2013 – Will Anyone Step off the Pavement?

Will Anyone Step off the Pavement?

Bob Brown

I thank the members of the Peace Trust for thWill Anyone Step off the Pavement?e work you do, and for your vigilance, for as you know that famed mayor of Dublin said “The price of peace is eternal vigilance”. And for your persistence in a world where so many people find themselves in despair about what is going on, not least at the moment in Syria where the prospect of peace looks very small indeed. All the worst things that we worry about in human nature and society seem to be bubbling to the surface while the world as a whole seems unable and incapable of coming to a resolution on how to act to stop the violence and the destruction. This is significant in the 21st century and I think we will see global governance becoming a major topic.

Now I’m not going to, and I didn’t start this talk by saying ‘Dear Earthians’, because I know the Murdoch media will take that and use it, in the way it does. But it is a very apposite way for us to be addressing each other. We are all on a planet in 2013 where, unlike anything before in human history, we all know what each of us is doing. We know about the horrors of what is happening in that shopping centre in Nairobi. We watch that go through at the same time as we know about the vicissitudes of the New Zealanders losing the unlosable America’s Cup. It’s not just entertainment. It’s the reality of what is going on the planet and a reality we know we share because we know that as human beings we are all made the same way. This description is true: that our destiny is together.

I’ve got with me a book of poems which I launched last night at the Hobart Book Shop, called ‘Tempo’ by Sarah Day, who I think is one of the most remarkably accessible poets on the planet in 2013. And she talks about this common experience we have—and going beyond the words for it. She has a poem in the collection where she takes the view of someone from outer space. It’s called ‘New Year’s Eve’ and they’ve just arrived back at the station we left twelve months ago, having circled the sun, and we’re all aboard the same train, some may have lingered along the way but nobody’s got off that train. We’re all on this Earth and we’re bound together by it and yet we’re acting as if we’re disparate peoples within states, communities, nations, and trading blocs. And we have to get beyond this idea for our own sakes because we live in an age of unconscionably destructive weaponry which we will use if we don’t control ourselves.

Santayana said, if you don’t learn from history then you are unfortunately going to live it again. One of the things in history that always concentrates my mind is 1453, the Fall of Constantinople, the great centre of the Eastern Christian Empire, where the Turks were coming and they knew that for not just months but for years and did very little to defend themselves because they believed that they, being of a particular faith in the great city of Constantinople with a silver angel outside the great cathedral, would be protected. The great cathedral is now the great mosque.

It wasn’t until five thousand nobles were inside the church with the battering rams hammering on the door between them and their hopes in something else other than themselves that they realised the end of their world had come. And when the door burst open that was what happened.

Now we are on a marvellous planet in which each of you and I are living with a greater income in monetary terms, in material terms, than most of the empresses and emperors of historic times, tribal chieftains, and so on. And yet we take as a society, we’re not talking about us in this room necessarily, but as a society we take that for granted. And we know it cannot keep going. Yet to make a stand against it is a great threat to the well-being that we experience. In material terms, in this country, we are the richest people per capita of any country on earth, according to the United Nations. And we know that we are living in the most resource-consuming, that is, materially wealthy period in human history.

Here we are, the wealthiest people ever to exist in history and yet the whole debate in our society is about how badly off we are. The Great Whinge. How we must protect ourselves from people coming in boats because they just might be going to undermine what we’ve got. We’ve just had more than fifty percent of Australians vote to cut overseas aid by four billion dollars in our coming economic cycle so as to spend more money on making this the 21st century the century of road-building in Australia, twenty-six billion over the coming four years is allocated to roads, or was—it is now going to be thirty billion because of the very thought-out vote of Australians a couple of Saturdays ago.

But in that vote also fifty percent of Australians went for mining of the Tarkine Wilderness in north-west Tasmania. Again more than fifty percent voted to have World Heritage listing taken off the forests. And much more to come in that package which will include the handing back of Federal Environment laws to the states because that’s what the corporate sector, particularly the extractive industries, want. And we all know what that means. For example, Gunns in national parks, as we have seen after the considered vote of the people in New South Wales.

I want to come back to Tasmania with that wider introduction—to 1987 where at the behest of the great gun control campaigner, Roland Browne, who has his solicitor’s office up in town here, I’m going back to 1987 remember, I brought a bill into the Tasmanian Parliament where I was then a member for Denison to ban semi-automatic machine-guns being sold out of gun-shops in Tasmania, and was howled down on the floor of the parliament here in peaceful Hobart. A few years later a man took a semi-automatic machine-gun and shot thirty-five people at Port Arthur. My replacement in the parliament, if you like, Christine Milne, took that legislation at Roland Browne’s instigation and gave it to the state and federal governments. John Howard was the prime minister at the time and as a result of that gun laws were brought in right across Australia within three months—the same laws that had been howled down as against the way our society thinks just a few months before.

What we had there was an encapsulation of the inertia of us human beings again, and again 1453 is echoing in my ears. That we don’t do anything until the catastrophe overtakes us. We all know about 1937, the ‘Peace in Our Time’ of Neville Chamberlain who got the signed document from Hitler, and went back to London where the church bells rang and more than a million people thronged the streets and rejoiced. And in two years they were at war.

We’re in a planetary situation now where we have to take some note of the scientists and their clear logic as well as our own intelligence which says that we can’t continue to have our material impact on the planet grow at current rates because we would need three times the resources this planet can provide. By later this century, if we were to do so and the rest of the world were to catch and be equal in the rate of consumption with us, and as the population heads towards somewhere between eight and ten billion people the resources just aren’t there.

We are, ladies and gentlemen, at the moment using 120% of the renewable living resources of the planet. That is, we are taking them faster than they can replenish themselves. That is why 70% of the ocean fisheries are in collapse and the number is increasing. And here in Australia more than 50% of people voted, a couple of Saturdays ago, to review the decision not to have mega-trawlers brought in to our own fisheries. So they are on the way now—as a result of the popular feeling that we should be taking more from the living renewable resources of the planet than we are at the moment. This 120% doesn’t worry anybody in the main, it worries some individuals, some worrywarts, but in the main it’s not fast enough, it’s not open enough, and we have got to have as Oliver Twist once mistakenly said, ‘more’. Well, more is the single word that encapsulates our current society around the planet. Here in Tasmania where we’re at the peak of the pyramid of material wealth in all of human history we are also by dint of history blessed to have remarkable living resources in the form of wildness, remoteness, pristineness, living ecosystems which are an extraordinarily important resource for human wellbeingness.

You can’t put a price on them, they are priceless, and therefore they are devalued to nothing in current economic terms. But they are extraordinarily important for the wellbeing of the spirit and therefore the rest of the human make-up which we share. We are, as I told a conference of eight hundred educators at the Grand Chancellor Hotel just a few days ago, we are here faced with the question as to whether we will step off the footpath, while the last of those natural resources is ripped up, mined, logged, and in future also dammed. And it’s coming at us in a great rush and we seem to have not only stepped off the footpath but many of us who were off the footpath in the roadway to try and slow this down have stepped back on to the footpath to allow the traffic to go through the quicker.

I’m very mindful of the history of non-violent peaceful protection of the environment; it goes back through all recorded history, not least to the Aboriginal Tasmanians who tried this after a period of fighting for their rights. Many people may not know this but in the war that followed the British occupation of Tasmania after 1803, 250 of the Europeans were put to death by Aboriginal people fighting for their homeland and 1,000 Aboriginals were shot or otherwise killed in the conflict which immediately followed. It’s not in our history books but that’s what happened. Some tried the alternative path and this has been followed through in Australia—of accommodating this mightier force and peacefully trying to protect what was left of their culture and their lands. Their changing struggle became a symbol of a newer way of protecting the environment. In the 1870s there were those who proclaimed to legislative council committees that the forests were being destroyed too fast, that it should be regulated, and some of the sheer destruction of lighting up the country with matches should be stopped. In 1888 they put through legislation, however, to put a one pound bounty on the head of the thylacine and it was driven to extinction. Well over 2,000 bounties were paid in the following twenty years and it became perhaps the first creature in human history that was deliberately, by government fiat, that is agreement of the people, sent to extinction.

In 1908 John Watt Beattie, the wonderful wilderness photographer of the age who had his studios here in Hobart, wrote fiercely to The Mercury about the incoming mining effort on the Gordon River. BHP had a smelter over in South Australia and it wanted limestone for that smelter and so it wanted to mine the marble cliffs on the Gordon River. And so, through Beattie and other citizens getting involved, because the Gordon River had become a remote but nevertheless on the tourist agenda place and Beattie’s pictures had brought it to the good citizens of Hobart, the mining venture was stopped.

In the late 1940s there was a huge furore over forestry in Tasmania and there are some living Tasmanians who were around at that time. There was a Royal Commission into corruption. But nothing much came of that. And then in 1970, just as Lake Pedder had the dams being built on it, along came woodchipping. In the Lake Pedder campaign, the citizens took part in that and it was the first great national campaign in Australia. Lake Pedder was declared a National Park in 1954 and was flooded in 1972. So the dams were being built and there was discussion among the folk campaigning for Lake Pedder, as to whether they should take part in peaceful direct action and they decided not to because society was not ready for it. And that set us thinking about ideas and tactics during the years of the Franklin campaign.

So we got some Quakers in from New Zealand in 1980. they came up to the Liffey River and stayed at the Baptist Youth camp and we had weekend sessions on non-violent training and that included role plays. So you sat on an imaginary road in front of imaginary bulldozers and when the police arrived you had to decide whether to go with the police or whether you would have them carry you off. But that was it. There was to be no verbal or other return of violence to Hydro workers or the police or any other persons who were involved. This is a central tenet of non-violent action. Some people did not like this at all. But that is what happened. And thousands of people embraced the ethos; this spread through training camps right round Australia, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth, Darwin, where people got trained before they came down to the Franklin. Six thousand people with fifteen hundred arrested and five hundred jailed. Fifteen hundred arrested and jailed and five hundred of them held. When I was over at Risdon the place was packed. The thing about it was that the warders had been wanting a pay increase and couldn’t get it from the then government. But now the jails were packed to the top rails and the authorities were worried about staffing so the warders got a handsome pay increase just before Christmas and were very happy about that.

I remember being there and one poignant moment, the day friends delivered to me On Walden Pond, the great book of the 1840s by H. G. Thoreau, the American author who had spent a night in jail for refusing to pay taxes because the Union, the Congress in Washington, had raised a special tax to help fund their invasion of Mexico. Texas used to be part of Mexico and they took over Texas at the time and Thoreau refused to pay his taxes to support a war which was not provoked but which was expansionary in nature and when he sat in the woods and wrote about it he speculated that if a law is wrong then perhaps, I’ll paraphrase, then the right place for a citizen to be is on the wrong side of that law. And that’s something that the people on the Franklin River had to think about. By the way, Thoreau had lots of thoughts and one of those was encapsulated on one of the banners down at the Franklin which was ‘In Wildness is the Preservation of the World’. Whatever that means it strikes a chord with anyone who loves nature,

And when the book was brought to jail for me to read people thought that I might need to brush up on non-violence because it’s got a sub-title, so it’s H. G. Thoreau’s On Walden Pond, that’s the book, and with a sub-title and An Essay on Civil Disobedience. Quelle horreur! The warders confiscated the book. They couldn’t have the dissemination of civil disobedience within the prison.

However, on the same day, or it may have been the day after, we were instructed that it was the monthly prison movie time and I enquired as to what the movie might be; we were going with all the other convicted inmates, we were not convicted, we were on remand at this time, with murderers and so on, and the movie was the unexpurgated full-colour version of ‘Caligula’. Now the violence and the rape and the blood lust of the so-named Roman emperor didn’t appeal and I said, ‘Well, I won’t go’, and they said, ‘Oh yes, you will or you’ll go to solitary confinement’. So on the same day that an essay on civil disobedience was ruled unfit for prisoners we were all sent off to watch ‘Caligula’ at the prison. And I think on that often as I occasionally very quickly flick to commercial TV and not so rarely these days on to ABC and SBS and immediately see a gun raised and Bang Bang and people are killing and shooting for entertainment. I wonder what it is in our psyche that has still got us enthralled by watching other people involved in horrendous situations. Whatever it is, it does make us muse that we, or me at least to muse that our evolution of intelligence is not fast enough to keep pace with our evolution, through our intelligence, the ability to take natural powers and use them against each other, for each other, and against nature itself

A technological capability is outstripping our ethical capabilities because the ethical side of evolution has not come as quickly. It’s something we really have to wonder about. And I go back again then to say that at the centre of an ethical resolution to the dilemma facing humanity if it’s to be peaceful is a democratic outcome. Democracy or guns. Take your pick. And the democratic outcome will be global democracy. And we either go for it or we’re done because we live in an age when we’ve got a rampantly wealthy global community with great disparities and enormous weaponry available.

One of the reasons why I and many others here are opposed to nuclear technology is not because it isn’t potentially going to provide even greater material wellbeing to the planet but because with that technology comes the unthinkable power for destruction. And we know that the Americans, the Israelis, the Russians, the Chinese, and so on, are now building nuclear weapons the size of a cake tin, of handbags, and we know that Al Quaida is advertising on line to get hold of that weaponry. There is another quite frightening thought in the middle of all this. In this age of mass communications, it’s been a bit slower in the past, but it’s always been the case that one person’s knowledge inevitably becomes everybody else’s knowledge. You can keep it under wraps for a time but you can’t keep it under wraps for ever. And the best thing we can do with such things as the destructive power of nuclear weaponry is to bring it under global governance. Understood but at least controlled.

In Tasmania, the highest form, I think, of specialist thinking through the democratic stream has been about the natural world because here we were and are with it in greater riches than almost anywhere else on the planet by dint of our history. When you look at Mount Wellington in the morning or the evening you know it is connected with wild places right to the west coast, right through to Cradle Mountain, right through to the south coast, and then on beyond into the oceans. In fact I’ll go back to Sarah Day and just read you a little thing. Some of you may have participated in the little scene that takes place at about this time of night, sometimes, when you look at Mount Wellington. The moon is setting and sometimes with it a planet or two and not long after dark they’re gone.

Sarah writes this in her book Tempo:
The crescent moon and Venus
hang over the city tonight like lovers,
as if the rest of the stars, the galaxies in the background,
do not matter, are enwrapped in their intimacy.
First to light up in the evening sky,
already low in the west, they’ll soon
disappear behind the mountain’s deeper blackness,
like a couple quietly absenting themselves from the crowd.

I’ve watched the moon and Venus and other planets disappear behind Mount Wellington. There are very few cities on earth where a spectacle like that can be witnessed. Yet the city has also been the witness and we’re seeing a rise of this at the moment of a procession of up to one hundred log trucks per day going down the street right next to where we are sitting right now—to the point where a couple of extra million dollars had to be spent on the concert hall for our Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra to make sure the rumble of log trucks didn’t intervene on the recording of particularly exquisite music in the concert hall just across the way from where we are. After Lake Pedder was flooded people then had a very earnest discussion about non-violence so that when it came to the time of the Franklin we, as I said, practised in case we would need it. And then in 1982 we discovered that both houses of parliament were in favour of the dam, so were all three newspapers, the churches were silent as were most of the unions, big business was of course in favour of it, so it looked like nothing was going to stop it.

I went to see the prime minister and he said, go home, it’s a state matter. We went to the High Court for a first hearing and they threw us out that afternoon. So it seemed nothing was going to work. I got together a group of the good, all voluntary, staff of the Wilderness Society up at 129 Bathurst Street where the office was at the time and said: we have to now seriously engage and get ourselves a non-violence action package together.

And so people, for this was late 1981, people from then got involved. The meetings were held in houses around Hobart. We thought our phones were tapped. You know, it’s very easy to get a little paranoid when you’re in a movement that’s not doing so well with the authorities. Anyway food dumps were put down the Crotty Road as bulldozers went into the valley after the vote of the people in support of flooding the Franklin in May 1982. And we suddenly realised that we were being outwitted. They were way ahead of us. By the way, on the evening of the 17th July 1982 I got a phone call in the night, a woman’s voice saying, I can’t tell you who I am but next Tuesday the bulldozers will start moving down the Crotty Road, down to the Franklin. And the phone went down.

I’ve learnt since then that if a citizen rings you in the night and says I’ve got information I want to share with you, of that gravity, assume it’s true. I’ve never known a case where it wasn’t true.

We had then the job of announcing to the people of Tasmania, of Australia, that we were going to sit in front of bulldozers, and I can’t tell you how anguishing that was. We booked the main banquet room up at Hadley’s Hotel, with its velvet curtains and those big gold wraps with things hanging off them, and had a big press conference. And I don’t know if any of you were there but we got fifty citizens, good and true, all dressed up, to sit in on that press conference, and announced that we were going to sit in front of the bulldozers on the Gordon River as of December that year.

Well, instead of the house falling down, we got a very good public reaction to it. They did a poll in Melbourne and the people of Melbourne by 58% to 28% thought we should sit in front of bulldozers; that is, a majority of people said, you should break the law because the government had also hurried through laws saying for the first time in six hundred years of common law that trespassing of itself is illegal.

In common law you could trespass on the land of the laird or the duke or the duchess as long as you didn’t tickle a trout or snare a hare. If you did those things you’d get arrested and go to jail. But people could trespass. It was never illegal. It became illegal in Tasmania in 1982 and so here we had the majority of people saying it was okay.

The blockade did its job of showing to the people of Australia the river itself. It was the background. It was the environment in which that blockade was held. And we knew that all the way down the line that if we allowed it to become a civil liberties issue rather than an environmental issue we were lost. But the people knew what the Franklin was like. Every night they were seeing pictures of it, now on colour TV. Back in Lake Pedder time it was black and white TV. A major change. And the river spoke to people and in the consequent Federal election the government changed and in the High Court, by a vote of four to three, the High Court found the Federal Government could over-ride Tasmania’s constitutional rights to manage its land as it wanted to.

Now out of that blockade came something else, I don’t have it with me tonight, which shows you how local action can translate in to global wellbeing, and that is the judgement of Justice Lionel Murphy. It is the thirtieth anniversary of the High Court decision on July 1st. The World Convention was signed so that the great cultural and natural heritage of this planet which belongs to all people of all times should be protected by each of the signatory countries—and in doing so they became the guardians of these universally important cultural and natural assets for all people of all times. So what had been a local dispute, whether to have a dam or not, turned into an affirmation that we as the custodians of something which is important on a global scale had a duty here in Tasmania and in Australia to protect that for all time, for all other people on the planet.

You see a little bit of global governance occurring there before any such institution had been established. And as a consequence of that the World Heritage area was doubled in size in 1989 to include other forests and rivers. By the way, that great Tasmanian premier, Doug Lowe, who lost his premiership during the Franklin campaign because he supported saving the Franklin had signed a letter to the Federal Government calling for the south-west to become World Heritage and it was on his desk signed on the 11th November 1981, an auspicious day in our history, when a majority of his fellow members of government brought him a note to say, we no longer want you as premier. A very watchful member of his staff went to his desk before the next premier got to the desk, took that letter off the desk, put it in an envelope and sent it to the Prime Minister Mt Fraser who forwarded it to Paris. Without that very watchful member of Doug Lowe’s staff history would be entirely different. A little example of somebody taking a decision on their own which manifestly changed the map in Tasmania and uplifted the collective wellbeing in terms of what we have in wildness, which is the preservation of the world to hand on to future generations.

Which brings us to the present. In June this year the World Heritage committee meeting in Cambodia accepted Australia’s proposals that the tall forests, the tallest flowering forests on earth, from the great Western Tiers through the Council River and the Styx, the Weld, the Huon, down to Recherche Bay, ought to be added to the World Heritage property, including Mount Field National Park. Well, seventy thousand hectares was added to the World Heritage area.

Now, on a couple of Saturdays ago, the good people of Australia and indeed Tasmania voted to have that reversed, to have World Heritage protection of the forests removed by the then alternative government which had made it very clear in the public arena that it would be the first government in world history to request that a property within its boundaries which had been judged to be of World Heritage significance be de-listed. So Australia in the space of these thirty years has gone from a country which led the world and where a judge so poignantly spoke to the world, spoke to this nation, about our obligation as guardians, as part of a convention of world governance to protect nature—to becoming a vanguard of the reverse order by saying nothing even of World Heritage significance is so valuable as our subservience to the idea that if there is a natural resource there, in this case to be woodchipped, a living resource even in an age where 120% of the world’s living non-renewable resources is being swallowed up by our thirst for more each year, then we should go for it. And that’s what we voted for.

And extraordinarily enough, at the time that was taking place or indeed in the weeks since then, we’ve had spokespersons for the environment movement in Australia go to Japan with the loggers to advocate that a Malaysian logging company now operating in this state brought here by a gift of twenty million dollars in infrastructure from the Tasmanian people, buyers should be encouraged to take their product out of the native forests here in Tasmania. As I said to the conference up at the Grand Chancellor the other day, ‘Search me’.

However things come and things go and we have a new challenge on our doorstep which is the Tarkine wilderness in north-west Tasmania. Now on January 1st 1816 Captain James Kelly and his four or five fellow young daredevils were rowing their whaling boat anti-clockwise around Tasmania from Hobart and they brought it ashore on a beach on the Tarkine and were astonished, to use Kelly’s words, to see six huge native and naked black men, above six feet tall and very stout made, with their faces further blackened, come down on to the beach and with one spear in each of their right hands and three in their left and, as Kelly recorded it, looking as if to make war. So he assessed this situation quite correctly and quickly reversed oars and rowed back out to sea. The Tarkine warriors had asserted their authority over their homelands. But within thirty years they had been vanquished.

And this week Geoff King, a noble heart who grew up on the north-west coast and spent his childhood in the Tarkine and its environs, died. He went to sleep on a couch. Only fifty-eight. He didn’t wake up. His funeral was today. So I dedicate this talk to Geoff King. He had a little cottage on the Tarkine coast where people could go and stay and watch Tasmanian devils at night. And in the vicinity of that cottage are Aboriginal hut sites. Some of the hut sites are depressions in big gravel boulders, I mean the size of football field boulders, smooth boulders, banked up like sand dunes behind the shore. These were recorded by George Augustus Robinson when he went around with the Aboriginal people to remove them from their lands in 1830 and he said that one of these huts had a living room and a kitchen and a front verandah or porch, I’ve forgotten which word he used. Anyway, quite extraordinary sites and where they were built into the ground the depressions are still there. Geoff King’s problem was that he had purchased this land but off-road vehicles are driving through these hut sites, ripping up, ripping down, not too far from where in ancient petroglyphs, that is carved rock symbols on the coastline, a decade ago somebody carved a cross across one of them and somebody else painted a red swastika across another and a third person a bit before that backed a truck into one and took the smashed bit. It’s probably now on the world market.

Now, when I enquired of the ministers of the day what action they were going to take they said, no, they hadn’t told the police. Why would you. Again I say ‘Search me’. Geoff King felt differently. He had grown up on the side of increasing the exploitation of natural resources and he had decided in his own heart that it wasn’t right and he had come to love that place. Well, he had always loved it. But he came to want other people to know about it and to want the Tarkine protected. And he’s a remarkable spirit who stood against the tide of his own community in many ways. And certainly he inspired me to get much more involved in the Save the Tarkine campaign.

Well, it’s a challenge to all of us.

Will we get off the footpath to protect the Tarkine? Would anybody?