Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of this landmark High Court decision, writes William J. Lines.
On July 1, 2008 we celebrate 25 years since the High Court decision that 'Let the Franklin run free'. In this Four Part series on the Franklin river campaign, Author William J. Lines charts the rise of Australia's conservation movement - and a famous win for the environment.
Part 1 - The beginnings of Australia’s Environmental movement
From the early 1960s, Australian conservationists became concerned about plans for dams on the rivers and lakes of Tasmania’s south-west wilderness. The first great confrontation occurred in the mid-1960s when Tasmania’s major development agency, the Hydro Electric Commission (HEC) announced, despite previous denials, a scheme to flood Lake Pedder.
Moved by the lake’s beauty, bushwalkers, nature lovers, conservationists, and others responded by writing letters to the paper, forming campaign groups, calling meetings, lobbying politicians, writing submissions, testifying at hearings and raising their voice. They continued their protest through to the actual drowning of the lake in 1972 and beyond. Many vowed that they would never allow such destruction in the south west again.
They soon found their resolve tested. In 1976, a number of conservationists, including a young doctor, Bob Brown, his companion Paul Smith, as well as veteran Pedder campaigner Helen Gee, separately and together rafted the wild Franklin River. Awed by the place’s spectacular beauty, they were also horrified to learn that the HEC planned to dam the river and flood its gorges, cataracts, and adjoining rainforest. What could they do?
The Tasmanian Wilderness Society (TWS) is born
Around this time in 1976, at a meeting at Brown’s house in Liffey, a number of conservationists active in the South West Tasmania Action Committee decided on a new name for their organisation: The Tasmanian Wilderness Society. Kevin Kiernan, another Pedder campaigner, became director. Over the next couple of years, the TWS took up the fight for Tasmanian forests, campaigned on mining, airstrips, and roads, and monitored unfolding HEC plans for the Franklin. American Norm Sanders, who had come to Tasmania partly for its wild beauty, replaced Kiernan as director and then in 1979 Bob Brown resigned from his GP practice and took up the position of full-time, unpaid director of the TWS working from a shared office in Hobart.
He was not alone. In Sydney the South-West Tasmania Committee worked for the protection of Tasmania’s wilderness, while in Melbourne a group of activists from the Pedder days were also meeting and in 1979 they expanded their activities and opened an office, paying $5 a week rent.
Then, what all conservationists feared, happened. In October 1979 the HEC released concrete proposals to build a dam on the Gordon River below its confluence with the Franklin. The Australian Conservation Foundation became alarmed by the contemplated destruction and appointed campaigner Peter Thompson to work on the Franklin campaign in Hobart with the TWS.
The campaign to ‘Save the Franklin’ begins in earnest
Over the next several months dozens of TWS volunteers built a campaign featuring public meetings, slide shows, pamphlets, colour publications, guide-books, and river trips down the Franklin - including trips for influential politicians, such as the Legislative Council’s Harry Braid. They wrote letters and articles for the press, appeared on television, and spoke to politicians. Volunteers opened a wilderness shop in Hobart followed by Melbourne and Sydney. TWS membership grew from 200 to 1000 in twelve months. Ten new branches formed and 10,000 people rallied in Hobart to save the Franklin. More and more people in Tasmania and in the other states became aware of the threat. More and more people spoke out against the dam, calling on the state government to protect the river.
In July 1980 Premier Doug Lowe’s Labor government placed the Franklin River into a Wild Rivers National Park. Nevertheless, the Franklin’s catchment remained endangered as the decision included a proposal to dam the Gordon River above its confluence with the Franklin.
A compromise accepted by neither side
While this Gordon above Olga Scheme would not flood the Franklin it would still obliterate vast areas of forest, drown many of the river’s unique features such as the Gordon Splits, and flood the Lower Denison River, including large stands of the endangered Huon pine. Conservationists challenged the compromise and continued their campaign against all dams in the area. By July 1980, a few months after the TWS’s membership first reached 1000, it rose to 2000.
Supporters of the original plan, however, had not gone away. The HEC, unions and business still wanted to impound the Franklin and they rejected the government’s Gordon above Olga Scheme. When the dams legislation came before Tasmania’s upper house, the Legislative Council, dam proponents pressured members to insert the words Gordon below Franklin in place of Gordon above Olga. Lowe’s government refused to accept the change and parliament was deadlocked.