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At the Bentley blockade in northern NSW, the seeds are being sown for a new crop of public defiance. By Jed Smith.

Bentley and the brave new world of environmental activism

The protesters in Bentley, northern NSW.
Credit: ALEX CLARKE

It is Anzac Day and the Bentley blockade is preparing for its final stand. Instructions have been handed down from the council for the blockade, just west of Lismore in northern New South Wales, to be removed and there are 800 specially trained riot police from Sydney stationed nearby to make sure it happens – by force if necessary. At dusk, a man with a megaphone relays the news to protesters. He urges all those with children to get out before the authorities arrive. “I’ve seen what they do and they will not baulk at dragging kids out by their feet,” he warns. 

Not everyone is so worried, however. Reverend Jim Nightingale, whose parish takes in the nearby cattle farming town of Kyogle, strikes a majestic, if not slightly rotund, figure on the dusty road to the blockade. Dressed in cowboy boots, a wide-brimmed hat, a black button-up shirt with a reverend’s collar, and slim-fit jeans, he is not concerned about the predicted onslaught. Probably because he’s already been done a few times for protesting outside abortion clinics around the country. “Some of the people out here probably wouldn’t pee on me if I was burning alive on fire,” he admits. “But this is not just an issue that affects the great unwashed [the activists]. Clean water and clean air affects us all.” 

Nightingale represents the other side of the political spectrum present at Bentley, of which there are many, with 87 to 90 per cent of NSW Northern Rivers residents registering their opposition to coal seam gas (CSG) exploration and mining in their area. 

Since CSG companies arrived in Australia in 1996, they’ve made a habit of targeting out-of-the-way places for drilling – NSW backwaters such as Gloucester and Narrabri, or the rugged interior of Queensland. Whether by oversight or, as some here believe, a deliberate move to rip the heart out of the Australian conservationist movement, this time they chose Bentley.

Since the Aquarius Festival in nearby Nimbin in 1973, the Northern Rivers has been the home of all things clean, green and progressive in Australia. It’s only a short drive from Bentley to the scene of one of the most significant landmarks in the history of the Australian conservation movement, Terania Creek, where a rabble of students, residents and activists successfully turned loggers away from a stretch of rainforest in 1979. They would soon force then NSW premier Neville Wran to declare the region a national park, which is known today as the World Heritage-listed Nightcap National Park.

 It also kicked off a wave of defiance that would change the Australian political landscape forever. The social foment started at Terania fed directly into the successful Franklin River defence in Tasmania soon afterwards. And that in turn led a wiry young man by the name of Bob Brown to form the Greens party. 

Last year, on the 40th anniversary of Nimbin’s Aquarius Festival, the NSW parliament formally recognised the contribution of the Northern Rivers to the nation. The day Metgasco announced plans to drill here was the day they locked horns with a very powerful enemy. 

Changed days

There are half-a-dozen veterans of Terania Creek at Bentley. Some are now environmental lawyers, others are part of the local political landscape. Almost all are grandparents. Rosie Lee is one such veteran. Now in her 60s, she’s lived in the Northern Rivers for more than 30 years. She turned out at Terania Creek with her six-month-old back in 1979, but says it was a vastly different battleground then. The police they’d confronted didn’t have guns for one. And when push came to shove it had only taken about 200 activists to defeat the loggers. They are expecting about 10,000 on the blockade the day Metgasco and the police make their move. 

Lee concedes her days as a heady young activist are long behind her but since then she definitely has not lost the fire. “That determination is still there,” she says. “And after 30 years we know what we’re doing.” Her subgroup calls itself the Knitting Nannas; their pledge is to simply keep knitting when the miners and riot police arrive. There is a smug self-awareness as she anticipates images of knitting grandmas being dragged off the protest line getting beamed globally.

It is an uneasy truce at times between the far left and the more moderate cattle-farming types on the blockade. As the sun sets on Anzac Day, what many believe to be the final day of peace on the blockade, the bonfires have been lit and the blockade’s fringe comes out. The real minority on this protest are the self-styled “freaks” who are young and naive and stupidly idealistic. Dressed in felt loincloths and smeared with body paint, they join hands around the fire and began to sing: 

Every cell in my body is happy, I’m so happy because all my cells are well. All my cells are happy and I’m happy as hell.

And the circle song:

We are circling, we are singing, singing our heart song. This is family, this is unity, this is celebration, this is sacred. 

Going mainstream

With today’s media landscape as polarised as it is, there are fears the behaviour of a select few can undermine an entire movement. “One of the conversations we were having in the camp was that this is a mainstream movement, it is not a countercultural movement,” says Aidan Ricketts, a lecturer from Southern Cross University’s school of law and justice and the author of The Activists’ Handbook

“Some people are very locked in their countercultural personal identity and that is very problematic for a mainstream movement. But the movement itself is not overtly countercultural. It’s a pro-democracy movement arising out of rural Australia.”

The success of Bentley has greatly benefited by the simple nature of their demands – namely that the community is unanimous in not having its water source nor its world-famous natural environment threatened. And that they will be happy with whatever financial consequences result. It’s this kind of reasonable, coherent message that has proved elusive for the other protest movements that have recently swept the nation, from Occupy to the March in March to the March in May. 

Ricketts, however, disagrees that it’s a bad thing for the protest movement. “What it represents is a very, very fertile garden in which ideas are being exchanged and coming up,” he says. “If we go back to the late 1960s for example, we see exactly the same thing: a very fertile garden of social foment that didn’t necessarily display coherent aims and yet the social revolution of the 1960s and ’70s was enormously powerful and achieved an enormous amount, and transformed our society permanently.” 

Power of the press

As weeks turned into months on the Bentley blockade, the coal seam gas industry and the few local politicians backing it began to find themselves on the wrong end of a very public public relations flogging. That’s because the blockade had its own set of skilled media professionals expertly producing their own press releases. 

The narrative of a small community united against an immensely powerful foe struck a chord around the country, and soon supporters were emerging from the unlikeliest of places. “Could you just imagine if it was you…? It is a glorious productive valley and these people, like you and I, don’t want it turned into an absolute wasteland, an industrial wasteland,” the conservative radio broadcaster Alan Jones told his listeners. 

Faced with the prospect of removing 10,000 men, women, children and Knitting Nannas from the blockade, the government was forced into a humiliating high-profile backdown. As such, in the wake of the suspension of Metgasco’s drilling licence, questions began being asked about how the company came to own a licence in the first place; questions that will now be answered by the Independent Commission Against Corruption. 

With the double hit to Metgasco its share price shed half its value. Meanwhile, the entire future of the coal seam gas industry in Australia has also been placed under the microscope – already it has been banned in France and dozens of counties in the US. 

 As the Bentley blockade packs up, the movement is now setting it sights on CSG mining in the Pilliga state forest near Narrabri, where one major chemical spill has already occurred. The arrests and media exposure are beginning to mount there, too. It’s a brave new world that politicians and corporate interests step into post-Bentley – one characterised by unprecedented scrutiny and unavoidable transparency. For those straddling the line of legality, the stakes are higher than ever. Especially when you’re playing with water.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "Brave new world". Subscribe here.

Jed Smith
is a freelance journalist.