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Saving the Franklin: 30 years on

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On 1 July 2013, Wilderness lovers everywhere will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Franklin River campaign victory – the day when the High Court announced “there shall be no dam on the Franklin River".

On 1 July 2013, Wilderness lovers everywhere celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Franklin River campaign victory – the day when the High Court announced “there shall be no dam on the Franklin River".

The campaign to save Tasmania's Franklin and Gordon rivers, threatened by a huge hydro-electric development, galvanised the green movement in Australia. Indeed, the shores of the Franklin gave birth to the Australian Greens Party and the Wilderness Society as a national force.

"Nothing but a brown ditch, leech-ridden, unattractive to the majority of people" is how the Tasmanian Premier of the day, Robin Gray, dismissed the Franklin River – but Australians disagreed.

Lead by a young doctor, Bob Brown, men and women from all walks of life built a national campaign to save the river from damming. They held public meetings, distributed pamphlets, wrote letters to the media, appeared on television, spoke to politicians and hosted trips up the Franklin. By mid 1980, Wilderness Society membership had risen from 200 to almost 2000.

People flocked in their thousands to our southern-most state to join a huge blockade. As Bob Brown says in the foreword to Alice Hungerford's book UpRiver, “All up, some 6000 people registered to help, nearly 1500 protectors of the wilderness were arrested and 600 went in paddy wagons across the island, overnight, to Risdon Prison.” For almost a year this non-violent blockade continued, drawing international attention.

In February 1982, against a backdrop of continuing protests, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser announced a federal election for March. On the same day Bob Hawke replaced Bill Hayden as leader of the opposition and voiced his support for the Franklin. Meanwhile, 20,000 people rallied in Hobart in support of the campaign and more and more people on the Australian mainland began speaking out, calling on the state and federal government to protect the river.

In the lead up to the election, volunteers letterboxed houses, distributed leaflets and spoke to voters in marginal electorates. On election day some 13,000 staffed polling booths in support of the Franklin. The Wilderness Society (with help from the Australian Conservation Foundation) took out full-page ads in the The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age featuring Peter Dombrovskis’s famous picture of the Franklin's Rock Island Bend with the caption, ‘Could you vote for a party that will destroy this?’.

Hawke narrowly won the election and, on accepting victory, announced that the dam would not go ahead. However Premier Gray was defiant, challenging Hawke's decision in the High Court. Hearings began in 1983, and on 1 July a decision was made to 'let the Franklin run free'.

The landmark case confirmed the federal government’s power to intervene and protect sites of World Heritage value. These powers were later used to protect Queensland’s Daintree rainforest and Tasmania’s Lemonthyme forest.

Today, the beautiful Franklin River and its surrounds are protected as a World Heritage area.

Learn more

Watch our video of Franklin River campaigners reflecting on their life-changing experience.