I HAVE RELUCTANTLY decided to risk arrest by joining a walk into the Yarratt State Forest on March 16, after days working out why.
I was 18 the first and only time I did something expecting to be arrested. On October 22, 1977, I joined other students at Queensland University to go to King George Square in Brisbane’s CBD – engineering students rained water balloons down on us as we left the campus. 5,000 protesters gathered, 700 police occupied the street facing us and a large crowd formed an amphitheatre around the protagonists. Like 417 others I stepped onto the road and was put in a chock-a-block cell.
While my southern peers were on the streets marching for women’s and gay rights we were fighting to be allowed onto the streets after Premier Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen announced in September:
“The day of political street march is over. Anybody who holds a street march, spontaneous or otherwise, will know they’re acting illegally. Don’t bother applying for a march permit. You won’t get one. That’s government policy now.”
I was a loner uninvolved in organised politics, although I bought the southern papers the National Times and the Nation Review for news on the Police State I grew up in. My Dad strongly supported Sir Joh, saying “He gets things done.”
In the cell women sang ‘Solidarity Forever’ – I’d never heard of the song – and I wondered what I’d got myself into. My mother picked me after a cocktail party in my battered old black Hillman. As we turned the corner from the jail police pulled us over and told Mum she was driving erratically, her speech was slurred, and here’s the RBT machine to blow into. She held me back from jumping out and blowing up, alighted and faced the cop. “Excuse me, young man, you must be mistaken. I haven’t had a drink in days.”
The officer said she had a faulty tail light and should get it fixed.
I knew then I’d done the right thing and so did Mum. She said she was proud of me and I felt proud of myself. Something had to be done and I had to do my bit.
But once was enough.
The Leard Blockade
In 2014, I was arrested while covering the Greenpeace-organised mass break in to Whitehaven’s Maules Creek property to protest the planned felling of the endangered Leard State Forest for a coal mine on the Liverpool Plains food bowl.
I’d embedded myself in the #LeardBlockade protest camp to live-tweet direct actions and interview people who’d come from all over Australia to take a stand. Standard practice was for police to tell protesters to leave or be arrested. But the movement had become so big and strong that the police decided to end it now. They arrested everyone for trespass (most charges were dropped much later because they got the law wrong). Shaking with shock I protested that I was merely reporting the event. I was put in a paddy wagon with three others and feared serious injury when the driver raced over gravel roads bumping us violently against the roof and sides.
The Media Alliance funded my defence and got a legal opinion on whether arresting the only journo reporting the event breached the Constitution’s implied right to freedom of political speech. I was attacked by police brass for photographing arresting officers and the NSW Energy Minister as an extremist.
The Bulga Plateau
Nine years later Susie Russell, a veteran campaigner for the protection of our native forests, asked me to live tweet direct actions and protest camp life to help try to save the Bulga state native forest. I agreed. She’s my best friend, and looked after me when I had to close Webdiary when my back seized up. Her Elands home on the Bulga Plateau became my retreat, my healing place, my second home, and I love the Bulga Plateau forests a community had fought so hard so long to preserve.
I embedded in ignorance of detail about the issue, and was truly shocked. Like Queensland’s police under Sir Joh, the NSW Forestry Corporation has extraordinary legal powers and was, in effect, untouchable, because NSW bans anyone outside the Government to hold it accountable for illegal logging or abuse of power. That came home to me when after a direct action in the Yarratt State Forest the FC proclaimed a sham legal closure of the entire forest for six months – communicated only to protesters.
And they were clear felling regrowth so no forest could ever grow old, annihilating habitat for koalas and other endangered native animals who’d lost their homes when the 2019-20 bushfires destroyed swathes of our forests. Elands was evacuated in those fires and Susie and friends fought for three weeks to save her home and others. Yet the NSW Government ignored and kept secret the Natural Resources Commission’s advice to pause native forest logging for at least three years in high risk regions. And ignored stark warnings from the Commission last year that a complete rethink was needed because native forests were degrading so fast they would become net emitters of carbon and threaten water quality if current practice continued.
And it isn’t even about short term profit and money. Forestry Corp – NSW taxpayers – loses millions each year from native forest logging and taxpayers could earn millions in carbon credits by protecting them. And older forests are harder to burn, ffs!
And what’s the product of native forest ‘harvesting’? Hardwood timber flooring for the wealthy, and – most of it – wood chips. At the action at Pentarch Forestry’s Herons Creek native forest timber mill I saw a huge truck waiting to collect native forest wood chips, slogan ANL – Australian Native Landscapes.
Climate change abatement, water quality protection, saving endangered native animals, saving money after a just transition for the 1000 odd workers directly employed, tourism promotion of the regions – so many reasons to stop before it’s too late. There’s no reason to keep doing this except raw politics with closed eyes, big parties oblivious to their duty to be stewards of our nation and its people..
The National Party owns the seats affected, and is in bed with the loggers and will allow no change except to further strengthen anti-protest laws. The Labor Party will not buck the CFMEU. All the evidence says no, power and money politics says yes.
So yes, I’ll take a personal stand on this
I’ll overcome my fear for the second time. It has to be done, and I want to do my bit.
A similar unlawful walk will take place in Grafton State Forest on the same day. It’s the final attempt to elevate this issue to mainstream debate before the NSW election.
Hopeless cause, like the right to march in 1977. But this time what is destroyed cannot be restored.
If you’d like to take a stand too, please come along to one of the meeting points if you can and lend your support to people willing to take a walk in the forest however you wish.