by Ben Laycock
PART ONE : The Long Road to the Far North
We set off from Castlemaine on a glorious afternoon: three enthusiastic, intrepid activists on a journey into the heart of darkness. We are not alone. Bob Brown is leading an entourage of cars from Hobart to the Galilee Basin, Central Queensland, some 2,800 kilometres away, where Guatum Adani would dearly love to put the biggest coal mine in the world. We stop every night at some big town or city. The next morning we have a rally and Bob gives a passionate speech and the local activists and blackfellas give us a rousing send-off. We spend the first night on the banks of the mighty Murray River, then back on the road, driving, driving driving further and further from our beloved Victoria, homeland of greenies, lefties and progressive types, into the unknown.
In Sydney, Pine Esera and Isaac Nasedra from Pacific Climate Warriors tell us of their sinking shrinking homelands. Dr. Kim Loo from Doctors for Climate health speaks to us all about the terrible health effects of breathing coal combined with the terrible health effects of excessive heat: a deadly combination. Adrian Burragubba from the Wangan and Jagalingou peoples explains the situation from thier perspective. His homeland is right on top of the mine site in Central Queensland. Adrian is an angry man, and rightly so. He describes Mr. Adani as criminal and an environmental vandal. We roar with applause and pledge to never let the mine go ahead.
Driving, driving, driving.
In Mulumbimby the whole town turns up: 3,000 chanting, singing dancing joyous hippies give us cheer and boost our moral. The people line the streets to send us off, hooting and tooting. Six silent and gleaming Teslas have pride of place with Bob in the first car, smiling and waving like the Pope, followed by the motley crew: 100 cars in convoy, an awesome sight. We are in a Prius so are feeling virtuous.
In Brisbane we march on Adani Headquarters and shake our fists at the empty windows. The notorious Queensland cops try to look their sternest and soon move us off the road. We acquiesce meekly as Bob has instructed. The whole country is watching. The Murdoch Press is poised ready to pounce. We can see the headline already: Violent Radical Extremist Greenies Run Riot.
Driving, driving, driving further and further from our comfort zone.
We arrive at a beachside hamlet called Emu Park, just outside Rockhampton (Bogan Central), to an enthusiastic welcome from a phalanx of coal miners: 100 big, burly fellas and a smattering of big, burly shielas, high-vis vests covered in black coal dust. Wow, this is pretty authentic. We are agog and aghast. Most of us have never laid eyes on a real live coal miner before, but it soon becomes apparent they are not here for a quiet chat. They are milling about in an agitated state. They are cross, very cross, and we, it seems, are the cause. We lock horns, deploying our superior knowledge and sense of righteousness. We point out their foolishness in resisting the inevitable demise of their beloved industry.
We assure them sincerely that we empathize with their worries for their families and livelihoods, but they show no signs of being impressed. They don’t read The Age so they don’t understand us. In fact they tell us to fuck off. “This is central Queensland. We mine coal. Now turn around and go back to where you came from.”
We then have our rally and our hero: Bob of the Bush, gives yet another rousing speech, peppered with insightful interjections by our mining friends like: “Bullshit!” and “What a load of crap.” At least they are here and they are listening. We then have a lantern parade. We invite the miners to join in but they soon get bored. A bridge too far, maybe?
As the miners leave they let us know they will be waiting for us when we get to Clermont, the little town in the Galilee Basin that is our destination. They warn us we will be shunned by the town, but our friend and comrade Adrian Burragubba assures us his mob will welcome us with open arms. His family has lived in Clermont for generations, and countless generations before it was called Clermont.
As the setting sun sets we gather for a gathering. Up ‘til now we have all gone our separate ways to find whatever shelter we could on the long and winding road. But tonight for the first time we are having a party: singing, dancing, and the drinking of wine to nourish our sense of solidarity, for soon we must leave this idyllic coast behind and head out west, into the belly of the beast.
Finally, after ten days on the road, we arrive at our destination: the little town of Clermont, in the heart of what the local white folks like to call Coal Country, but it is actually Wagan and Jagalingou country. We run a gauntlet of coal miners yelling abuse at us, but the cops are there to protect us. A welcome change to be on the other side of the barricades for once. Apparently the local pub has given them all free beer to give them courage. I would have said ‘Dutch courage’ but we don’t say that sort of thing anymore. The hotel has some distinguished guests: Bob Katter, Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer and the local PNP Rep. All sleeping in one big bed apparently, working out their ‘preferences’. The miners are actually getting quite inventive, making placards saying ‘Start Adani’ and ‘The only wilderness is between Bob’s ears’. Bob Brown comments that is quite disrespectful to Bob Katter.
PART TWO : Ursula The Immortal V The Evil Adani
So here we are all gathered together at the Clermont Showgrounds. A motley crew of over 100 vehicles. It is a beautiful day for the Water Festival, put on by the Wangan & Jangalingu people for our benefit. It is such a relief to sleep in and not have to get up and drive all bloody day. Driving all day every day to stop pollution doesn’t feel quite right to me somehow, but we can’t all be perfect, can we? The Wangas put on a bonza show, with heaps of singing and dancing. They even teach the whitefellas how to dance blackfella style. Very amusing!
Then out of nowhere a wild cowboy on a horse gallops right into the middle of the arena, a whoopin’ an’ a hollerin’ and waving his hat around like John Wayne. There are people with little kids in the middle of the space so it is actually very dangerous and quite irresponsible. After a couple of circuits he heads for the exit but a daft woman decides it would be a good idea to close the gate on him. Dumb idea! The horse hits the gate and knocks her unconscious, then gallops off into the distance. The poor woman has to be airlifted to Mackay for tests, but she is okay.
Apparently the wild colonial boy is none too bright and has been egged on by the evil triumvirate having the love-in at the hotel (see previous epistle).
After that episode we need a drink to settle our nerves, but neither the bottlo nor the pub will have a bar of us. They said: “Go back to where you came from,” and other less savory expressions. I must admit I am shocked. I have never had such an ugly reception anywhere else in Australia. So we are pretty glad to get out of Clermont unscathed. Fortunately, the locals are happy enough to sell us petrol to help us on our way.
At this point the convoy and I part ways. The poor voyeurs have to turn around and retrace their steps with nary more than a day’s rest. I certainly didn’t drive 2,8oo ks just to turn around and go home again. So I head north, further into enemy territory, heading for Camp Binbee*, deep in the forest within cooee of Abbot Point, the coal port owned by Mr. Adani himself. To get there we must pass thru enemy territory. There are over sixty coal mines in the Bowen Basin. The road wends its way between humongos muluck heaps, piles of coal, and holes in the ground, for hours on end. Coober Pedy on steroids.
Camp Binbee is set amongst picturesque rolling hills and exquisitely beautiful grassy woodlands. Such a relief to arrive in a friendly spot and stop moving. We have definitely landed on our feet. These people are bloody well organized. The place is run like a Sandinista guerrilla camp in the Nicaraguan jungle. First, pick a spot out in the woods. Put up your tarp, lay down your swag. Home sweet home! Welcome to Tarp Town. Hark, the dong of the gong. Dinnertime.
Every morning we have a meeting, an opportunity to choose which task we shall undertake that day: cooking, washing up, cleaning, feeding the chooks. Then we get to decide what workshops we want to do: Non Violent Direct Action training, media, banner making, abseiling, composting, ecology, whatever anyone feels like teaching. After a very intense day we gather around the campfire and sing daggy songs we have made up about Adani.
The camp could be a model for harmonious coexistence. It’s a sharing economy. We share all the urksome tasks, we share the bicycles, we share the cars. There is a garden laden with tropical fruit. There are chooks who seem content to share their bountiful produce, though the vegans may dispute that. We even have a choice of toilets: squatting or sitting. Everyone seems to go out of their way to make everyone else feel welcome. I think this place brings out the very best in people. It is really significant that we are all there for a purpose, and that purpose makes all our grievances pale into insignificance. I have come to believe that a meaningful purpose is a key ingredient for harmonious coexistence. It is not about ironing out every little issue, it is about doing something so exciting that niggling problems pale into insignificance.
After only one day of rest, we are thrown into a full day of feverish activity turning ourselves into sea creatures from The Barrier Reef. We retire weary to our tarpaulin homes to sleep thru the screeching owls and the eerie cries of the curlews. At the break of dawn we spring into action. Everyone knows their allotted task. We drive in convoy to Abbot Point, hoping eight cars in convoy will not arouse suspicion. We block off the road with tape and courteously advise the approaching drivers to park their cars and await further instructions. They dutifully comply, as if we are government employees. Power to the people! Then we swim around a bit and sing some songs, then we all die a long and agonizing death, twitching and moaning in our last moments, except for Ursula: a purple monster from the deep, who is of course Immortal. She writhes and thrashes about with rage, lashing out at the approaching constabulary, making their blood run cold, no doubt.
I don’t die either, because I am a jellyfish and as the prophecy has foretold: the jellyfish shall inherit the earth!
It begins to rain, which we love, because we are fish. Mr. Plod shows not the slightest concern at his light cotton shirt becoming completely sodden, maintaining his steely countenance throughout the entire performance. Eventually, after much argy-bargy and toing and froing back and forth, Mr. Plod brandishes his clipboard and reads out the riot act: we are to disperse forthwith or be taken into custardy. We shuffle off as slowly as we can, bedraggled wretches that we are. Meanwhile Ursula maintains her fierce defiance, wriggling and writhing and screeching as she is arrested and dragged away.
For many of us this is the first time we have willingly broken the law. We have crossed the thin blue line. Now we are Outlaws, and it feels good, it feels liberating, emancipating, empowering, and we didn’t even get into trouble.
*There are at least half a dozen groups all fighting tooth and nail to stop the Adani mine, but only the fearless activists here at Camp Binbee are prepared to engage in civil disobedience to achieve their aim. Everyone else is constrained by their charity status. If you are a charity you can garner tax-free donations, but you must forfeit your right to participate in civil disobedience that steps outside the law, like trespassing on Adani land. Furthermore, you must refrain from supporting any actions undertaken by any other group that transgress the letter of the law. Bear in mind that we have a strict code of non-violence, including no damage to property. Pretty innocuous stuff, but the powers that be have seen fit to bring down the full force of the law on this little band of climate defenders, slapping them with $10,000 fines for trespassing, as well as suing everyone they can for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
PART THREE : A Short History of Central Queensland
So, it seems Bob Brown and his merry band of climate defenders swung the election for the coalition, just by the sheer power of our presence in Central Queensland. Well, just for the record, we didn’t go there to stir up a hornet’s nest of disgruntled coal miners. We went there to stir up the rest of the country, the people that do care about more than their own self-interest. And stir them up we did. We had people wringing their hands and agonizing over that most difficult of choices: what do I hold most dear – my lovely money or my lovely, lonely, desecrated planet? Alas, just a few too many frightened little rabbits chose to hug their money tightly and left the planet to fend for itself.
So what are we to do about Central Queensland: spiritual home of every alt-right numbskull in the country? Bob Katter, Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer, Frazer Anning, George Christianson – a rogue’s gallery of buffoons, climbing over each other to be king of the woebegone.
It wasn’t always like this. It may be hard to believe, but Central Queensland was once the most radical, even revolutionary, place in the country. Clermont, recently playing host to gangs of greenie hating bogans and their pet politicians, once played a leading role in the great shearer’s strike of 1891. In the midst of a depression, the station bosses wanted to cut shearer’s wages. The Union called a strike. It lasted for months. Scabs were railroaded in from down south (hence the expression: to be ‘railroaded’). There were clashes, it got nasty, troops were called in. Union supporters down south sent guns. There were 3,000 desperate workers gathered at Barcaldine. They were angry and they were armed. It was ripe for a bloodbath, a massacre like the Eureka stockade. Fortunately cool heads prevailed. The angry workers chose to pursue their grievances via a new organisation: The Australian Labour Federation. Ten years later when Australia itself became a Federation, the workers federation became the Australian Labour Party, and the rest is history. They have been consistently losing elections ever since. Probably because they removed the ‘U’ in labour. So ‘you’ stopped working.
But not everyone felt it was possible to achieve radical change through the ballot box. How prescient they were. These visionaries came to the conclusion that Australia was fucked and always would be, so, in a spirit of foolhardy adventure they set sail for the wilds of Paraguay, as far from the reach of overbearing Australian authority as they could possibly get. There they proceeded to set up their very own version of Utopia. A noble cause indeed, but fraught with many unseen pitfalls, as you can well imagine. This brave social experiment would probably be described today as a cult. A cult of rechabites, who found great virtue in abstaining from the evil influence of grog and gambling and illicit sex. One William Lane being the self appointed charismatic leader, decreed from day one there was to be no fraternizing with the native women. Therein lay the seeds of his downfall (wild oats, no doubt). This merry band of adventurous idealists being comprised of 90% men, it was only a matter of time before this cardinal rule was flagrantly flouted. It took little more than a single generation for the Australians to be completely assimilated into the local population, the English language disappearing without a trace and the distant land of jumbucks and kangaroos entering the realm of mythology.
Meanwhile back at the sheep ranch, the locals had discovered something even easier to sheer than sheep: coal, favourite fuel of the industrial revolution. You can heat anything with it! (Though some things can get a little over heated.) The monolithic Central Queensland coal industry began in the 1920’s in a little known little town called Collinsville, or ‘Moonguya’ by the local blackfellas. Apparently moongunya means ‘place of coal’ in the local Birri language. Maybe the blackfellas started the coal industry. The town was also known as Little Moscow because it was a nest of Bolsheviks, determined to overthrow the capitalist system by any (lawful) means. Not quite as gung ho as their Russian mentors, who had no qualms about spilling a little blood, our own home grown bolsheviks managed to elect Fred Paterson, a card-carrying member of The Communist Party of Australia, to the Queensland State Parliament in 1944. A feat unparalleled in the history of this sheepish nation. Well-done Fred! Alas, his glory was short lived. Sir Robert Menzies was the Prime Minister of the day, and many days hence, and he wasn’t having a bar of it. The electorate was summarily sliced up and glued on to surrounding, less revolting electorates.
That was the last we saw of Fred. But mind you, he was no upstart. Fred Paterson was a Rhodes scholar and studied theology at Oxford University no less, before straying so far from the righteous path.
So here we are, in just three generations those same coal mining familes have gone from the most radical left wing workers in Australia, eagerly following world events and grappling with big ideas, to the most right wing mob in the entire country, happy to vote for every nut job that ever walked the halls of Parliament. It is now a place so insular and parochial that they wear their ignorance like a badge of honour.
How on earth did this happen?
I have no idea, but I suspect money had something to do with it.
PART FOUR : Bill’s Bob Hawke Moment
A riposte to those poor misguided fools who see Bob Brown’s convoy to Adani as a damp squib.
Far too many people in this blighted country are happy to accept the standard version of why we went to Central Queensland, and what happened when we arrived. Maybe there is some deep psychology going on here: Many people on the left feel a deep and abiding sense of guilt for derelicting their duty to join us on the convoy: people who proclaim loudly and often that stopping Adani and saving the Great Barrier Reef is, without a doubt, THE most important issue in their lives. But when push comes to shove, and that claim is actually put to the test, it turns out there are many, many things more important than stopping Adani and saving the Great Barrier Reef. So naturally, when our convoy fails to achieve its lofty aims, to assuage their guilt these well meaning progressive types feel sharp pangs stabbing at their bleeding hearts, they clutch at any straw that gives relief from their anguish, grabbing at the first glib excuse that will let them off the hook. It basically goes like this: ‘It was a mistake! Bob Brown went up there to tell the miners what to do in their own back yard. A rude thing to do to the sensitive miners cowering in their tunnels.’ A version of events conveniently disseminated far and wide by the Murdoch media machine, then parroted ad infinitum by every numbskull that has it in for Bob Brown. Every nutjob north of Gimpy was sticking the boot in: almost the entire LNP, most of the Labor Party, even a few mentally challenged members of The Greens, plus Clive Grease-Palmer, Gina Rhinestone-Heart, Katter-the-mad-hatter and let’s not forget Bluey, the alt-right-ranger.
Although none of you have shown a skeric of interest in hearing from the horse’s mouth, I feel compelled to tell you anyway. For anyone willing to listen, now that the horse has bolted, we were invited to the Galilee Basin by Adrian Gurabulu, a leader of the Wangan and Jangalingu peoples, custodians of the land earmarked for violation. We did not go there to stir up the miners, we went there to stir up the vast majority of Australians who said they were implacably opposed to that dreadful mine.
We hoped our convoy would help keep Adani and climate change at the centre of the election campaign. We went there to stir up one vacillating individual in particular: Bill Shorten. When the convoy returned triumphantly to Canberra for our finale, Bob Brown invited the now defunct leader of the opposition to join him on the podium. “Bill”, he said, “this is a golden opportunity for you to declare proudly and loudly, your total and unequivocal opposition to that accursed mine. This could be your Bob Hawke moment.” He was of course referring to that historic moment some 40 years ago when the inimitable Bob Hawke declared: “If you make me Prime Minister of Australia the Franklin Dam will never be built.” And it wasn’t! But alas, Bill Shorten is not a pimple on Bob Hawke’s arse. Despite the enormous effort we all put in, travelling thousands of miles to the middle of nowhere, just to focus Bill’s mind on the leadership required at this crucial moment, he fell at the last hurdle.
You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him think!
Ben Laycock April/May/June 2019
• The Guardian ‘Developing new Galilee Basin coalmines will cost 12,500 jobs, analysis shows’ (article 15 July 2018)
• The Conversation ‘Adani’s finch plan is approved, just weeks after being sent back to the drawing board’ (article 31 May 2019)