On March 17, the 2018 duck shooting session will open in Victoria. The first shots were fired in Tasmania and South Australia last weekend. The Northern Territory allows certain types of bird shooting later in the year. Duck shooting is prohibited in the rest of Australia.
States and territories have jurisdiction over duck shooting. In Victoria a new raft of regulations has been introduced to try to limit the damage to the state’s wetlands. One change of note in Victoria is that this year the Blue-winged Shoveler cannot be legally shot due to the low numbers of the species.
Other new regulations require that hunters recover the birds they shoot. This rule serves to formalise what Victoria’s Game Management Authority (GMA) refers to as “standard practice for responsible hunters”.
However, in most other respects Victoria’s 2018 duck season will look almost indistinguishable from previous years. It will still be three months long, with a “bag limit” of ten birds per person per day.
In Tasmania, authorities postponed the shooting start time in 2018, among a raft of other minor amendments.
In fact, the various states regularly make minor changes to the rules. Hundreds of minor adjustments have been made over many decades. While these changes may seem significant, from a broad socio-legal perspective they do little to challenge the status quo.
Playing by the rules?
A GMA-commissioned review by Pegasus Economics last year documented regular instances of duck shooters behaving irresponsibly. The independent report concluded that “non-compliance with hunting laws is commonplace and widespread”.
The ABC has aired allegations that unsustainable hunting is on the rise and that regulators feel unable to enforce the rules. It revealed pits containing around 200 unrecovered shot birds from the 2017 opening weekend at Victoria’s Koorangie State Game Reserve alone.
Activists interviewed in the report claimed to have brought out 1,500 dead birds from the wetlands. Of these, 296 were protected species, including 68 endangered Freckled Ducks.
In my book Animals, Equality and Democracy, I argue that there is a generalised tendency for animal welfare laws to be more effective for socially visible animals. Laws that govern the welfare of zoo animals have improved much more quickly, for example, than those that cover animal welfare in factory farms.
Duck shooting is not a highly visible cause of animal harm. Relatively few people live near the wetlands where shooting takes place. But animal advocates have been effective in making it visible, despite laws that limit their ability to do so.
Elaborate events such as Duck Lake, in which animal activists performed their own version of Swan Lake on the opening morning of the 2016 Tasmanian duck shooting season, help generate media attention.
In 2017, long-time Victorian anti-duck-shooting campaigner Laurie Levy from the Coalition Against Duck Shooting was once again fined for entering the water to help an injured bird. While such activities go some way in generating public visibility, they have thus far not been able to stop duck shooting outright.
The gun lobby’s growing influence in Australia
At present, only 28,000 Australians are registered duck shooters. According to 2012 Australia Institute analysis, 87% of Australians support a ban on duck shooting. There is mounting evidence that endangered and non-game species are also being killed.
Before being re-elected at this month’s Tasmanian state election, the Liberal state government promised to soften the state’s gun laws. It also committed to “always protect the right of Tasmanians to safely and responsibly go recreational shooting”.
In Victoria the picture is a little more complex. A 2016 report asserted that most members of the state’s Labor Party oppose duck shooting and that the Andrews government’s continued support may cost it votes.
Indeed, despite the pressure from within the ALP, the daily bag limit for the 2018 season is ten, compared with just four in 2016.
‘Industry capture’ reinvigorating duck shooting
The Pegasus Economics review identifies “industry capture” as a significant factor in the continuation of duck hunting. Industry capture refers to a situation in which industry has a disproportionately close and influential relationship with policymakers compared with other relevant stakeholders.
With widespread community opposition ranged against the entrenched interests of the shooters themselves, state governments will need to make some big calls on the future of duck hunting, rather than the current tinkering around the edges.
This is brought into sharp relief by a new movie that premieres nationally this week called Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story. The filmmakers set out to expose the kangaroo industry, painting a picture of gruesome animal cruelty, an industry cloaked in secrecy, and the wholesale slaughter of an Australian icon.
The film, which includes brutal footage, also includes the claim that Australia’s kangaroos may be heading down the path of extinction.
The film has already screened in the United States and Europe to sold-out premieres, opening first in those places because they are important markets for kangaroo products.
But foreign audiences also probably know less about Australia’s major kangaroo species or the complexities of the kangaroo industry, and may perhaps be more easily swayed towards the filmmakers’ point of view.
Many US reviews have been positive about the film, although one review described it as “frustratingly one-sided”.
Most Australians, whatever their view on the kangaroo industry, would surely agree that if kangaroos are to be harvested, it should be done with minimal suffering. But are Australia’s kangaroos really at risk of extinction?
On mainland Australia, four species are sustainably harvested, largely for their meat or fur: the eastern grey, western grey, common wallaroo, and Australia’s most famous icon (and largest marsupial), the red kangaroo.
The best scientific survey data, based on millions of square kilometres surveyed by aircraft each year, puts the combined number of these four kangaroo species currently at around 46 million animals.
This is a conservative estimate, because only the rangelands where kangaroos are subject to government-sanctioned harvest are surveyed. There is almost as much kangaroo habitat again that is not surveyed.
Of the estimated population, a quota of roughly 15% is set for the following year, of which barely a quarter is usually filled. Quotas are set and enforced by state governments, with the aim of sustaining population numbers.
For example, of 47 million animals estimated in 2016, a quota of 7.8 million animals was set for the following year, but only 1.4 million of these animals (3.1% of the estimated population) were harvested.
The wildlife management community is pretty much unanimous that the four harvested species are widespread and abundant, and at no risk of extinction.
Are non-harvested species at risk?
But what of the other forgotten 95% of kangaroo species? The conservation prognosis for these – especially the smaller ones under about 5.5kg in weight – is far less rosy.
The nabarlek – a small endangered rock wallaby from Australia’s northwest – has become so rare that its mainland population in the Kimberley seems to have disappeared. It is now only found on a few islands off the coast.
The boodie – a small burrowing species of bettong – was one of Australia’s most widespread mammals at the time of European arrival, but is extinct on the mainland and now found on just a few islands.
Gilbert’s potoroo holds the title of Australia’s most endangered mammal, clinging precariously to existence in the heathlands around Albany on Western Australia’s south coast. One intense wildfire could wipe out the species in the wild.
Meanwhile, if the alarming increasing impact of cats on our northern Australian wildlife continues, recent modelling suggests that the northern bettong – a diminutive kangaroo that weighs barely a kilogram – will disappear.
The list goes on: mala, bridled nail-tail wallaby, parma wallaby, woylie, banded hare-wallaby, long-footed potoroo, Proserpine rock-wallaby – all of these and more could slip to extinction right under our noses.
The culprits are the usual suspects: cats, foxes, land-use change – and our collective apathy and ignorance. Australia holds the title for the worst record of mammal extinctions in modern times, and kangaroos, unfortunately, contribute many species to that list.
The theatrical trailer for Kangaroo: A Love-Hate Story’ features a voiceover from a concerned kangaroo activist, who says:
If Australians really knew what happens out there in the dark, they would be horrified.
Indeed they might. But it’s not just the treatment of the abundant big four kangaroos that are harvested (yet secure) that should attract attention.
If we also look at the other 95% of kangaroo species that need our urgent attention, we might just be able to do something about their dwindling numbers – and the real kangaroo extinction crisis – before it’s too late.
From place-based to problem-based campaigns, we are seeing a rise in initiatives aiming to foster collective environmental stewardship among concerned citizens across the globe. These international communities have arisen to meet new environmental challenges and seize the opportunities presented by our increasingly connected world.
Traditional approaches to community engagement have tended to focus only on the involvement of local people. However, the recently launched Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef initiative highlights the changing nature of community engagement aimed at fostering environmental stewardship.
In a globalised world, maintaining treasures like the Great Barrier Reef and other ecosystems affected by global-scale threats demands new approaches that involve participation not only of people living locally, but also those in distant places.
A connected world
Today’s environmental problems tend to be characterised by social and environmental connections with distant places.
In terms of environmental connections, places such as the Great Barrier Reef are increasingly affected by global threats. These include: poor water quality associated with port dredging driven by international mining; reef fisheries influenced by national and international markets; and, most importantly, coral bleaching caused by climate change. Social and political action beyond the local is need to combat these threats.
Social connections are increasing through both ease of travel and social media and other forms of virtual communication. This provides opportunities to engage more people across the globe to take meaningful action than ever before. People are able to form and maintain attachments to special places no matter where they are in the world.
Our recent research, involving more than 5,000 people from over 40 countries, shows that people living far from the Great Barrier Reef can have strong emotional bonds comparable to locals’ attachments. These bonds can be strong enough to motivate them to take action.
Harnessing social media
Increasing social connections across the globe don’t only allow people in distant locations to maintain their attachments to a place. They also provide a vehicle to leverage those attachments into taking meaningful actions to protect these places.
Such strategies can now be used even in the most remote of locations – such as 60 metres above the forest floor in a remote part of Tasmania.
During her 451-day tree sit, activist Miranda Gibson co-ordinated an online action campaign. She was able to engage a global audience through blogging, live streaming and posting videos and photos.
Social media provide a new way to foster a sense of community among people far and wide. In this sense, “community” doesn’t have to be local; individuals with common interests and identities can share a sense of community globally. Indeed, this is a key ingredient for collective action.
Employing images and language targeted to appeal to people’s shared attachments to a place can help increase collective stewardship of that place.
These global communities reflect “imagined communities”, a concept developed by political scientist Benedict Anderson to analyse nationalism. Anderson suggests that nations are imagined in the sense that members “will never know most of their fellow members or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”.
Such communities of environmental stewardship can have significant impact. For example, this type of community – which UTAS Professor Libby Lester termed “transnational communities of concern” – played a key role in the decline in Japanese market demand for Tasmanian forest products.
An important challenge in engaging distant communities in environmental stewardship is to avoid the pitfalls of “slacktivism”.
This refers to the phenomenon of people taking online actions that require little effort, such as joining a Facebook group. It makes them feel good about contributing to a cause but can stop them from taking further action that has real on-the-ground impacts.
More meaningful options are available to people in remote places that can result in real change. These include lobbying national governments, international organisations (such as the World Heritage Committee), or transnational corporations (to prioritise corporate social responsibility, for example). Most organisations that have successfully engaged distant people in environmental stewardship, including Fight for Our Reef, have tended to take a political approach to help with lobbying efforts.
Other meaningful actions that can be undertaken remotely include supporting relevant NGOs and reducing individual consumption.
A new approach to global citizenship
The Citizens for the Reef emphatically state that they are “not looking for Facebook likes” but seek “real action”.
The six actions being promoted include reducing consumption of four disposable products, eliminating food wastage, and financially supporting crown-of-thorns starfish control. Signed-up citizens are given an “impact score”, based on undertaking these actions and recruiting others, and can compare their progress to others around the world.
The initiative provides an example of a new form of environmental activism that is emerging in response to increasing global environmental and social connection. The significant challenge for this initiative is to gain the sustained engagement of enough people to achieve real-world impact.
Ultimately, however, while the local to global public certainly have a critical part to play in addressing these threats, this does not diminish the responsibility of government and the private sector for safeguarding the future livelihood of the Great Barrier Reef.
Australia has national environment laws – the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). Yet given the staggering rates of land clearing taking place, resulting in the extinction and endangerment of plants and animals in Australia, these laws are clearly not working.
About 395,000 hectares of regrowth and old growth vegetation were cleared during 2015-16 in Queensland. Australia is set to clear up to 3 million hectares of native forest by 2030, and more than 1,800 plant and animal species are currently listed as threatened nationally.
When the EPBC Act was first implemented in 1999, the idea was for it to provide reinforced federal environmental protection to areas of national environmental significance. But in reality, many projects that come within the ambit of the Act are not rigorously evaluated for their environmental impact.
Why isn’t the EPBC Act working?
Land clearing was listed in the 2001 and 2006 State of the Environment Reports as one of the greatest threats to biodiversity.
Deforestation and excessive land clearing fundamentally impacts existing biodiversity, damages fragile ecosystems, destroys wildlife habitat, and increases greenhouse gas emissions. In Queensland, where much of the land clearing is taking place, the state law (Vegetation Management Act) is not strong enough to diminish incentives for land clearing. Yet the national environmental laws have not provided greater protection.
There are several reasons for this. While land clearing is indirectly regulated by the EPBC Act due to the significant impact it can have on the environment, land clearing is not directly addressed by the EPBC Act.
As it stands, land clearing will only attract EPBC Act application where it can be established that it impacts a directly protected entity such as a World Heritage area, Ramsar wetland, threatened species, ecological community, or migratory species. If this connection cannot be established, no environmental assessment under the EPBC Act will occur.
Even where projects do attract the application of the EPBC Act, its capacity to advance best practice environmental impact assessment is highly questionable. One of the biggest problems is that the process of assessment is insufficiently robust.
This problem is evident in other environmental issues too. Where a bilateral state and federal assessment is approved, as was the case with the Adani coalmine, the federal department often relies on state counterparts to undertake a thorough environmental assessment. Many of the proposals evaluated by state departments are assessed with reference to the least onerous environmental impact assessment available.
This documentation is generally prepared by the project proponent. Unsurprisingly, as a consequence, many of the projects that are evaluated under the EPBC Act are approved, subject to the imposition of environmental conditions. This means the environmental conditions need to be carefully monitored if environmental protection is to be optimised.
This creates a new set of problems. Where a breach is alleged, it must be proved and appropriate sanctions enforced. In reality, this rarely happens, and the sanctions that are imposed can be woefully inadequate. For example, Adani was fined A$12,000 for breaching an environmental condition relating to the release of coalwater in Abbott Point coal terminal, which flowed into the fragile Caley Valley Wetlands.
The substantive problem with the EPBC Act is that its implementation is subject to departmental discretion and therefore the vagaries of government administration. This is particularly problematic given the political nature of many of these decision-making processes.
Lack of rigorous scrutiny
In circumstances where, for example, there is a need to challenge the approval of a resource title in light of its environmental consequences, the EPBC Act relies heavily on environmental groups or other third parties to scrutinise the federal decision-making process.
For example, the Australian Conservation Foundation took strong action in challenging the issuance of the mining licence for Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine. It argued the endangered species and climate change impacts were insufficiently taken into account by the then Environment Minister Greg Hunt in exercising discretion under the EPBC Act.
The case was dismissed because the Federal Court found that this decision was authorised by the discretions included within the EPBC Act. The minister was therefore within his power to decide not to take account of the climate change impacts of such a vast new coalmine. This is concerning given the profound impact that climate change can have upon fragile ecologies in areas of national environmental significance.
These findings indicate a lack of preparedness by the federal minister to accept a causal connection between climate change and domestic coal production, and to focus on narrow jurisdictional boundaries and strict domestic obligations. It also strongly highlights the deficiencies of our national environment act because the existing triggers do not address some of the most important environmental concerns of the modern world.
New environment laws urgently needed
Climate change is almost universally accepted as one the most serious environmental threats. Yet the EPBC Act does not include a climate change trigger (or a land clearing trigger, as discussed above).
This means these key threats to Australia’s environment will not be protected by EPBC Act. They may attract the EPBC Act indirectly, but only if it can be established that they raise a different trigger that is listed under the Act. This calls into question the capacity of our national environment laws to truly protect areas of national environmental significance.
In order to reverse unacceptable rates of land clearing, preserve ecosystems and habitats and diminish greenhouse gas emissions, a new framework for our national environment act is urgently needed.
On 1 July 1983, in a dramatic four-three decision, the High Court of Australia ruled to stop the damming of the Franklin River. It brought an end to a protracted campaign that had helped bring down two state premiers and a prime minister, as well as overseeing the rise of a new figure on the political landscape – the future founder of the Greens, Bob Brown.
The fact that a remote corner of southwest Tasmania became the centre of national debate reflects what was at stake in the campaigns against hydro-electric development. For many, like novelist James McQueen, the Franklin was “not just a river”: “it is the epitome of all the lost forests, all the submerged lakes, all the tamed rivers, all the extinguished species”. The campaign was a fight for the survival of “a corner of Australia untouched by man”; it was a fight for the right of “wilderness” to exist.
“It is a wild and wondrous thing,” Bob Brown wrote of the Franklin River in May 1978, “and 175 years after Tasmania’s first European settlement, the Franklin remains much as it was before man – black or white – came to its precincts.”
But it was not only the idea of “wilderness” – of an ancient, pure, timeless landscape – that saved the Franklin. The archaeological research that took place during the campaign was at the heart of the High Court decision. Far from being untouched and pristine, southwest Tasmania had a deep human history. What was undoubtedly a natural wonder was also a cultural landscape.
‘A sea of stone artefacts’
The archaeological site at the centre of the campaign was, for a time, known by two names: Fraser Cave and Kutikina. Kevin Kiernan, a caver and the first director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, was the first to rediscover the site. He and Greg Middleton recorded it on 13 January 1977 as part of a systematic survey of the lower and middle Gordon and Franklin Rivers.
They were aware that the monolithic Hydro-Electric Commission was considering the region as the site for a new dam and they were searching for something – “maybe a big whizz-bang cave” – that might save these valleys from being flooded. In an attempt to raise awareness of this threatened landscape, they started a tradition of naming rock features in the southwest “after the political figures who would decide their fate”.
Fraser Cave was thus named after the sitting Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser. There was also a Whitlam cave, a Hayden Cave and a Bingham Arch. When the Tasmanian Nomenclature Board caught wind of this tradition, they accused Kiernan and other members of the Sydney Speleological Society of “gross impertinence” for naming caves outside their state. In mid-1982, at the suggestion of the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, Fraser Cave became Kutikina, which means “spirit” in the oral tradition nurtured by the dispossessed Tasmanian Aboriginal community on Babel Island in Bass Strait.
But although Kiernan admired the natural splendour of Kutikina in 1977, he did not immediately recognise the artefacts it contained as human-made. It was not until he returned in February 1981 that he realised what he had found. He and the new director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, Bob Brown, and its secretary, Bob Burton, were searching the remote valley for evidence of a convict who had supposedly perished in the region after escaping the Macquarie Harbour Penal Station.
The story conjured the “wildness” of the country and the discovery of his bones might help bring publicity to their campaign against the dam. But when they climbed through the entrance of Kutikina, they were amazed to find a sea of stone artefacts and ashy hearths extending into the dark. These were no convict bones.
Three weeks later, a team of archaeologists, cavers and National Parks officers rafted down the Franklin River to investigate. It was already dark on 9 March 1981 when they tied their boats to the riverbank. They had a deep chill after hours navigating the fast-flowing river, hauling their aluminium punt and rubber dingy over successive rapids, journeying deeper into the dense rainforest. The rain picked up again as they unloaded their gear and took shelter in the mouth of the cave, which opened “like a huge, curved shell”.
Some of the team started a small, smoky fire to cook their dinner, while the others, with the light of their torches, ventured into the cavern. Kutikina opened out “like an aircraft hangar” and extended for almost 200 metres into the cliff. But it was not its scale that excited them: it was the idea that this remote cave, buried in thick “horizontal” rainforest, could have once been home to a thriving human population.
Too tired to erect their tents, they unrolled their sleeping mats on the disturbed floor at the cave entrance. It later occurred to them that they were probably the first people to sleep there in around 15,000 years.
Over the following days, as rain poured outside, the team carefully surveyed Kutikina. The archaeologists, Rhys Jones and Don Ranson, opened a small trench where the black sediment of the floor was covered by a thin layer of soft stalagmite. The test pit only extended to a depth of 1.2 metres before it met bedrock, but it yielded an extraordinary 75,000 artefacts and 250,000 animal bone fragments.
This small pit represented about one per cent of the artefact-bearing deposit, making the cave one of the richest archaeological sites in Australia. “In terms of the number of stone tools,” Jones said to one journalist, “much, much richer than Mungo.”
The archaeological remains at Kutikina told a remarkable story. The tools appeared to be a regional variant of the “Australian core tool and scraper tradition”, found across the mainland during the Pleistocene, suggesting immense chains of cultural connection before the creation of Bass Strait. The bone fragments were also curious. Most had been charred or smashed to extract marrow, and almost all (95 per cent) were wallaby bones, suggesting a finely targeted hunting strategy, similar to that found in the Dordogne region in France.
But most surprisingly, underneath the upper layer of hearths, there were angular fragments of limestone that appeared to have shattered and fallen from the cave roof at a time of extreme cold, forming rubble on the floor. It was one of the main pieces of evidence that led Jones to speculate in his diary: “Is this the late glacial technology?”
Home to the southernmost humans on earth
The possibility of Ice Age dates conjured the image of a dramatically different world. Pollen records in the region revealed that what is now rainforest was once an alpine herbfield like the tundra found in Alaska, northern Russia and northern Canada. Twenty thousand years ago, the mighty trees of ancient Gondwanaland had retreated to the river gorges, where they were irrigated and sheltered from fire, while wallabies and wombats roamed the high, open plains above.
The cold blast of Antarctica, only 1000 kilometres to the south, had dropped temperatures by around 6.5 degrees Celsius. A 65-square-kilometre ice cap presided over the central Tasmanian plateau, feeding a 12-kilometre-long glacier that gripped the upper Franklin valley. Icebergs floated off the Tasmanian coast.
At the height of the last Ice Age, Kutikina was home to the southernmost humans on earth. The people of southwest Tasmania hunted red-necked wallabies on the broad open slopes of Franklin valley, they collected fine stone from glacial melt water gravels and chipped them into tools, and they sheltered beside fires in the mouths of deep, limestone caverns. “They alone,” Jones reflected, “may have experienced the high latitude, glacier-edge conditions of a southern Ice Age.”
Significantly, during a separate excavation near the confluence of the Denison and Gordon Rivers, archaeologists also discovered tools and charcoal dating to 250–450 years ago, long after the ice cap had melted and the rainforest had returned. It revealed that the river valleys of southwest Tasmania had a recent, as well as a deep, Aboriginal history.
The rediscovery of Kutikina made the front page of the local and national newspapers, and was discussed on the floor of Parliament, but, surprisingly, it was restricted to the margins of the conservation campaign. John Mulvaney later reflected on the productive, albeit tense alliance between archaeologists and conservationists during the campaign:
We claimed an Ice Age environment of tundra-like grasslands, where their dearly loved primeval forest was supposed to have stood eternally. By discrediting the image of a forest wilderness, we were ruining their image and battle cry!
Added to this tension was the animosity the Tasmanian Aboriginal community felt towards both the archaeologists, for fossicking on their land, and the conservationists, for suggesting they had never lived there. Their activism during the campaign had profound implications for the Australian archaeological community. But while Aboriginal leaders such as Rosalind Langford and Michael Mansell were eager to regain control of Kutikina – “the most sacred thing in the state” – they also recognised the value of the history that had been uncovered. As Mansell said:
The fact that the Aborigines could survive physically and culturally in adverse conditions and over such a long period of time … helps me counteract the feeling of racial inferiority and enables me to demonstrate within the wider community that I and my people are the equal of other members of the community.
At the 1981 Tasmanian Power Referendum, 47 per cent of the electorate voted in favour of the Gordon-below-Franklin dam. But, remarkably, there was also a 45 per cent informal vote. Tens of thousands of voters had scrawled “no dams” on their ballot papers. The unprecedented “write-in” had been organised by the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, led by Brown. It repeated this highly organised, campaign-oriented strategy at local, state and federal elections throughout 1982.
The federal leader of the Australian Democrats, Don Chipp, also recognised the mood of the electorate against the dam and in August 1981 he initiated a Senate inquiry into “the federal responsibility in assisting Tasmania to preserve its wilderness areas of national and international importance”. Jones, Mulvaney and the executive of the Australian Archaeological Association were among the many to make submissions to the new Senate Select Committee.
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre also made a submission, drawing upon the archaeological research to underline the cave’s “great historical importance”. But they also made a more personal plea. The Franklin River caves “form part of us – we are of them and they of us. Their destruction represents a part destruction of us.”
This advocacy had a profound influence. Several members of the Senate Committee flew into the Franklin valley to see the ongoing archaeological work and when the committee presented its report on the Future Demand and Supply of Electricity for Tasmania and Other Matters, the archaeology dominated the “other matters”. “Apart from any other reasons for preserving the area,” they concluded, “the caves are of such importance that the Franklin River be not inundated.”
Prime Minister Fraser heeded the conclusions of the report. He did not want the Franklin dam built, but he was reluctant to intervene in what he regarded as a state matter. So he did not act when construction on the dam began in July 1982.
Protests and political shifts
On 14 December 1982, the same day the region was formally listed as a World Heritage site for its natural and cultural value, a chain of rubber rafts blocked the main landing sites along the Franklin River, protestors occupied the dam site and rallies were held in cities across Australia.
By autumn 1983, 1272 protestors had been arrested during the Franklin blockade, and nearly 450 had done time in Hobart’s Risdon Prison, including Mansell and Langford, who were charged with trespass on their return from visiting Kutikina.
While the blockade continued, and with a federal election just around the corner, the ALP made a snap change in its leadership on 3 February 1983. It replaced Bill Hayden, who had voted against Labor’s policy to stop the dam at the party’s national conference, with Bob Hawke, who had voted for it. And in a tumultuous few hours of Australian political history, Fraser called an early election on the same day. It would turn out to be a grievous political miscalculation.
Neither Fraser nor Hawke believed the Franklin River dispute decided the 5 March 1983 election, but the outgoing Deputy Prime Minister, Doug Anthony, was adamant: “There is no doubt that the dam was the issue that lost the government the election.”
On 31 March the new Hawke government passed regulations to prevent further construction on the Franklin dam. Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray took the matter to the High Court, challenging the constitutionality of Hawke’s “interventionist” legislation. His appeal failed by the narrowest of margins.
The judges in the majority considered that the Commonwealth had a clear obligation to use its External Affairs power to stop the proposed dam, as the inundation of “the Franklin River, including Kutikina Cave and Deena Reena Cave”, would breach the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act and damage Australia’s international standing. They also invoked the Commonwealth power to make laws with respect to Aboriginal people.
The Franklin River campaign has entered “the folklore of Australian environmentalism” as a green victory: a battle won, in Clive Hamilton’s words, through “the intrinsic worth of wild places.” But behind the scenes it was the deep Aboriginal history of the region that pushed the decision over the line. The archaeological evidence featured in every report about the judgement, and privately Malcolm Fraser considered it to be the deciding factor.
Perhaps the answer is “not a great deal”, given the apparent similarity between the two men’s outlooks. But then again, confident predictions about the future of Australian climate policy are a mug’s game.
Joyce joined the Senate back in July 2005, as part of the tranche that gave the Liberal and National Coalition absolute control. At the time, another new senator, the Greens’ Christine Milne, was ready to talk with the likes of Joyce, arguing that both of their parties should share common concerns about climate change, drought, salinity, loss of native vegetation, and more.
Joyce evidently didn’t see it that way. When federal Liberals Brendan Nelson and Alexander Downer tried to get a debate going about the purported climate benefits of nuclear power, Joyce joined with Queensland’s Labor Premier Peter Beattie in arguing that nuclear power should not be on the agenda while Australia’s coal resources remained plentiful (although he opted against echoing Beattie’s “clean coal” push).
A year later, however, Joyce was more attuned to Milne’s concerns. In the context of the seemingly never-ending Millennium drought, and with Nationals leader Mark Vaile urging his cabinet colleagues to spend at least another A$750 million on drought relief, Joyce fearfully noted that:
The drought really has to be seen to be believed. It’s a case of creeks that haven’t run for months, sometimes years, (and) bores that are going dry. There is a real concern amongst a lot that maybe there is a final change in the climate. That’s really starting to worry people.
Six months later, with the “first climate change election” looming, Joyce used some leaping logic to describe proposed rail spending as a climate measure:
We can go up to every mother and father and ask them if they can drive their tree to work and see how they go… I think that rail is greenhouse friendly. It is going to be taking all prime-movers off the road.
Of course, this support for rural industry didn’t mean that Joyce supported any form of emissions trading put forward by either Liberal or Labor. He instead voiced fears that Australia “could soon resemble communism” unless farmers are paid properly for the carbon stored in their land.
Perhaps his most (in)famous claim came in 2009, as Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme staggered towards its demise, bleeding credibility and support at every lobbyist-inspired softening. Joyce predicted that with the advent of carbon trading, the Sunday roast would cost A$150 (a figure that was later downgraded to a far more measured and believable 100 bucks).
The same year, Joyce told political journalist Laurie Oakes:
Everywhere there is a power point in your house, there is access to a new tax for the Labor Government – a new tax on ironing, a new tax on watching television, a new tax on vacuuming.
In November 2009, the Nationals told the Liberals that support for carbon pricing could lead to a split in the Coalition. The then Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull was challenged by Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott, the latter winning by a single vote. The rest is history.
Joyce joined in the ultimately fatal attack on Gillard’s carbon pricing scheme by upping the ante on his Sunday roast claims. Using some impressively creative reasoning, he argued that the A$23-a-tonne carbon price could lead abattoirs to end up being slugged A$575,000 for slaughtering a single cow.
A party of one mind
Of course, Joyce is far from alone among Nationals for baiting the greenies. Fellow backbencher George Christensen’s dangerous and lamentable Facebook post is just the latest in a long line of provocations.
Back in 1997 Tim Fischer, then Deputy Prime Minister, spoke at a conference in Canberra organised by climate denialists called Countdown to Kyoto. Years later, at about the same time that Joyce first entered the Senate, his party colleague Julian McGauran reportedly flipped the bird at Greens leader Bob Brown after the Coalition voted down a Senate motion criticising the government on climate change.
Joyce is gone, but the Nationals don’t exactly have hordes of tree-huggers waiting in the wings. The efforts of Farmers for Climate Action to influence the Nationals’ leadership succession seems to have amounted to nothing.
When it does not rain for years on end, it does not mean it will not rain again. It does not mean we all need to listen to a government grant-seeking academic sprouting doom and gloom about climate changing irreversibly.
It is impossible to predict how and when the Nationals’ policies might change, especially in places where One Nation is waiting with open arms for any wavering voters.
But as ever, it is the voters who hold the key. If enough of Barnaby’s “weatherboard and iron” rural base decide that climate change is a serious, vote-deciding issue, that will be the day when the Nationals finally give up their cast-iron opposition to climate action.
During my break from Blogging I was able to get away for some time out. I headed off to one of my favourite spots, relatively close to here (about 3.5 to 4 hours drive, which is fairly close for Australia), Dorrigo. Dorrigo National Park is near Dorrigo – in fact it is just 2km out of town. It’s a great place and I’ll be posting some photos (and possibly video also) from the visit over the next week or so. During my visit I stayed at Dorrigo Mountain Resortjust out of Dorrigo and close by the national park. I stayed in a fairly basic cabin for two nights, which though it wouldn’t meet the standards set by most people (and I wouldn’t blame them or judge them for that) for a place to stay, I did view it as just somewhere to stay and sleep, choosing to spend…