As the tents and the tripods come down and people start figuring out how you extract several tonnes of vehicle and associated implements embedded in concrete, the Bentley Blockade is already being analysed and dissected by journalists, academics, police, politicians, conspiracy theorists, the Mining Council and think tanks across the nation.
This blockade camp, which lasted nearly three months, was vindicated on May 15, when certain technicalities, conveniently brought to light under immense pressure from community resistance, lobbying and some peculiarly acute political conditions, culminated in an announcement by NSW Energy Minister Anthony Roberts that gas mining company Metgasco’s bid to drill in Bentley had been foiled. Up to 1000 riot police had been booked to come in on May 19 to break up the camp – projected to have been filled with at least 7,000 people, on what I’m calling for convenience ‘B’ day – in an action that it now seems was prepared for casualties, even deaths.
The conclusive victory two weeks ago, which saw a speculative mining company brought undone, a deeply compromised State government stopped in its tracks and a police force tentatively align itself with a community based mass movement, has enthralled the anti-gas bloc and those lefties already reeling under a brutal Budget whose architect was the Big Business moguls whom the LNP government is most desperate to please.
In fact the Bentley victory has been described as a counter-reaction to a purpose-built economic attack on a nation – a democratic uprising against the agendas indelibly inscribed in this Budget. Western Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlum, visiting the camp with fellow Greens Larissa Waters and Jeremy Buckingham, made precisely this observation after a dawn vigil and breakfast on Sunday May 18 – the day before ‘B’ Day.
“It’s been an awful week, the whole country got attacked. The mask is well and truly off and on Thursday, when we were just starting to ground ourselves a bit and work out what the counter response needs to look like, you lot provided it for us.
“What you’ve done up here is immensely and profoundly important. Industry reached a tentacle out, it touched the ground here, and you bloody well chopped it off.”
Amidst loud and sustained cheering, he inserted a cautionary note.
“Larissa and I came up here to learn how you did it, because examples like this are a bit rare. The stories told of the Franklin, of Jabiluka, they’re gonna be told of Bentley and the reason those stories are told is that we really need to know how you did it, because this is a climate emergency. Linking arms with other countries around the world is the most important thing we can do now.”
Apart from the rather perfunctory visit of Federal Labor MP Justine Elliot, the Greens senators were the only politicians to spend any meaningful time in the now iconic camp. And while it may appear opportunistic, the Greens had been coming to face the police on Monday 19 in solidarity with the ‘Simmos’ who’ve been holding the line for months.
Having had the rare political fortune to stumble onto a winning moment, they made the most of it, breakfasting with the protectors, breathing in the camp smoke and demonstrating a real commitment to the genuine outbreak of democracy that’s challenged – and beaten the stranglehold of mining over our corrupt Parliaments.
Indeed at their forum in Mullumbimby the night before, the packed crowd of locals and standing ovations attested to the genuine respect these Greens Senators are held in, for their self-evident integrity and tireless work in combating the vested industry interests in Parliament.
In stark contrast, derisive residents of the Northern Rivers were treated to the sight of the Nationals member for Lismore, Thomas George, whose son works for Metgasco and who has refused all entreaties to support his community’s emphatic demands, nodding owlishly behind Minister Roberts as he announced the suspension of Metgasco’s license on May 15.
Along with three other National Party MPs, Ballina MP Don Page, Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis and Tweed MP Geoff Provest, George concocted a media release affecting to have played significant roles in that decision – a flagrant fabrication that will do little to dispel the widespread disillusionment in the National’s core constituencies.
This shameless opportunism has served as a timely reminder of the horse-trading of governments on both sides of the illusory political divide. As they hastily re-aligned themselves with the winning side, sensing if not vast riches there at least a harvest of votes, analysts will be less concerned with such carpetbaggers and more concerned with how they were beaten.
There are as many different interpretations of events as there were people at the blockade, but there were some factors undeniably essential in framing the minister’s decision to thwart Metgasco.
The assertion of our indigenous people’s power and dignity, as they positioned themselves at the heart of this movement, gave it a gravitational focus, momentum and purpose that has immeasurably enriched all involved. Their selfless reconciliation with farmers and a culture that has treated them less than kindly in the past has given the movement an intrinsic power. Grounded in truth and moral weight, it has become an irresistible force.
An incredibly sophisticated electronic and social media campaign, orchestrated by dedicated volunteers, spread the news of the blockade virally and made it an international rallying point for climate change and anti-gas mining advocates.
Fund-raising and public awareness campaigns spawned spontaneous and highly orchestrated events and concerts that attracted eminent performers and public figures to stand as popular figureheads of the movement.
The timely juggernaut of ICAC’s investigations into political donations has opened up a black hole so potent that it’s already sucked eight LNP MPs including former Premier Barry O’Farrell into disgrace, political limbo and hopefully, criminal charges. With crooked former Labor MP Eddie Obeid at its black heart, this vortex has become so powerful it’s threatening to haul Abbott himself down, should he allow an unravelled thread of his entitled trousers to stray near its ravenous maw.
In this dangerous political climate Metgasco themselves were ensnared, as Energy Minister Anthony Roberts nimbly intercepted ICAC’s lethal trajectory, drawing a bead between their chief shareholders, a company compromised by its toxic connections to Australian Water Holdings, the corporation at the heart of the Obeid dynasty.
As well, Alan Jones’ timely radio broadside cannot be underestimated. Though his personal narrative and political views are largely abhorred by left leaning constituents of the anti-gasfields alliance, there is no denying that his personal feud with the industry and his own incipient political influence were mighty, if unlikely allies in this campaign. His interviews with anti-gas activists, last minute announcement of the costs of the impending police campaign, projected at $14 million, and his personal intercedence with State ministers proved crucial in getting the message across that this was a mainstream concern.
But Annie Kia of Lock the Gate is emphatic that while the inexorable growth of an aligned social movement was instrumental in this decision, a last minute tactical intervention helped turn the tide.
“The political campaign that ramped up in that last fortnight from the Gasfield Free Northern Rivers advocates and from the landowners from Bentley” was vital, she noted.
“We made available to government a very specific brief that outlined the deception involved in Metgasco’s statement in blow by blow detail – that they had specifically characterised it as a conventional well, when in fact in other places they had made it clear that they were seeking tight sands gas potential and I think that was a significant thing and it’s pretty hard to say because the outcome has many mothers and fathers but there was unbearable pressure on the government during that last week.”
The police force itself displayed a distinct reluctance to be that wave of storm-troops that the industry demanded. Quelling a genuine spontaneous community uprising with violence proved not to their taste, as events proved.
Aidan Ricketts, the veteran activist and academic whose work on social movements has been instrumental in framing the Gasfields Free Northern Rivers community strategies, had this analysis of the police response.
“I think we achieved something very significant where the police look at themselves and say, ‘We don’t want to do this, this is our people’. I think that’s one of the most amazing things hiding in the background of the Bentley story, because of course the police don’t want to come out and say it explicitly, but they were very reluctant.
“It started with the Regional Command up here. They’ve had that view all along, even at Doubtful Creek. On the 31st of March, the police were supposed to come in, the motels were booked but the operation was called off because they didn’t think they had the numbers to face off with how we were gathering that week.
“The next stage was the police basically nudged us and said, ‘We’ve called for more resources, they’re sending up some senior police from Sydney to assess the size of the crowd, it would be a good idea if there was a lot of people there on Monday morning’. That was about the 14th of April. So the police were partly hoping for a political solution, but writing up the invoice for the state government if they wanted a policing solution.
“So there’s a sense that there’s a little bit of a subtle resistance in that they were saying ‘Ok we need 900 police for eight weeks because that’s how long the drilling goes and we know this community isn’t going to back off and they’re going to stay in hotels and it’s going to cost you’ – the basic figure was $10 million and there was no assurance it was going to stay within that.
“I know from our meetings with the police they were very clear that they would have preferred a political solution and they were very relieved when there was one, they phoned us straight away and congratulated us.”
The community representation at all levels was absolutely vital – from ‘Simmos’ (shorthand for volunteer arrestees) camping throughout all weathers and threats to the work of lobbyists in Sydney – all adding weight to the tipping point.
“There was no simple point of victory,” Aidan observed.
“If they got their rig in it would have been like George Bush claiming victory in the Iraq War – we got our rig in – now what happens? As soon as the police go away there would have been 3,000 people sitting on the rig and that could have happened as many times as was required – at ever spiralling cost to the State Government.
“It remains an incredibly amazing story because there’s no historical precedent that I can think of in Australia where an entire region has stood up on an issue like this right across the board. Business people, farmers, indigenous people, tree-changers, mayors climbing tripods, Anglican Ministers being there.
“That’s a very big part of the story, the idea that this was not just a protest movement, it was an entire region. That should have been obvious from the day 87% voted no to CSG, but the government ignored that, the company ignored that and proceeded. It started to become more obvious when we had the mayors of every shire except Richmond River visiting the blockade and/or climbing the tripods.
“When we had a parade of celebrity musicians coming and playing it should have been obvious it was getting bigger and bigger.
To see the police stand with their community is an indication that this is something that’s not really precedented in Australia.
“The great relief is the government eventually realised it was in a doomed position and backed off.
“In terms of how big a victory that really is for democracy? It’s definitely a victory for democracy in that we fought the hard fight, we stood right up to them we didn’t blink we weren’t afraid and they backed off.
“It’s sad to observe though that this is where it’s got to, that the embedded corruption between the mining industry and governments across Australia has reached the point where this is what you have to do just to be listened to. We know that in any other issue where there’s not corrupting interests involved, if 87% of a region say ‘we don’t want something’, the politicians respond quickly.
“So what we’ve revealed is that they were prepared to spend ten or 14 million dollars to send 900 police to invade a region. That that was even considered a viable response is damning of how big the problem is in this country.
“What we’ve achieved is huge because we’ve broken through the mining industry control of our parliaments and we’ve put a crack in that wall and when social movements put a crack in a wall like that you can elbow in and make it bigger and bigger from then on and other communities will be excited and follow some of the processes we’ve used.”
Annie Kia is rather more cautious than Scott Ludlum in backgrounding the victory against the Abbott government’s big business budget, but does see in it an emerging phenomenon of spontaneous democratic energy.
“In terms of this alliance I don’t personally see it necessarily aligning with this anti-Abbott government stuff that’s emerging. I think the Lock The Gate alliance will stay focussed on our core campaigning, which is to protect our water, our farmlands, our communities and our precious wild places from inappropriate mining, however I think we’re learning to throw off our passivity. And that’s the amazing thing, as we work together, we’re finding that in communities we can take charge of our destiny and by working across boundaries with very disparate groups we can find the common ground.
“I think the mainstream press is really starting to show an interest in the diversity of the people involved in this movement. Our opponents have very active PR components that continually characterise us as a small bunch of extremist hippies. But they are just absolutely incorrect because we really are a collaboration of all different kinds of people. So I think that the media are starting to look at it in a new way and the country people that are stepping up to defend our common heritage are becoming more confident and becoming wonderful advocates.”
Above all though, she attributes this astonishing victory to the thousands who turned up.
“I believe we would have had 10,000 people there, ready to face a thousand police. We were growing exponentially and there are mass movement dynamics at play here.
“We became a different kind of organism, like an immune response going to a source of infection, or a pathogen. That’s what Bentley was, we just swarmed there in massive numbers and maintained our non-violence and it’s really quite inspiring, so I think that will give hope to people in other regions as they mount their campaigns to fight invasive coal mines or gas fields in their landscape.”
And where to from here, as Metgasco vows to return to the Northern Rivers, Santos continues to plunder the Pilliga and incoming Premier Mike Baird’s previous adviser now heads up the Australian Minerals Council?
Aidan Ricketts sees an opportunity to rigorously examine our democratic institutions.
“The Bentley victory is worth celebrating and spreading to other communities, but it’s worth continuing to assert that Australia is in a democracy crisis.
“This corruption being revealed at ICAC is really the tip of the iceberg. It can reveal illegal corruption, what it can’t reveal is the business-as-usual conflation of political and mining interests in Australia.
“When the tiny town of Bulga won its court case against Rio Tinto on socio economic and environment grounds, the response of the NSW government was two things. One to join as a party in the appeal against the town and secondly in any case to change the legislation, so social and environmental grounds were no longer significant compared to economic grounds. So even when they went on too lose in the Court of Appeal in the second round, it didn’t matter because they could put a new DA in and go through the process of getting the NSW government approval under the new legislation written in their favour.”
He does see existing solutions to this problem, but believes they’re just a starting point for a comprehensive overhaul of a system that’s broken.
“I’m reasonably satisfied that with the Greens we’ve got one significant effective political party that is not captured by the mining and fossil fuel industry or the global media corporations, whether they’re to everybody’s taste – well nothing will ever be perfect but we have one viable political party.
“But I think what we need to invest our energy not so much in focussing on parliaments, politicians and political parties and elections, but focussing on building an empowered and effective community networks and social movements, because you get maximum bang for your buck from social movements.
“Lock the Gate is rapidly transforming from a coal and gas focussed campaign to be the battering ram of the pro-democracy movement in Australia.
“So we will achieve a gasfield free northern rivers, but the issue is whether we can achieve a healthy democracy in Australia.”
Annie Kia has an immediate remedy in mind.
“I think our future is in reaching out to people in cities to invite or help them touch base with what our common heritage is – our common farm lands that feed us all, our water supplies that are at risk, our catchments and our common heritage in terms of cultural and wild places.
“The assault on these life support systems is so extreme at the moment that we need to reach into the cities and find a way to work with people there, to defend these things together.”
Or as Larissa Waters declared on Sunday, May 18 to the gathered protectors around the Bentley camp fire,
“We are going to take our country back.”