Back to All News

30th anniversary of the Franklin River blockade

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the Franklin River blockade and the 30th anniversary of the World Heritage listing.  Without the blockade, the World Heritage listing and a change in Australia's federal government one of the world's most spectacular river basins would have been destroyed forever.

Last week in the Senate I thanked the 6,000 peaceful protesters who came from across the globe to protect the Franklin River.  Although they were breaking the law of the day, it is interesting to reflect that in 2008, for the 25th anniversary, many of the campaigners came together for a big party in Tasmania and were joined in merriment by some of the police and dignitaries who had not only opposed but arrested them. Many laughs were had about old times that night. No-one was in doubt that the outcome had been a good one for Tasmania.

I thanked all the protectors, and so should all Tasmanians. Why? Conservationists are often labeled economic vandals in my state. The truth is, given time to reflect on history, they are quite the opposite. They have turned out to be state builders. They have delivered positive, sustainable, structural change to the economy of my home state. With all the doom and gloom currently surrounding Tasmania's economy, our wild places and the tourism they attract is one bright light in the economy. Our protected, wild and rare World Heritage areas are critical to our Tasmanian economy and future prosperity.

SENATOR PETER WHISH-WILSON: Tasmania has become one of the most inspirational eco-destinations in the world. It is world famous for its wilderness landscapes and the diversity of its wildlife, having 19 national parks and reserves covering 45 per cent of the state. Around half of this area is located in the Tasmanian Wilderness, a World Heritage site and one of the last expanses of temperate wilderness in the world, which includes the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, home of the famous Overland Track, and the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. Tonight I focus on this last national park.

The pristine waters of the Franklin River flow from the snowy highlands in central Tasmania through lowland forests and a string of gorges, and then through Macquarie Harbour to the Southern Ocean. For those of you who have not been there, the Franklin River is a truly wild place.  Its water is crystal clear and it is abundant with wildlife. There are no roads, hotels, farms or factories on its banks. Next year marks the 30th anniversary of the Franklin River blockade and the 30th anniversary of the World Heritage listing.  Without the blockade, the World Heritage listing and a change in Australia's federal government one of the world's most spectacular river basins would have been destroyed forever.

Respected US adventure magazine Outdoor recently named the Franklin River as No. 1 of its top 10 river journeys in the world. In 1982 this spectacular and wild river was put under serious threat when work began on the first of four dams which would flood the Franklin River to harness the energy of the water for hydroelectricity. In his role as Director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, Dr Bob Brown, in mid-1982 announced at a press conference that the group would mount a peaceful protest to defend the wild and spectacular Franklin.

The Franklin blockade began on 14 December 1982, and at the same time, in Paris, the World Heritage Committee walked past a large group of peaceful protestors holding banners saying, 'Save the Franklin'. The World Heritage Committee eventually voted to list Tasmania's wilderness and wild rivers, including the Franklin River, in the register for World Heritage properties.

Back in Tasmania the stakes were high and the odds were against protestors, who were sitting peacefully in cruise boats and red-and-yellow rubber rafts. They formed a chain of small boats across the Gordon River to prevent or block barges carrying bulldozers and other heavy machinery from reaching the proposed site of dam construction. Fifty people were arrested on the first day, and in the following six weeks a total of 1,300 people were arrested; many went to jail.

Throughout the campaign weekend workshops were held at the Liffey Baptist Youth Camp, where blockaders learned the theory of peaceful protest, and did role plays and practiced techniques on how to prevent violence and deal with potentially angry workers, police or politicians. There was a lot of fear amongst the blockaders, campaigners and organisers, as almost none of the approximate total of 6,000 people who came to Strahan to defend the Franklin River-let alone the 1,300 who were arrested-had ever been in trouble with the law previously.

At the time they did know that their non-violent strategy, which they had learned from the Quakers and from Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, was soon going to stop the dam and protect the wild Franklin River from destruction for future generations of Tasmanians-us and our children-and for the visitors from across the globe.

As this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Franklin River blockade, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many people involved in the campaign. It is impossible to acknowledge everyone by name but I would like to acknowledge at least some of the key people involved, starting with Bob Brown, who spearheaded the campaign. Then there was Judy Mahon, who coordinated and looked after the business side of things; Karen Alexander, who engaged and recruited people on the mainland; Lilith Waud and Kathie Plowman, who were key blockade organisers; Denny Hamill, who captained the old tourist boat the J-Lee-M and brought people up and down the river; Reg Morrison, who owned the boat; Ian Cohen, who came down from northern New South Wales and was police liaison for the entire campaign; Mary Forage, a brave local who gave a bed and shelter to many; Harry McDermott; the local mayor, who stood his ground to protect the river and the local tourism industry; and lastly Bob Hawke-without the change in government, as well as the World Heritage listing, the Franklin River would never have been saved.

I would particularly like to thank the 6,000 peaceful protesters who came from across the globe to protect the Franklin and the 1,300 people who put their lives on hold and who were arrested during this campaign. Although they were breaking the law of the day, it is interesting to reflect that in 2008, for the 25th anniversary, many of the campaigners came together for a big party in Tasmania and were joined in merriment by some of the police and dignitaries who had not only opposed but arrested them. Many laughs were had about old times that night. No-one was in doubt that the outcome had been a good one for Tasmania.

I thank all the protectors, and so should all Tasmanians. Why? Conservationists are often labeled economic vandals in my state. The truth is, given time to reflect on history, they are quite the opposite. They have turned out to be state builders. They have delivered positive, sustainable, structural change to the economy of my home state. With all the doom and gloom currently surrounding Tasmania's economy, our wild places and the tourism they attract is one bright light in the economy. Our protected, wild and rare World Heritage areas are critical to our Tasmanian economy and future prosperity.

A report to the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts in 2008 confirmed this. Tasmania's World Heritage areas-not Tasmania in total but just the World Heritage areas-are estimated to contribute $721 million in annual direct and indirect state output or business turnover. It is worth noting that, if this figure is accurate, that is approximately half of the total tourism spend in Tasmania, which was $1.56 billion in the last financial year. They also contribute $313 million in annual direct and indirect state value added and $208 million in direct and indirect state household income and create 5,372 direct and indirect jobs. Compare this to the forestry industry in Tasmania, which currently employs around 3,400 people. I would like to state that no-one's job in any particular industry is more valuable than anyone else's. But this does give an interesting comparison in the conservation versus extraction debate in Tasmania and reflects on the transition underway in our economy.

Nearly 900,000 tourists visited Tasmania last year. A recent Tasmanian legislative council report confirmed that our iconic wild areas are the important tourism drawcards. Several respected studies, including one done by Tourism Tasmania, have also highlighted the value of nature based tourism to our state-tourism that is dependent on natural attributes, particularly those of national parks and wild areas. Tourism Tasmania, in their report Motivation triggers: appeal research and motivations for tourism in Tasmania, noted that Tasmania's natural assets and its wilderness and coastal experiences have the strongest emotional associations, the strongest appeal rankings and are the most potent motivators to shift travel intentions to Tasmania. Tasmania's wilderness is the key point of difference for our state in the rest of the country and represents to many potential visitors an opportunity to explore in peace and solitude. Other reports have also found that nature based tourism far outweighs other drawcards as a reason to visit Tasmania, including food, wine, history, and heritage. Tourism, driven by our World Heritage areas, is a great ambassador for Tasmania .

A strong tourism industry is one that emphasises not just our natural splendour but also our small-scale, high-quality food and wine producers and the great interest of our cultural and historic attractions. Recent studies of business clusters, a critical mass of linked industries and institutions in one geographical location, suggest that cottage, artisan, hospitality, food and beverage, and other service industries can flourish around popular iconic tourism destinations. Linking all these elements together in Tasmania is our crucially important 'brand'. Many would argue that Tasmania's rare wild areas are our state's brand-if not entirely then certainly its beating heart. I feel that many Tasmanians take our World Heritage areas for granted and assume they have always existed, especially younger Tasmanians such as my children. But the truth is they have been hard fought for and won by the courage of many conservationists over a long period.

While taking the time tonight to acknowledge the 30th anniversary of the saving of the Franklin, its World Heritage listing-and I point out that this is a very opportune time to do this given the very real potential under the intergovernmental agreement, currently before the upper house in Tasmania's parliament, to list another 130,000 hectares of World-Heritage-value forest-and its economic importance to our state, it is interesting to see the comparisons with the present day when it comes to the campaign to protect our Tarkine, another area that we hope will soon be put up for heritage listing. Thinking back to the Franklin, the Tasmanian Premier at the time was Liberal Robin Gray. At a rally held in Queenstown during the campaign, he put on a set of boxing gloves to show his intentions to the Wilderness Society and members of the community committed to defending the pristine and wild Franklin River. Premier Gray described the Franklin as a 'brown, leech-ridden ditch'. During this time, big business, the unions and the Hydro-Electric Commission, and consequently the Liberal and Labor parties, ran a remarkable campaign-which is strangely familiar. They tried to convince Tasmanians that the dam was essential to their future wellbeing. The campaign ran on the slogan of 'Jobs, jobs, jobs'. Letters were circulated to workers warning them that their future was at stake and people were told that the dam was vital for the state's economic future. The media and community campaign was ratcheted up against conservationists.

This scaremongering is being repeated in Tasmania today and people are being told that, without mining in the Tarkine, their future is doomed. This was the message of a recent rally organised by Paul Howes from the Australian Workers Union, but Tasmanians have heard all of this before. One thing the rally did correctly highlight was the sorry state of the economy in north-west Tasmania, especially in areas such as Circular Head and Corinna. Looking at the latest tourism visitor statistics for the towns around the Tarkine region in north-west Tassie, the tourism visitations represent just 10 per cent of the iconic areas in Tasmania, such as Freycinet, Port Arthur or Cradle Mountain.

There is so much potential to develop the Tarkine itself into an iconic destination in the north-west of Tasmania, an area that desperately needs a new, diversified economic vision. The Greens feel this vision is threatened by proposals to explore and mine across the entire Tarkine region. People have the right to exercise their democratic right to protest and voice their opinions about decisions being made and actions being taken in the world around us, a world that we all share. After all, we all should have a say about what happens to the environment that sustains our collective and future existence on earth.

You will be quite pleased that I will finish early, Mr Deputy President, by reading a quote from Bob Brown's book, Memo for a Saner World:

The strength in peaceful protest lies in bringing an issue to public attention; to appealing to people at large so they will then in turn influence developers or politicians to alter their course. But just as foot soldiers are no match for tanks, citizens who put themselves in the path of barges or bulldozers in remote places rarely have the might, or the numbers, to stop the machines however great their right. Their power is moral rather than physical.

The Franklin and Tasmania's valuable World Heritage areas are testimony to this fact.

Back to All News