Tasmania dam campaign a highlight of 1983

On July 1, 1983, the High Court handed down a landmark decision, halting construction of a dam on Tasmania’s pristine Gordon River.

The decision ended what was possibly Australia’s most significant environmental campaign.

Besides the Tasmanian wilderness, there were two big winners.

New Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke had gone to the 1983 election opposing the dam, fully expecting Labor would suffer in Tasmania, which it did.

The protest leader Bob Brown, now Australian Greens leader, was one of more than 1000 to be arrested while campaigning against the dam.

He emerged from 19 days in Risdon Prison to take a place in Tasmania’s parliament, launching an enduring political career.

The High Court decision was the culmination of events, which started in the 1960s when the Tasmanian government decided to build a series of dams to flood Lake Pedder for hydro-electricity generation.

Despite widespread protests that attracted international support, the flooding proceeded.

One result was the formation of the United Tasmania Group (UTG), now regarded as the world’s first green political party.

They were much better prepared when the issue surfaced again in 1979 as the Tasmanian Hydro-Electricity Commission unveiled a proposal to dam the Franklin River.

In October 1981, the Commonwealth, at the request of the then Tasmanian Labor government, nominated much of southwest Tasmania for UNESCO world heritage listing.

In December 1981, Tasmanian voters at a state referendum voted in favour of building the dam on the Gordon River below its confluence with the Franklin.

However, 45 per cent of the electorate opposed any new dam, writing “no dams” on ballot papers.

The Liberals took office in Tasmania in May 1982 and started work, launching the great environmental campaign of Australian history.

Cabinet papers for 1982-83 – released by the National Archives of Australia – show the Fraser government was in a difficult position.

On one hand, it had nominated southwest Tasmania for the World Heritage List.

As a party to the World Conservation Convention, it had assumed conservation responsibilities for the area whether or not the listing proceeded.

On the other hand, the Commonwealth traditionally had left development matters on state land to state governments.

The Tasmanian Liberal government claimed a clear mandate to build the dam.

Fraser’s Environment Minister Tom McVeigh gave the government three choices: denounce the world heritage convention and thereby remove any obligation to protect southwest Tasmania; allow the dam to proceed on the basis that this was a matter for Tasmania under Australia’s federal system; or, stop the dam by offering to fund an alternative.

None of the options appeared especially appealing and on January 13, 1983 the government decided to make no attempt to intervene or coerce the Tasmanian government.

But it did seek to persuade them to postpone construction, offering $500 million to fund a coal-fired power station. Fraser publicly announced that offer on January 19.

Events subsequently intervened and on February 3, Fraser called the election for March 5.

Labor, which had campaigned on stopping the dam, was elected in a landslide and moved speedily.

New Attorney-General Gareth Evans outlined options in a submission to cabinet on March 16.

The federal government decided first to ask the Tasmanian government to desist and if that failed, to invoke the constitution’s external affairs power and make regulations halting the dam work under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975.

In a submission on May 24, Evans said Tasmania, as expected, had challenged the regulations and continued work and the matter would now go to the High Court.

In the meantime, Evans took a step that earned him enduring notoriety.

In order to gather information to support the Commonwealth application for an injunction, he directed the RAAF to conduct a reconnaissance flight over southwest Tasmania.

A RAAF Mirage first overflew the work site on April 7 and when that produced no useful images, the mission was conducted successfully the next day by a F-111.

It was a highly controversial use of defence assets for a civil purpose and, when asked to explain, Evans famously resorted to the streaker’s defence: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

This became known as the Tasmanian spy flight scandal and when it emerged Evans had personally authorised the mission without going through tiresome official channels, he was ever after referred to as “Biggles”.

Hawke told reporters at the official launch of the 1982-83 cabinet documents that the Tasmanian dam emerged as a major issue during the 1983 election campaign.

“I was absolutely committed to that,” he said.

“I knew we’d lose seats in Tasmania and in fact, we lost them all.

“But I said to our people we would get them all back and we did.”

Hawke said there was no reason to say it had to be the environment or growth.

“The sensible government can provide decent policies which will ensure environmental protection and the conditions for growth,” he said.

Hawke said Evans was a remarkable minister who was extraordinarily able and hard-working.

“But all who know Gareth know that he has got a rather dramatic and compulsive streak about him,” he said.

Hawke said he personally would not have authorised the spy flights.

“But it didn’t do any harm,” he said.

“The important thing was that in the end, we got the result that was intrinsically right for the environment of Tasmania and the economy of Tasmania.”

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