What has happened to the Bob Hawke standard of prime ministerial courage, the one that saw him safeguard Australia’s environment and Indigenous heritage?
Hawke’s first act as prime minister in 1983 was to save the Franklin River in Tasmania. In 1987, he over-rode Queensland’s bull-headed premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, to save the Daintree wet tropics. These rainforests faced death by a thousand cuts, from mining, logging and real estate developments. In that way, they were just like Tasmania’s takayna/Tarkine rainforest in 2021.
Hawke’s minister for the Environment, Graham Richardson, faced an unruly and abusive mob when he visited the Daintree. But, with an election in the offing, Hawke defied the howls against Commonwealth intervention, had the forests listed as World Heritage, and protected what is now a matter of pride and joy – and a major job-creator – in Queensland’s north.
Tasmania’s takayna/Tarkine temperate rainforest, equal in size to the Daintree, needs similar, urgent protection through a nomination for its World Heritage values. It should also be returned to the Tasmanian Aboriginal community. Instead, the Morrison and Tasmanian governments have allowed more than 100 coupes of this forest to be opened for logging, have failed to cement protection for the Tarkine’s coastal Aboriginal sites from future off-road vehicle degradation, and have let most of its 495,000 hectares be given over to mineral exploration leases.
Now Beijing-based mining corporation MMG is bulldozing tracks to its select site for a toxic waste dump in the Tarkine rainforest in north-west Tasmania. The company’s 85-year-old Rosebery mine has two existing tailings dams, but they are nearly full and so it plans a bridge and pipeline over the Pieman River to build a dam in the rainforest where it will store its next 40 years’ of waste.
Tailings are the wastes after the silver, lead, zinc and gold from MMG’s underground mine are extracted from the ore in a processing mill. Astonishingly, in this second decade of the 21st century, this miner strives to do no better than dump its waste in an ancient rainforest while the Tasmanian watchdog, the Environmental Protection Authority, lies asleep in its kennel.
Two months ago, MMG’s excavators rumbled into the Tarkine, escorted by 30 police, who cleared out an existing forest defenders’ camp and began arresting people. But the protesters kept coming and nearly 100 people have now been arrested or charged, including farmers, nurses, doctors, teachers, tourism operators, journalists and artists. The campaign to save the Tarkine is second only to the Franklin dam blockade of 1982-83 in terms of the number of Tasmanians arrested. It will grow rapidly if the federal and state governments continue to give the Tarkine’s forests, wildlife, beaches and Aboriginal heritage over to serial destruction.
Anthony Houston, a farmer, said after his arrest: “The message I want to give to all Australians is that it is really important to come and experience what is being lost. You can see it on TV or in a book but it is not the same. I could not believe the ancient trees they are knocking down. They are knocking over more in one day than I could plant in a year. Getting arrested was doing my part to help protect these forests. It’s like something from Lord of the Rings and we should not be losing places like this.”
Retired government environmental adviser Pete Hay, musician Shane Howard, journalist Martin Flanagan and rugby union player David Pocock have joined the protest. Launceston veterinarian and winemaker Jane Wilson was arrested after locking on to MMG’s machinery on Monday. She made a poignant call to others: “These rainforests are mature, complex, biodiverse ecosystems. They’re not isolated, they’re not protected from our everyday lives. Please do what you can ... Don’t just stand by and do nothing. Please.”
MMG has other sites where it could have built its tailings dam, including on the mine-side of the Pieman River. Better still, it could match overseas best-practice and reconstitute the wastes into a paste, returning the paste to disused tunnels down in the mine. Or it could raise the walls of its existing tailings dams.
MMG has used its mining lease to lock out the public from our own forest. A request to allow scientists to study wildlife in the area was refused by the company, although the forest is core habitat for Tasmania’s giant masked owl and has been a haven for Tasmanian devils, white goshawks, quolls and an array of other creatures threatened with extinction. At this time of year the forest’s floor hosts an array of colourful fungi and soon its canopy will carry a blanket of snow as it converts from rainforest to wintry snowforest.
Two weeks ago the federal Environment minister, Sussan Ley, was shown the dam site by MMG. The company did not take her into the threatened rainforest. She was driven down the road being constructed by MMG for the tailings dam she had still not authorised. The next day, also denied access to the forest by MMG, I took Ley for a walk in similar but less intact rainforest 50 kilometres to the north. On both days more forest defenders were being arrested for getting in MMG’s way.
MMG is 74 per cent owned by the government of China. It is listed in Hong Kong, having delisted from the Australian Stock Exchange. It has other mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Canadian Arctic and near Cloncurry in Queensland. Another MMG mine in Peru has been blockaded by local farmers over the past decade. At least six have been shot dead in that time and many more injured.
Ley was to have decided by June 8 if an environmental impact assessment was needed for the tailings dam project. With MMG’s agreement, she delayed this deadline until July 23 and flew to Tasmania on her fact-finding mission. Last Monday, rather than save the rainforest outright, she decided that “the proposed action is a controlled action”. She said: “The project will require assessment and approval under the EPBC [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation] Act before it can proceed.”
MMG “welcomed” the minister’s decision this week by sending extra machinery into the Tarkine, triggering the arrest of more peaceful protesters. The arrogance was palpable. In short, MMG told Environment Minister Ley to get lost. She has not responded.
On Wednesday, after a legal notice was sent by my foundation, MMG halted works. They call it a “pause”. For how long, we don’t know. I maintain that the project is unlawful. We have referred the works to the federal police.
What we really need is a new Hawke-style protection of the national environment. But we are unlikely to see it from this government. To date, its approach to environmental protection has been one of buck-passing and indifference. Its preference often is to defer to self-interested states, many of which race through approvals. Certainly, MMG doesn’t seem fazed. Its ugly work continues. And the public remains largely unaware.
This is the largest environmental action in the Tasmanian wilds since the Franklin River blockade. That was a national issue, central to the 1983 election; this is the destruction of environmental heritage just as important, by a corporation just as wanton, and very few people would even know it is happening. Of course, that suits the Morrison government just fine.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 17, 2021 as "The fight to save the Tarkine".
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