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Bob Brown

In defence of the 'leech ridden ditch'

Interview with Bob Brown
Video: 12 minutes

Bob Brown discusses the events that occurred during the Franklin River campaign as depicted in his portrait by Harold 'The Kangaroo' Thornton.

This video was produced with funds donated by Tim Fairfax AC.

Interview with Bob Brown transcript

Senator Bob Brown: Thank you very much Louise. Thanks to the Gallery and thanks to Harold the Kangaroo. He actually had a naked lady painted in enamel on one of his teeth. He was a very singular character, and I was very much taken by Harold when he arrived on the scene and wanted me to stand for his portrait and I was very much in the campaign. But I went around to his studio in Hobart, a couple of times I think, and stood there while he ... he was putting the finishing touches on, at this stage. And then when the portrait was completed I was hugely embarrassed. A gentleman just out there in the gallery looking at the portrait said, “It’s ... ” I’ve forgotton. Not iconic, but well, there’s an aura there, and I’m a human being, and I was also aware of how many other people were involved in the campaign and was very embarrassed by the singularity of the portrait. But this is a portrait and I’ve gotten over my embarrassment and I’ve dressed a bit like this portrait. Suit and tie today, because ... to see if you can spot any differences beside the tie.

But it is 27 years on, and it’s a great pleasure to be here at the Gallery to talk about this portrait and some of the great story that it’s telling. They say a picture is better than a thousand words and that’s absolutely the case with Harold’s picture here because to me it’s a little bit like a Hieronymus Bosch, it’s full of people doing things and you have to look at all of them. But this tells a story about the Franklin Blockade which got underway, actually with a vigil, in November 1982.

We had great trepidation at this stage. Robin Gray, who features here and was the Premier, had swept to power in May 1982 in an election in which there was great hopes for myself and others to be elected and we failed. Norm Sanders, the then Democrats member of the House and opponent of the Franklin Dam, was re-elected, but the rest of us failed. And on July 17th 1983 I had a call the day before from an anonymous caller, female, (and we always took note of these), and I learnt something from this to say that on Tuesday July 17th the bulldozers will move into the Franklin Valley and that’s exactly what happened.

Well, we’d been campaigning nationally and internationally to draw attention to this, but we’d learnt from the Lake Pedder campaign, ten years earlier, that we had to be ready to lose. And a big difference had occurred between those two campaigns: colour TV, and it was colour TV that was bringing the Franklin and Gordon Rivers into the living rooms of people all around Australia. It had been black and white for poor Lake Pedder.

The other questions that the Lake Pedder campaign has wrestled with, and they were middle of the road ... Brenda Hean, (there was a film about her on ABC TV the other night) who died in that campaign. Her plane disappeared with Max Walsh over Bass Strait. They were coming to Canberra to skywrite “Save Lake Pedder” on the sky. She was a bastion of the Presbyterian Church and an organist at the church but totally troubled by the enormous spiritual loss involved in the destruction of Lake Pedder and they’d wrestled with the idea of should they get involved in peaceful protest and decided not to.

We had decided that in the wake of the loss of Lake Pedder we would and in 1980 we had some Quaker non-violent protest teachers come across from New Zealand, and we floated down the Liffey River up near my home in northern Tasmania in the middle of winter, practicing non-violent action; role playing.

And come 1982 we had a lot of people around the country who were thinking about direct action but we thought once we announce we’re going to be involved in front of the bulldozers, we’ll lose the public support on the mainland, which had been growing to that point.

So we were delighted in November, I’m sorry, September 1982, when we did an opinion-poll and found that not only did the majority of mainlanders support us holding a peaceful blockade, but 58% said they wanted us to go and sit in front of the bulldozers.

So here we were. In July the bulldozers started moving down across the wilderness towards the dam site. They couldn’t get to the dam site for some months, and in the long run, they never got there because they ran into geological faults (this is limestone country) but they started barging material upriver, and this included the first bulldozer in January 1983.

We decided to have the blockade. Where would you have a blockade if you were going to have pictures going out to the nation?Not out on the button grass plains but on the river. Much more difficult for us to get to, 40 kms from Strahan, but we decided we’d have it there because not only were we as individuals speaking to the Australian people who was our last hope (the Tasmanian people had voted for the Gray Government), but we wanted the wilderness to speaking for itself. And in this great backdrop we held the blockade, and it turned out to be a good thing. It got underway on 13th December 1983, the same day that in Paris the southwest wilderness, the western wilderness of Tasmania, including the Franklin, was accepted for world heritage nomination.

And immediately there were arrests. There were 60 arrests on the first day, including people right up as far as the Franklin River which was upstream as here, but this is where the campsite was held, the base camp, to facilitate upriver. And we had been planning for this for months and the people from the Nightcap Action and the people fighting for the forest in NSW had been practiced in this, came down en masse and Ian Cohen, a current member of the Upper House of NSW, actually helped run the base camp.

And this is the barge from which people stepped off. And that little shed there with the red cross on it, which was to indicate to the opposition that you shouldn’t be aiming your guns here which is our base camp, is now in the National Museum, just across the way.

And in fact ... there’s so many pieces to this that I’ll just skip from here to there, but in fact I was just talking to Dick Smith the other day because Dick came to Strahan in his helicopter and he came upriver and asked what he could do. And the one thing he did do was get an aerial, because we had a radio in there. Paul Dymock was trying to get it and we couldn’t get outside (this is way before modern satellite communications) but Dick lifted with his helicopter, an aerial up onto the mountain behind here so that we could get radio communications with Strahan.

And the key to this was this boat, the Denison Star, made out of Huon pine by the piners. Reg Morrison who is still alive, very old and even crankier than me, and he lives in Melbourne these days and he was running the cruise ship up the river and he had set his mind. He’d worked since a boy bringing Huon pines down the river and he was opposed to the dam because it was going to flood all the area that he had known and his ancestors before him had known ... his extended family. One of his brothers had the Huon pine mill at Strahan.

When I floated down the river in ’76, Paul Smith got me to do that, we came out on the Denison Star and after that a lot of people did and he introduced me, Reg did, to Harry McDermott, who was then a taxi driver and the Mayor of Strahan. And those two gentlemen were the bulwarks of local opposition to the dam and they both copped it. They ended up with, you know, Harry got voted out by absentee ... but they ... no, they both ended up, I’m very happy to say, with Orders of Australia for having stood up for the river in Labor times.

And here’s the Denison Star. On my second trip down I came down myself. I headed the party, I think, and got to the hydro-camp. The hydro-camp was just here, at St John Paul’s, and over here was where they started landing the equipment, at Warner’s Landing.

And at the hydro-camp before this happened, first of all, the workers there said, “Where have you come from?” and I said, “From the Collingwood Highway,” and they said, “oooh”. They couldn’t believe that people would be floating through these gorges and ravines down to where they were. But they were just men working on the river. And there was a tall, thin gentleman there who said, “Bob,” he had very few words, “I want to show you something. ”And he took me across the river to the tree, the Huon pine tree, and on this banner it says “Some Trees are over 3,000 Years Old”. Well that tree, it was estimated to be between 3,000 and 4,000 years old. It was so old and gnarled that the piners, going back to 1820 when the convict camp was at Sarah Island in Macquarie Harbour over here, had left it. It had deteriorated. And the sad thing about that tree, which we called the Lee Tree after that tall, thin gentleman, Jeffrey Lee, who is now one of Tasmania’s foremost wilderness and landscape photographers, was destroyed four days after the high court decision in 1983 that saved the dam. It was hacked to death, filled with petrol and burnt by the hydro workers while Robin Gray, the Premier, flew in and out of the camp that day, in the reserve. And in Parliament after that, I presented him with a picture of the people who did it standing with crossed chainsaws in front of that old tree, which had done nothing to warrant this destruction, and of course nothing happened.

So the blockade was announced in September. We had a vigil in November. It began on 13th December. The world news was world heritage listing and in Paris, the Attorney General of Tasmania flew to Paris to talk the World Heritage Committee out of listing. This is a Tasmanian Government talking to world authorities NOT to list Tasmania’s wilderness as world heritage. But we had over 100 people peacefully protesting outside, in French, with their banners up; in London and San Francisco and over where the World Cup was being held in New England in the United States, people with banners and “No Dam” triangles. It had become very much a worldwide thing.

The blockade got underway. There were immediate calls from the other side - the opponents. The OTD, which was the Organisation for Tasmanian Development, (we nicknamed them the Organisation for Total Destruction), was there, backed by the Hydro-Electric Commission, of course, whose dam this was and who had destroyed Lake Pedder. And here’s the HEC building in the back of Harold’s picture. It’s a fantastic art deco building on the corner of Davey Street and Elizabeth in Hobart. It’s now owned by the City Council and if you’re in Hobart you’ll see this building. And here, by the way, is a High Court judge knocking on the side of the building and getting it to tilt. When Harold painted this picture in early 1983 we were actually between the blockade and the High Court decision which eventually saved it, so we didn’t know that it was going to be saved yet but the building has got a lean on it.

And you can see up here is Robin Gray, as I said earlier, and here is Russell Ashton, the Director or the Chief of the Hydro-Electric Commission and he’s got reins on Robin Gray, as manipulating the Premier of the day.

The Premier, who became famous when he went down the main street of Queenstown, the mining town next to Strahan, and put on boxing gloves, red boxing gloves to show what should happen to The Wilderness Society and the greenies who were obstructing the dam works.

Now the Denison Star on that second trip, when I did catch it, Reg Morrison was shaking his head and he was busy. But he turned around next to the hydro-camp because he brought up their beer supply each Saturday. And he lent over, I’ll never forget this, gnarled old Huon piner Reg who loved this river, and said to these guys who were desperately waiting for their beer supplies, “You’re not getting them. I told you, I have told you repeatedly not to dump your cans in the river and I’ve passed three floating up here so you’re not getting any beer. ”He held up the carton, put it back down, and floated away. So he was making a statement, right out there in the wilds, about that.

And on the third day, after a couple of hundred people by now had been arrested, I went up the river. We camped here overnight. A lot of us, at 4. 00 am in the morning, we got in rafts and crossed from the barge here via Butler Island. That’s an island, that big rock there, which was burnt out in a fire lit by a camper in the middle of all of this. It burnt like a volcano overnight and although we had hoses and pumps from the river, we just couldn’t put it out. And it will take many centuries to recover.

To Perched Lake, now that’s that there, it’s a little lake perched in behind the river, and then over to the Lee Tree, and by 10. 00 am or 11. 00 am in the morning there were a lot of police boats on the river, and we were getting ready to be arrested. Now what you see here is a Shark Cat. That is a very fast little boat. We got our abalone divers and hired their boats to bring the media who had come to Strahan, 40 kms away, upriver so that they could cover the blockade each day and they had to be back in Strahan by 2. 00 pm latest so that their film could be flown to Hobart so it could be then sent to Melbourne so it could be on the night’s TV. None of those machines that you press little buttons on that they’ve got these days that send film around the world. So the Shark Cats were very, very important and the abalone divers were key to that.

And up here is the Cape Martin, a guy called Jack, a fisherman, who donated his boat for filmmakers and other people on the river to support the blockade.

And you can see the banners on Butler Island and you can see the barge here bringing the bulldozer, which had arrived in town. A sensational night. We didn’t know when they were coming. I was asleep at the old hospital, which Mary Forage now owned as a house back in Strahan and at 5. 00 am there was a desperate knocking on the door. We were all asleep on the floor. She had a bevy of greenies on the floor. “The bulldozer’s coming to town. ”

So we rapidly dressed and rushed around but the police had the whole town in lockdown. The camp, with hundreds of practiced environmentalists, was closed. They’d shut the road, under a Commissioner’s order, and the bulldozer was making its way down the hill into Strahan. There were about 20 protesters who got in the way and they were dragged away very quickly. And we rang to let The Wilderness Society back in Hobart know so they could let Australia know what was happening and all the lines were dead.

And what had happened, and I had to make this statement during the day, is that the police themselves, during the night, had cut the phone lines to Strahan. And when I said the officials have cut the phone line the police union came out, the telecom union came out.

But we had a police officer ... and I come from a long line of policemen myself: my dad was, my granddad was, brothers, sisters ... I didn’t get in because I had varicose veins as a young fellow. But this policeman whispered to us that he’d got up on a ladder under the Superintendent’s orders and he showed me where he’d cut with a pair of bolt-cutters. He’d cut the phone lines to the town. The public boxes were out at the airport and in town. But, this was over The Wilderness Society shop. We opened the shop, I got in, and then he found that the phone in the shop itself was still connected. So I was under the table, hiding to save the policeman, giving a description of the bulldozer coming into town through Hobart as AM went to air on ABC Radio that morning describing ... and I could see the various environmentalists, including Geoff Law, a future Director of The Wilderness Society, out jumping ... he actually jumped in the river to escape arrest on that morning.

The bulldozer came up. There were environmentalists in the water, including divers underneath and lots of rubber rafts, but we were peacefully protesting. There was not going to be a physical confrontation and the bulldozer went ashore over here and there’s the classic little film of the Franklin Blockade to (19:41) scales to describe that.

I just want to recapture. It was terrifying and it was dreadful and we could see that we were being overrun by the power of the state. We had federal politicians calling for the army to be brought in to remove us from the campsites and to check our head for lice while they were at it. I mean, the vilification ...

And you can see here, here’s the Organisation for Tasmanian Development and a couple of the banners. Up there is “Green is Red”, in other words, we’re all communists. And another one says, “Watch Out for Brown Leeches”. And another one up here ... And Harold Thornton has looked at these banners and remarkably, he’s got the exact wording and the colour and there’s dozens of banners in this picture. And over here is the opponent banners including the classic “Go Home Greenies and Take Your Diseases With You. ”And the folk who represented that.

I’ve got this question mark in front of me which you can see here, here and here, and it was a case of presenting people with the question: Where are we going?Harold’s own bemusement with “Where are we going?”And this title: “Old Time Waltz”. Well, 1,2,2,1,2,2. The waltz time - two steps forward, three steps backward or three steps forward, two steps backward. I think that’s involved with the question mark in the centre point thinking of Harold’s depiction here. Remembers he’s a wild, rambunctious character, very much at the periphery of society, but he’s standing back and looking at this. He can see that we haven’t won the Franklin, but there’s huge public sympathy for it, but he can see also the overriding political factors and power of the ships as saying, “Where are we going?What is happening here?”

On the tree here is “Victory” with a “No Dam” sign up but it’s predictive; we still hadn’t had that victory of the High Court decision, which was ... While he was completing this portrait, I was here with The Wilderness Society folk before the High Court arguing the case for the dam to be stopped.

Well now, Mr Murray Black QC was representing The Wilderness Society and his last day with the Federal Court as Chief Justice to the Federal Court is this Friday. I must remember to send him a bunch of Franklin daisies, or something.

He represented The Wilderness Society and we were down at the High Court wanting the judges to look at what would be destroyed if they were to judge in favour of the dam. What we couldn’t get into our heads, nor our Aboriginal fellow-pleaders for the Franklin who were at the High Court, was that they weren’t the least bit interested in the beauty or the ecological or the spiritual component of the Franklin. They were simply working on law and the question before the court effectively was, from the newly elected Hawke Government, was it able to prevent the dam to uphold the World Heritage Treaty now that the Franklin had just become World Heritage, or did, under the constitution, the right of the state governments to run land dues, give them the right to build the dam regardless?

And in the event, the Court ruled by four judges to three that the external treaties power overrode the constitutional power of the state to do what it liked. And if you ever want to see a judgement that breaks out from the narrow confines of the law: Justice Murphy’s words about our responsibility as human beings for this one planet is international and we must reciprocate to the rest of the world which is protecting charts, cathedral and the Grand Canyon and the Pyramids of Egypt by protecting that which is of world heritage significance in our own country.

We have here ... you can see faces in these trees. Harold’s got the forest in a ... representing this relationship with humanity. And in fact, this tree here is David Bellamy, Prof David Bellamy, the pommie botanist and TV phenomena, the time who flew out here and was arrested on January, I think 16th, 1983 on his, well just before his 50th birthday. He went to Risdon Prison too and spent his birthday in jail and he’s often said to me since then, that was the highpoint. And it made world headlines; Fleet Street headlines of TV personality jailed in Tasmania and there’s so much to this.

But I want to also talk about the police. They were brought in to arrest us and of the 1,500 people arrested on the Franklin and Gordon, 500 went to jail. But 6,000 people came to Strahan, and it was a massive operation for us. But the police were brought in and it was a big operation for them. They lost all their Christmas leave and they were split right down the middle between pro-dammers and no-dammers and down here is a policeman having a bit of lunch. There’s greenies here. These are interesting characters. You can see them all over the place. There’s a couple tugging my sleeve there. These are little green myrmidons of the forest. They’re out to protect their forest and to interrelate with human beings who will do that. And there’s a couple here with the police officer. And there’s his cap, on the ground, as it actually happened. And inside is a No Dams triangle. The police arresting people would take their hat off and put them back on and inside the house would be the No Dams triangle saying I’ve got to arrest you, that’s the law, but I’m on side. I’m a No Dams character.

After some time the orders coming from Hobart made it much tougher. Early, there was this great relationship between the blockaders and the police and everybody because we had trained not to get angry. Somebody said ... after the blockade, Chris Harris said, “You know, non-violent action and this theory of consensus and everybody was involved in every decision is the perfect prescription for nothing going wrong, because nothing ever happens. ”No decision could be made without consensus.

But afterwards the police got tougher and I don’t know if there’s anybody here from Red Berets, the group of women from Canberra, because people went in affinity groups of eight, ten or 12 from all over the country. Were trained here in Canberra, in the Brindabella’s and elsewhere outside Sydney, outside Melbourne in non-violent direct action. We did role-plays on how not to be angry with the police or the workers. They weren’t our problem. It was the politicians and the Hydro-Electric Commission.

And they were treated grossly. We had a paddy wagon full of women who were taken from Strahan after things got tougher, five hours overnight to Risdon Prison on a winding road with women vomiting and unable to go to the toilet and having to in a van, which didn’t stop all the way. I mean, it was disgusting. It went from a very orderly, civilised process. When they could see they weren’t winning, it became quite disgusting, and Norm Sanders, over Christmas/New Year in 1982/83 resigned from parliament at his disgust at the treatment of prisoners and he’d taken up the job of looking after the latrines at greenie acres. He had a nice epithet about how that was a more elevating job than the one he had in parliament.

And I saw Norm the other week. He’s now living up near Byron Bay and ... he also, and so many people who’ve pulled me up around the country, at various airports, are saying that I’ll never forget being at the Franklin Blockade. And though it was very tough and frightening for people at the time: people gave up their livelihoods, they gave up their holidays, they gave up their absolutely unblemished record. Lots of rumours about if you got arrested and got a record you wouldn’t be able to go overseas, you’d lose your job in the Public Service, you wouldn’t be able to go to uni. They were all wrong but people nevertheless did this and it was that common courage to stand up against laws that were wrong, peacefully, for a great right which was the protection of this river that ultimately was the driving spirit of the blockade.

Very difficult, though, to run a camp for months in wet rainforest, and it turned out to be a particularly cold summer. And you’ll see things like, the (29:30) shed here. I can see that on the little sign there, people ... and put on lime on after. Which meant after going to the latrine sprinkle lime on the toilet to try to keep the hygiene process. And over here is, there’s another sign here about treatment for diarrhoea, if you have it. And there’s quite a big medical op ... where had nurses and doctors, as well as lawyers, involved to help facilitate people and some people got ... you know, people weren’t used to being out in the wilds like this, particularly when it was wet and rainy.

And there were a few leeches around and a few snakes and lots of birds and wallabies and it was quite an experience for the people who were there.

But, I just think, this is just an amazing coverage of so much that happened at that time. I’ll talk about just a couple more items then I’ll try to answer any queries that you might have.

This is Joe-Jelke Peterson riding on a banana. Joe-Jelke who said, “If you fly with the crows you’ll be shot down with the crows. ”And Joe came to Tasmania and said “Your dam should go ahead,” to Robin Gray.

So when I went back to Queensland in more recent years to campaign against the Mary River Dam at Traveston Crossing and people said why don’t you go home, I used to quote Joe coming down to Tasmania in favour of a dam so I could go to Queensland against one. So I thank Joe for the cover he gave me here.

Now there’s one, two and over here three F-111s and just after the Hawke Government, and Bob Hawke, was elected, on March the 5th 1983 in part on the Dams Campaign, Malcolm Fraser had not moved, he’d offered $500M to Robin Gray who turned it down straight-off, not to build the dam. But he hadn’t gone further than that, and he’s told me privately since that he regrets not having done more about that.

But Bob Hawke was elected and on the night of March the 5th we were all sitting on a king-sized bed in a ... Judy Richter, a businesswoman from Hobart had become, thank glory, The Wilderness Society’s Treasurer, because we’d have been in a mess otherwise. It’s just wonderful how these people got involved. She’s now in Melbourne, but she hired a room in the Windsor Hotel on the night of the election and we were all absolutely beside ourselves with anxiety as to whether Hawke would get in or not. We’d been much encouraged by a protest of 15,000 people during the election campaign in Melbourne, where Hazel Hawke put on No Dam earrings and we thought, that’s dinkum, but Bob, on the night, made only one commitment to the Australian people when he was elected and that is, “I say to the people of Tasmania, the dam will not go ahead. We’ll look after you, but the dam will not go ahead. ”

That brought on the High Court action and we were suddenly, from being the baddies, were the goodies, because the Commonwealth was gaining evidence against the Gray Government in Tasmania and its building of the dams and it came to us because we were the experts. So we had Federal police officers coming to get information on us to prosecute this case in the High Court. And amongst other things, they said, “Yes, your phones are tapped,” (we’d always thought they were), and “We will not speak to you though The Wilderness Society phones,” and they asked me to go up to the local phone box when I rang Canberra to exchange information, to avoid this local tapping of the phones which was occurring in Tasmania.

But, amongst other things, we had pictures of the dam works proceeding and courts being what they are, what they needed evidence that the dam was actually being built when the court case came on.

Well, without asking us, the Attorney General of the day, Gareth Evans, thought it would be a good idea to get evidence using the new F-111s Australia had got with low aerial flights over the dam site, taking pictures with black and white ... their photographic which was state-of-the-art. So here’s the three F-111s and of course it caused a national furore because never before had the Armed Forces been used against a state within the ... and it was questionably constitutional. And so Gareth Evans, who used the streakers defence, “I thought it was a good idea at the time,” has from there after went under the name of Biggles and was very often in cartoons wearing goggles.

There’s so much here, and we’ve got to say to Harold Thornton, it took a brilliant but out-there mind to be able to ... for some reason have the wisdom to encapsulate so much into one extraordinary story on canvas and I’ve long since got over my embarrassment about it, and here we have a great story and so much detail and I’m going to, one of these days, come and look at it very much more closely and put down everything I can about it because it’s much easier than reading a book, isn’t it?And it’s bright. It’s about the spirit of humanity. It’s also about the smallness and narrowness of our thinking when we get to think about ourselves rather than the planet to which we owe full due.

And, it’s a picture about many, many thousands of people, many thousands of Australians, ultimately millions of Australians because it came down to the ballot box on that faithful day in March 1983.

The campaign running nationally, whose vote changed the government and saved the wilderness and showed that Australia had a national consciousness about the environment and it took an artist at that time to put so much here onto canvas that would otherwise be forgotten.

So, Harold’s gone, but I salute. He not ... I don’t know whether he had foresight about it. I think that question mark says yes, but salute his artistry and the great story he’s told here.

Thanks ladies and gentlemen.