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.
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.