Tasmanian Wilderness Society blocks dam construction (Franklin River Campaign) 1981-83

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Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
The first direct action took place near the end of 1981, even though awareness raising has begun in 1976.
1 July
Location and Goals
Location City/State/Province: 
Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, Tasmania
To stop construction of Hydro Electric Commission dam on the Gordon-below-Franklin River

To increase pressure on Federal Parliamentary parties to include Franklin Dam issue in their campaigns for office


In 1976, the Hydro Electric Commission of Tasmania solidified their plans with the Australian government to build a dam across the Franklin and Gordon Rivers, in the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park. The Tasmanian Wilderness Society formed not long after this announcement to take action against the Hydro Electric Commission and their plans to bulldoze the surrounding wilderness for the construction of the dam. The director of the Wilderness Society and leader of the anti-dam campaign for the following seven years was Bob Brown, a local environmentalist and general practitioner.

From 1976 through 1981, the Tasmanian Wilderness Society focused on creating awareness and education through public meetings, pamphlets, and tours of the Franklin River. They focused heavily on the danger to endangered species and ancient rain forests that flooding would have as a result of the Hydro Electric dam being built.

In 1981, the discovery of ancient aboriginal paintings in caves of the lower Franklin River region ignited the controversy. The caves were filled with not only Aboriginal paintings, but campfires, tools and animal bones that dated back thousands of years. This discovery created an even larger debate over the construction of the dam, bringing it into the political sphere, as Australia was nearing both state and federal elections. Candidates chose a side of the issue to include in their platform. Throughout their actions, the Tasmanian Wilderness Society maintained pressure to urge politicians to take a definite stance on the Franklin Dam issue.

The Tasmanian state government announced plans to hold a referendum to engage citizens in the Hydro Electric Commission’s decision. The Wilderness Society asked that a “NO DAMS” option be included in the referendum. In the lead-up to the referendum, the campaigners distributed yellow, triangular “NO DAMS” stickers. The Tasmanian government announced that the referendum would have two options, both of which took the construction of the dam as given. The two options only differed by location: Gordon Below Franklin and Gordon above Olga. The Wilderness Society encouraged voters to take part in a “Write-in”, by writing “NO DAMS” on their ballot in protest. When the government held the referendum on 12 December 1981, 33% of the voters wrote “NO DAMS” on their ballots.

Although federally the Australian Labour Party was quite popular in their anti-dam platform, pro-dam political parties were more popular in the Tasmanian state. In May 1982, the Liberal party under Robin Gray (a pro-dam politician) won the majority of seats in Tasmania and Gray became the Premier. Upon his election, he announced plans to begin construction. The dam itself was to cover 33 kilometers of the Franklin River and 37 kilometers of the Gordon River.

In response to this decision, in August and September, Bob Brown went on tour screening films of the Franklin River to raise support and awareness. Brown and the Wilderness Society also organized rallies to gain the attention of influential political figures. During a Melbourne rally, David Bellamy, a British botanist and T.V. presenter toured expressed their anti-dam positions to the 5,000 participants. The goal of this portion of the campaign was to increase pressure on the Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to intervene through Tasmanian State government and stop the dam. Fraser did not intervene and override the state legislation, as he believed it was a state government issue and not a federal one.

In November 1982, 14,000 people converged on the streets of Melbourne for another rally. Bob Brown announced that they would blockade the construction of the dam site beginning on 14 December 1982.

On 14 December 1982, 2,500 people converged at the dam site to participate in the blockade. Protesters made a human chain through the forest to prevent construction workers from entering the site. Protesters also blockaded by water on canoes, to prevent police from bringing machinery into the site by a barge. These blockaders maintained morale and enthusiasm through the use of song. Protesters developed songs over the course of the campaign that were regularly sung during rallies, marches, in jail, and at the blockade site. Folk singer Shane Howard wrote the official anthem of the campaign, titled “Let the Franklin Flow”. During the course of the blockade, police arrested 1,440 people. David Bellamy and Claudio Alcorso (a Hobart Millionaire) participated in the blockade and were arrested.

On 1 March 1983, the Wilderness Society held a day of action during which 231 people were arrested in their boats on the Gordon River and the Wilderness Society’s flag was flown above the Hydro Electric Commission building in Hobart, Australia.

The Tasmanian Wilderness Society drew further attention on 2 March 1983 by printing full-page colour photographs in Australian newspapers of the Franklin River area. The captions on these publications read, “Could you vote for a party that would destroy this?” This was an attention-grabbing act as few publications used colour at the time.

On 5 March 1983, the Australian Labour Party under new Prime Minister, Bob Hawke (who maintained an anti-dam platform) won the federal election and announced that he would halt the dam construction. The Australian Labour Party introduced regulations under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975. Additionally, Hawke declared the Franklin River area a World Heritage site, outlawing the dam under the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983.

The Tasmanian state ignored the new regulations, as they believed that the federal government could not legally intervene in this state-level issue. The company contracted by the Tasmanian government continued clearing the site until the federal government brought the Tasmanian government to High Court on 31 May 1983. On 1 July 1983, the High Court ruled in favour of the federal government and proclaimed that they could legally enforce the international standards for a World Heritage Site on a state government.

The Franklin River campaign was so successful that it largely ended the generation of electricity through hydro dams in Australia. The federal government demanded that the Tasmanian government give a compensation package of $270 million to the Wilderness Society.

Research Notes

The Tasmanian Wilderness Society was influenced by the Lake Pedder Campaign in Tasmania during the 1960s-70s that also sought to protect the the surrounding environment from flooding. The Lake Pedder Campaign had less success and inspired the Wilderness Society to try new tactics and apply pressure in different ways.

Walker, J. (2013, July 01). The day the franklin river was saved. Retrieved from http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/outdoor/anniversary-of-the-franklin-river-campaigns-success.htm

The Wilderness Society. (n.d.). History of the franklin river campaign 1976-83. Retrieved from http://www.wilderness.org.au/history-franklin-river-campaign-1976-83

ABC. (Producer). (1986, August 15). Conservation politics [Web Video]. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/archives/80days/stories/2012/01/19/3411644.htm

Gibbs, C. J. Legal Database, (1983). Commonwealth v. tasmania (the tasmanian dam case). Retrieved from website: http://law.ato.gov.au/atolaw/view.htm?DocID=JUD/158CLR1/00002

The Wilderness Society. (Producer). (2006, October 17). The Franklin River Bloack 1983, Tasmania (Part 1 of 2) [Web Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rGpy8_v3tmI

The Wilderness Society. (Producer). (2006, October 17). The Franklin River Bloack 1983, Tasmania (Part 2 of 2) [Web Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhCGFHkzifQ

The Wilderness Society. (Producer). (2008, June 30). Franklin River Campaigner Reflections [Web Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JHvADKUCwk

Buckman, G. (2008). Tasmania's wilderness battles: A history. (pp. 288-1). Crows Nest, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Asha Miriam Stobbe Reimer