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December 2, 2022

Ten years gasfield free – what did it all mean?

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Anandan Mcewen up a pole at Bentley blockade. Photo David Lowe

Recently I’ve been wading through hundreds of hours of archival material from the successful struggle to keep the Northern Rivers gasfield free. The collective optimism and unity in the face of what seemed, at the time, like an unstoppable opponent, is inspiring. 

The title of our triple screen multimedia project, Confusing Them With Our Joy, was coined by S Sorrensen at one of many epic rallies, and it sums up the community’s approach to fighting off this corporate invader, which planned to industrialise the region in the same way as it did the Darling Downs, Texas, and many other places, with predictably disastrous consequences for water and health.

In 2022 it will be ten years since the gasfield-free movement began, with humble origins at the village of The Channon, in the hills between Byron Bay and Nimbin. The concept spread from there across most of the Northern Rivers, before jumping to other coal and gas affected communities elsewhere in Australia, and then overseas. 

The idea, for which much credit must go to Annie Kia, was deceptively simple. Get community members together in the local hall, explain the threat, then doorknock the entire community and ask everyone if they want their area to be gasfield free. Once the numbers are tallied (majority figures over 80 per cent were common), get everyone together for a big community event and celebrate the result, then mark the community as gasfield free with prominent signs on houses and roads before moving on to Sstage two.

All of this underpinned the rallies and blockades that followed (and occupied the media spotlight), while the solid strategic work underpinning the movement continued.

Much was made, at the time, of the region being ‘different’, with protest and activism in its DNA from Aquarius and then through Terania and the environmental fights that followed, but the subsequent success of the gasfield strategy in deeply conservative places like Casino, Queensland and coastal Victoria proved that there was something else going on. 

March led by Lock the Gate President Drew Hutton, Lismore May 2012. Photo David Lowe

How could a strategy with no legal force be so successful? 

It came down to the power of symbolism, story and community. Collectively, these underestimated old energies were able to out-manoeuvre the combined forces of corrupt governments and the industries that control them.

United by the threat of invasive gasfields, traditionally separate groups of people (farmers, highly educated urban dwellers, ‘alternatives’, original people and so on) were able to see the collective danger and forge alliances that were unthinkable during previous environmental struggles. Old political boundaries were blurred as people focused on what united rather than divided them. 

It was all very exciting to those involved, and threatening to those in charge, who decided to cut their losses and run at Bentley rather than risking the movement exploding into the mainstream and revealing the whole fossilised house of cards for what it was.

While more recent protests have focused on the rights of individuals and their bodies, the gasfield-free movement of 2012 was all about looking after your neighbour. 

Unfortunately, the strategy wasn’t perfect, and the unconventional gas industry has gone on to devastate many other areas. The Pilliga and Northern Territory are next in the firing line, and coal also remains a major threat.

For success, the defensive community has to be not too spread out, with enough members willing and able to put themselves in harm’s way when things step up. Penalties have become much more severe, and COVID has made large rallies and other energy-focusing events increasingly problematic. Social media was used as part of the gasfield strategy in a way that’s not really possible now, and it is much harder to mobilise communities to face existential issues like climate change than clear short-term physical threats like drilling rigs.

While the Bentley area is safe from unconventional gas, for now, it faces a barrage of new threats, including a massive proposed quarry across the road from the blockade site, a toxic waste incinerator at Casino, and logging of the patchy remaining koala habitat in the area. Northern Rivers communities have become very fragmented again, and there seems little appetite or energy after all the fires, floods, and pandemic for us to stand together when needed. But there’s no other way. History is made by those who turn up. Perhaps the most inspiring (if indirect) legacy of the gasfield-free strategy is the ‘Voices Of’ independent political movement, which led to the election of Cathy McGowan in Victoria, and is likely to bring a slew of community-based Independents across the country at the next federal election. The same ideas of politics from the ground up are at work here, from kitchen tables, to community halls, to electorates. It’s based on ideas not individuals, and progress, not parties.

In March 2022, come and see Confusing Them With Our Joy to remember how we made history in the Northern Rivers, and consider what we might achieve in the future, with that same level of unity, passion and community. 

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  1. Perhaps the most important take out of the Coal Seam Gas campaign is that for the first time anywhere in the world, the Fossil Fuel industry was beaten by community non violent direct action. Ten years is a short time historically speaking. Today the fossil fuel industry is , if not on the run, then defintely in decline.
    Every single person who took part in the CSG campaign in the Northern Rivers can be extremely proud of themselves. You have made history.

  2. From Lock the Gate Alliance history website

    The Lock the Gate Alliance was formed in 2010 following meetings in New South Wales and Queensland of landholders, organisations and communities concerned about the ongoing and rapid expansion of coal and coal seam gas development.
    In late 2010 representatives from over 40 community, professional and environmental groups from across Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia convened in Broke to discuss the challenges of unchecked mining for coal and coal seam gas. The forum found that there were common issues experienced by communities where coal and coal seam gas extraction was being expanded. The forum considered the role of government in the expansion of these industries and the lack of consideration for the will of local residents and communities in the approval of coal and gas projects.

    Meanwhile in south-east Queensland a meeting was held where local landholders, farmers and environmentalists gathered to discuss a response to the state government’s approval of a number of major coal seam gas developments. It was at this meeting, at Warra on Queensland’s Darling Downs, that the name “Lock the Gate” was decided. So began the campaign calling on landholders to refuse to allow access to gas companies and refuse to negotiate sale of their properties to coal companies.

    The Lock the Gate campaign was launched on 22 November 2010 when farmers from south-east Queensland gathered in Brisbane around a farm gate, vowing to take a stand to protect their farms and communities from inappropriate mining.

    Lock the Gate Alliance was incorporated in NSW on 8th December 2010 and became a registered company limited by guarantee under the Corporations Act 2001, on 6th March 2012. The inaugural AGM was held in Murwillumbah on 11 June 2011, and the second AGM was held in Newcastle on 15 September 2012.

    Lock the Gate continues to grow as a diverse grass roots community movement working to protect land and water resources from mining impacts.

  3. This whole “we can di it by uniting and facing the problem head” at Bentley is by my understanding a myth. I have been a professional investigative aviation journalist with The Guardian, the BBC Transport program and The Washington post for a period, so I take things very seriously. Here is my version:
    I was told by senior members of the stop Bentley campaign that soon after 900 motel beds were booked in Lismore for 900 police coming from all over NSW, including NSW Special Forces Police officers, that the Northern Rivers Police Regional Commander travelled to Sydney where he met the then Premier, prior to Premier Berejiklean, telling him that the Bentley site occupiers enjoyed strong community support and that if a 900 police dawn raid occurred and someone died or was seriously injured in the raid, as was likely, then he (the Area Commander) would not take the blame and that he would in turn explain this raid was ordered by the Premier who needed to take the responsibility of any injuries or deaths. And that he would inform the media that he had given that advice to the NSW Premier.
    As a result, so I was informed by one of the main Bentley organisers, the Premier called off the Police raid and cancelled the motel accommodation bookings. Which led to the victory.
    Would Annie Kia or Ian Galliard please say if my account is correct or provide a more detailed information as to my claim.
    Jim Beatson (who came down with epilepsy) when volunteering to organise the Support the Stop Coal Seam Gas door to door signature campaign in Byron Bay which to their credit was implemented with great commitment and skill by Suzie Deyris and Rosie Lee.

  4. Whenever i was there, you were there David. You must have spent thousands of hours during the campaign, and no doubt thousands more going through all the footage and photos. You’re an absolute hero!

  5. Congratulations on an excellent article. The area was saved from gas extraction by locals dedicated to keeping our area pristine, but now people escaping COVID19 have moved in. They do not necessarily understand the values present in the area and try to impose wealth accumalation values, sitting ON the land as an asset but not being part of the community. Exploiting the land, not trying to give back to the land its diversity.
    In this area we have an Australian scientist who has been awarded abroad for her work on diversity, who is listed as the top zoologist for 2021 by the Australian newspaper. Yet we hear nothing about such an important Australian. During the anti CSG protests we learnt about our amazing scientists in this area who could make the government officials look crushed by our local scientists’ expertise. Let’s continue to honour those who help to keep our area pristine.

  6. THANK YOU ALL AND SUNDRY who were there at the Bentley protests, we ALL owe you ‘legends’ a huge debt of gratitude. Such protests take so much organising/skills/ energy and incredible persistence & courage. I wasn’t living here then , or I SURE would have been there. As many people have commented things are much more difficult now with a fragmented community (communities ) Covid and more significantly unjust & undemocratic fines and jail terms unseen in the 60′ & 70’s. How did we get here ? FEW PEOPLE IT WOULD SEEM ARE PREPARED (OR INFORMED ENOUGH) TO ACTUALLY GET OUT THERE & STAND UP FOR OUR AILING ENVIRONMENT & THE WILDLIFE THAT DEPEND UPON A HABITAT FOR SURVIVAL ? It would be stupid of us if we did not question & analyse how we DID GET HERE…..stop voting for the LNP would be a great start. They are responsible for the horrendous increase in fines & thus jail sentences & a determination to erode our democracy , in order to shut us up. Corporations now rule the world & control Govt’s….surprise…… surprise.


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