockaders later reflected that they had never felt as free as when they were up the Franklin, and had never again felt those moments of exuberance and moral steadfastness.

While the blockade shifted the focus away from parliaments and premiers and onto the citizens’ fight to protect a precious wilderness, in the end the decision would have to be a political one. The ALP’s federal election win on 5 March 1983 was met with exhilaration among environmentalists across the country. The new parliament, with the votes of the Democrats in the Senate, soon passed legislation to protect Tasmania’s south-west. The Franklin blockade earned the most conspicuous place in the folklore of Australian environmentalism.

Professor Clive Hamilton is a public intellectual and author of a number of influential books arguing for action on climate change. This is an adapted extract from his book What Do We Want? The Story of Protest in Australia, released by NLA Publishing in November 2016.