Would the campaign to save the Franklin River work today? | Keiran Pender

A new film celebrates the 1980s battle to protect the Tasmanian environment, but now protest rights in Australia are under attack

The imagery is iconic, etched into the Australian national consciousness. Pristine Tasmanian wilderness. Bulldozers trying to destroy it. A man with nothing more than a placard, desperately trying to stop heavy machinery with his bare hands. Masses of people taking to city streets. Bodies, and campsites, in the path of construction. Heavy-handed police intervention. The power of the people against the power of the state.

This past comes rushing back through archival footage in Franklin, a new feature-length documentary on the most significant environmental protest campaign in Australian history: the battle to save Tasmania’s wild, white-water river. The film has a happy ending: the protesters won and the Franklin still runs today.

But in the same week of the film’s release the Tasmanian parliament finalised the enactment of a law civil society groups say is aimed at environmental protesters. The law creates new criminal offences for non-violent protest-related activity and increases penalties for existing offences.

A black and white photo of a group of people sitting on the ground in a circle in front of a truck carrying a crane on it
Crane blockade in Strahan. ‘Frontline activism and public relations combined in the campaign to save the Franklin River.’ Photograph: Peter Moore

As we face the biggest environmental challenge in millennia, protest rights in Australia are under sustained assault.

The film follows Oliver Cassidy, a Tasmanian musician and activist, as he retraces the 14-day rafting journey undertaken by his father, Michael, to join the Franklin blockade in the early 1980s. Years later, as Michael was dying of cancer, he left Oliver his paddle – a symbolic challenge to traverse the same jaw-dropping wilderness which he and other activists protected. “Once you’re on the river there’s no turning back, only one way home,” Cassidy is reminded by his father’s diary, read throughout the film by Hugo Weaving.

Oliver Cassidy rafting on the Franklin River. Cassidy is padding his blue raft through some rapids. He is wearing a life vest and helmet
‘The film is dedicated to the 1,272 people (including Oliver Cassidy’s father) arrested at the blockade for protesting.’ Photograph: Benjamin Bryan

Cassidy’s contemporary journey, shown through stunning cinematography, is the central thread in Franklin. The wider historical narrative unfolds via archival footage and interviews with key activists.

The fight to save the Franklin River, by stopping the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam hydroelectric project, was always going to be an uphill battle. “Seemingly impossible odds,” recalls Bob Brown, the Tasmanian GP who would go on to become a central figure in the Franklin protests, and then leader of the Greens.


There was fierce determination at state level for the project to go ahead, and the local community was divided between those who wanted the jobs, and those who wanted the wilderness conserved.

Water swirls around the large rock outcrop in the middle of the Franklin River under mist and fog
‘Peter Dombrovskis’ shot of the white water swirling past a mist-shrouded rock island bend was a key part of the campaign’s imagery.’ Photograph: Peter Dombrovskis/PR IMAGE

But environmental campaigners were undeterred. Organised through the Wilderness Society and other environmental NGOs, a core group of activists galvanised Australia-wide opposition to the destruction of the World Heritage-listed area (which included sacred Aboriginal sites).

Frontline activism and public relations combined. The campaign deployed imagery and film to highlight the area’s natural beauty. Photos from the river instantly became iconic, none more so than Peter Dombrovskis’ shot of the white water swirling past a mist-shrouded rock island bend. As Cassidy encounters the point in his journey, he is moved: “I’ve seen the photo, but somehow I’m seeing this place for the first time.” Had the dam gone ahead, the spot would be underwater today.

The campaign culminated in the months-long blockade on the river at Warners landing. “The blockade provided this drumbeat of defiance, day in, day out, more arrests, bringing this spectacle into people’s living rooms,” one activist says. The actions of the protesters elicited sympathetic media coverage and focused political attention on the issue.

Oliver Cassidy is sitting on a rock on the bank of the Franklin River, looking out over the rock island bend. His raft is behind him on the bank
‘The film reminds us that we must fight to protect our democratic rights and freedoms.’ Photograph: Luke Tscharke

It came at a cost – the film is dedicated to the 1,272 people (including Cassidy’s father and Brown) arrested at the blockade for protesting. Many were jailed for weeks at a time. It is also dedicated to the tens of thousands of Australians who took to streets in Hobart and across the mainland.

Ultimately, the protest affected change. Labor opposition leader Bob Hawke campaigned against the dam and, after winning the 1983 federal election, passed laws to block the project. A subsequent constitutional challenge by Tasmania in the high court failed. The Franklin was saved.

Would the same campaign succeed today?

That is the unasked question hanging over this compelling, emotive film. The climate crisis poses an existential threat to Australians and our natural environment. But in an era of increased public environmental activism, governments have responded with laws that criminalise many forms of protest activity.

Tasmania’s new law is the government’s fourth attempt to deter environmental protests through increased police powers, broader criminal offences and heightened penalties. Were the blockade to be repeated today, protesters would have faced years, not weeks, in prison.

Other states are making similar anti-protest reforms. New South Wales enacted laws earlier this year which made protesting on streets, roads and tunnels without police permission a more serious offence, carrying a sentence of up to two years in prison. It came in response to climate protests, including some led by Lismore flood victims. In Victoria, the state government last month increased penalties for protesting at logging sites, including jail time, and gave authorities greater powers to search suspected protesters. Unions warned the move risked undermining protest rights.

Protest makes Australia a better place; freedom of expression, assembly and association are cornerstones of our democracy. Franklin is a vivid illustration of the power of protest. Without protest then, we would no longer have this captivating wilderness that Cassidy paddles through in the film. Without protest now, we may lose the Australia we know and love.

Franklin reminds us that we must fight to protect our democratic rights and freedoms. We must protest and defend our right to do so. A generation before us did so four decades ago, and we now reap the benefits. We must do so again today.

  • Franklin is in cinemas now. Kieran Pender is a writer and lawyer, who works to defend protest rights at the Human Rights Law Centre. This review is written in a personal capacity


Kieran Pender

The GuardianTramp

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