*Pic: Lincoln Siliakus with Geoff Law in France ...
Lincoln Siliakus (1955-2015)
When 25-year-old lawyer Lincoln Siliakus left Adelaide to volunteer for the campaign to save Tasmania’s Franklin River from being dammed, his boss was perplexed. Why abandon a promising career with a respected law firm to work for no money on an obscure issue in Australia’s smallest state? Smart lawyers who took their profession seriously didn’t do this sort of thing.
Eighteen months later, Lincoln was appearing regularly on the national news outside the High Court commenting on what experts described as one of the most important constitutional cases in Australia’s history. Lincoln received a phone call from his former boss congratulating him on his judgment.
The difficult road from the Franklin River to the High Court was one Lincoln shared with dozens of other people who had put aside careers in medicine, journalism, business, teaching and science to help protect the Tasmanian wilderness. The combination of youth, talent and conviction created a dynamic social environment centred in Hobart, the headquarters of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society (TWS).
There was no shortage of larger-than-life characters. Even so, Lincoln’s irreverent sense of humour and joie de vivre stood out when I first met him.
I’d walked with some friends in early 1982 to the house in Sandy Bay which Lincoln was sharing with fellow conservationists. We brought beer; he cooked a vegetarian dinner. We were all in the same ‘uniform’ of shorts, T-shirts and sandshoes, and all bearded and tanned after weeks of bushwalking and river-rafting. We had all recently graduated from university but Lincoln somehow seemed more worldly than we. His soft, slightly clipped voice and erudite manner lent him an air of social confidence.
Work had yet to commence on the dam and a discredited Labor government clung to power. Tasmania’s summer was warm and we talked about the coming campaign in an easy, relaxed way. It was the calm before the storm. As if aware of this, Lincoln soon set off on a rafting trip down the Franklin. But within a few days, he was back at the TWS office. Heavy rain had raised the river level, creating havoc for the party’s rafts in a series of log-strewn rapids. Lincoln later related the story with an expression that was somehow both rueful and deadpan.
“A mate and I bashed our way out of the gorge and hitched back to Hobart while the rest of the party continued down the river – by which time the weather was ethereal.”
With no other lawyers working full time on the campaign, Lincoln’s skills were in great demand. The Franklin River was threatened not just by Tasmania’s powerful Hydro-Electric Commission (HEC). In early 1982, the dams were backed by all of Tasmania’s major institutions, including both houses of Parliament, both major political parties, the business community and the unions. To save the river, TWS had to confront all the powers of the establishment. This would throw up a myriad of legal problems applying to everything from law enforcement to the Australian constitution.
At the end of March 1982, the Tasmanian House of Assembly passed a no-confidence motion in the government. An election was called for May 1982. TWS supported a clutch of no-dams candidates – some from political parties, others (such as TWS director Bob Brown) who were independents. Lincoln was immediately called upon to advise on the implications of Tasmania’s diabolical Electoral Act. This well-meaning legislation set limits on the amount of money a candidate could spend to get elected. But how was this to be interpreted when a centralized pool of funds was spent on a collective effort? A huge grass-roots effort involving hundreds of volunteers across the state was taking on the pro-dams forces. Should the costs of all the associated phone calls, printing matter, rent and travel be counted under the Electoral Act limits? How should TWS’s expenses be apportioned between candidates?
The political momentum was favouring the pro-dams Liberal Party of Robin Gray. Strategic decisions arose. Should the campaign take a liberal view of the Act, get people elected, and worry about the courts later? Or should a more conservative approach be taken?
Lincoln confessed to feeling under ‘a lot of pressure’ during this intense period. As it was, Gray won a handsome victory. He proudly announced that damming the Franklin was his first priority. Now TWS had to consider whether to challenge Liberal members under the Electoral Act, given prima facie evidence that some had exceeded spending limits. Again, Lincoln’s advice was required.
Fortunately, it was decided not to take this messy route. Instead the campaign went national, seeking intervention by the Australian government to stop the dam. The constitutional key to this strategy was the ‘external affairs power’ of the national government. This enabled Australia to implement the provisions of international treaties. As the Tasmanian Wilderness, including the Franklin, had been nominated for listing under UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention, it was now subject to this international treaty. Lincoln Siliakus was one of the first lawyers to argue that the Franklin’s World Heritage status enabled – and indeed obliged – the Australian government to stop the dam.
It was believed at the time that Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was sympathetic to protecting the Franklin. However, he was head of a government that included Tasmanian and other rural MPs totally committed to the proposed dams. Persuading this conservative regime to act was going to be a difficult task, one that depended on relentless grassroots action and positive media coverage.
Lincoln helped make the public case for federal intervention in media interviews and in print. He wrote articles about the ‘Koowarta case’, a positive precedent in which the High Court had upheld the ability of the Australian Government to protect the human rights of a Queensland Aboriginal man despite the opposition of Queensland’s state government. Crucial to the court’s judgment had been Australia’s ratification of the Convention of Human Rights, an international treaty.
The sympathetic media coverage of this complex argument provided the necessary intellectual and legal backing for the cause of saving the Franklin. But it was not sufficient at the political level. Throughout late 1982, the Fraser Government refused to act. There would have to be a hefty demonstration of the growing community outrage. This was to take the form of a blockade against the damworks – a large-scale peaceful protest action.
TWS’s public undertaking to block the HEC’s workforce and machinery was a serious and frightening one. We expected the full forces of the state, including new laws and the police force, to be deployed against us. Potentially hundreds of demonstrators would be arrested and charged. A team of lawyers to defend them had to be recruited.
Although a newcomer to Tasmania, Lincoln soon won the confidence of some of the best and brightest practitioners in the local networks. Some of the TWS supporters with whom he and Bob Brown liaised went on to become justices of the Tasmanian Supreme Court, including Pierre Slicer and Alan Blow. In a completely voluntary capacity, this dedicated group undertook to defend arrestees over the coming summer of protests. In preparation, they researched the Gray Government’s draconian new protest laws and drew up rosters.
For Lincoln, this was a major effort not just in legal work but also in logistics. It was carried out while other workloads were dealt with. In June 1982, TWS and two river-rafting companies launched a High Court bid to prevent the federal-state loans council from approving the massive borrowings required by the HEC to build the dam. The case was dismissed, but not before weeks of high-pressure legal effort had been expended. In August 1982, Lincoln advised TWS activists that the HEC’s work on another dam was arguably illegal. The damming of the Murchison River would inundate part of the Cradle Mountain – Lake St Clair National Park. Bob Burton, another TWS campaigner, and I caused this issue to be raised in the Tasmanian Parliament and the national media. There was no effect on the HEC’s questionable activities, but the exercise had been an important means of venting frustration at the inexorable loss of wild rivers where dam construction was too advanced to be stopped. It was another illustration of the HEC being a law unto itself.
Meanwhile, the HEC was building a workmen’s camp in the vicinity of old mine works about 50 km south of the West Coast town of Queenstown. This was to house workers constructing infrastructure for the Franklin dam. Construction of this barracks-style accommodation was subject to Tasmania’s planning laws. Lincoln’s advice led to hundreds of Tasmanian citizens lodging formal objections to the HEC’s works under those laws. In December 1982, a massive wad of this paperwork was delivered in a sack to the government by a TWS campaigner dressed as Santa Claus.
In the midst of this unceasing activity, Lincoln found time to unwind. He resisted the monastic existence that often seemed imposed on us. When I told him I would be attending campaign meetings for the whole of a weekend, he chastised me. ‘I think that’s unproductive’, he said, as he warmed up his Kombi van for a trip up Hobart’s Mt Wellington. He also participated in some of TWS’s more colourful protests, appearing outside Hobart’s Parliament House on one occasion as the Mad Hatter with various tea-party colleagues, lampooning the proceedings inside.
But the HEC’s work went relentlessly on. Roads towards the damsite were being bulldozed. The workers’ camp was erected. Surveyors hacked a grid of tracks and helicopter pads in the rainforests of the Franklin and Gordon rivers. The moment of truth had arrived.
On 14 December 1982, the Franklin Blockade commenced. It was the same day that the area was listed as World Heritage at a meeting of UNESCO in Paris. As Blockade organizer Rob Blakers later said ‘In my own mind, I know so clearly how it must all go. If people resist, if they are abusive, if they are antagonistic even in attitude and thought, the escalation to all-out rabble violence will be sure and quick. That image of violence … will lose the river.’ The arrests occurred peacefully. Protesters were led by police from the rivers to the courts.
The legal team recruited by Lincoln swung into action. Over the course of the next few months, over 1200 people were arrested for protesting peacefully to save the Franklin and Gordon rivers. The vast majority of these were law-abiding people with full-time jobs who had never before engaged in this direct form of protest. To be arrested and then transported in the back of paddy wagons to courtrooms was intimidating. The appearance of professional solicitors and lawyers to act on their behalf was immensely reassuring. It emboldened more and more people to take part in the Blockade.
Towards the end of the three-month-long Blockade, the Gray Government evicted conservationists from their camp on the Gordon River, inside a state reserve. I was one of those forcibly removed and transported on a large boat chartered by police for the occasion. Back at Blockade headquarters in Strahan, Lincoln approached me with a gleam in his eye. Because the evictees had committed no crimes, it could be argued that our brief incarceration had been illegal. Lincoln wanted to know if I was prepared to be the plaintiff charging the police with the crime of ‘false imprisonment’. I was, and he set about initiating proceedings. It all came to nothing, but this was another example of Lincoln’s desire to keep the opposition on the back foot while enjoying a bit of a laugh at their expense.
Other legal proceedings were more decisive. During April and May 1983, the Tasmanian courts issued judgments about certain ‘test cases’ that had been pursued by TWS’s volunteer lawyers. Because of a technical loophole, over 1000 trespass cases were adjourned indefinitely – effectively an acquittal for all those protesters. Over 160 obstruction cases were also thrown out of court. The judge ruled that the legal definition of ‘obstruction’ under the relevant act did not apply to impeding the ‘chattels’ of the HEC. Out of 1272 arrests and 1324 charges there were fewer than 40 convictions. Some of these were people who pleaded guilty out of convenience. The Supreme Court’s rulings were the culmination of a heroic effort by TWS’s team of 20 lawyers, five legal assistants and 50 lay-helpers. All were volunteers. In a triumph of strategy, planning and logistics, the blockaders had been briefed, defended and, for the most part, acquitted. Without the efforts of Lincoln Siliakus, this would not have occurred.
Yet the biggest legal hurdle to saving the Franklin remained. A new Australian government was elected in March 1983. On election night, after Prime-Minister-elect Bob Hawke uttered the stirring words ‘the dam will not be built’, a rather inebriated Lincoln appeared on television news saying it would be ‘churlish’ of Premier Gray to continue building the dam. Hawke moved quickly and within two months, laws to save the Franklin had been passed by the Parliament. The World Heritage Properties Conservation Act (1983) was arguably the world’s first law designed specifically to protect World Heritage sites. Yet it was challenged immediately in the High Court by the Gray Government.
The lead-up to the hearing was slow and tense. The Blockade had ended but the ‘churlish’ Gray Government’s damworks went on. The Australian Government needed evidence of this in order to seek an injunction. The long-term inhabitants of TWS’s up-river camps now became gatherers of evidence. Photos, maps and affidavits were painstakingly prepared. Again, Lincoln played a coordinating role.
When the case was finally heard inside the High Court’s imposing Canberra building in June 1982, the two relevant litigants were the Tasmanian and Australian governments. However, TWS had been admitted to the proceedings under the quaint term amicus curiae, or ‘friend of the court’. Lincoln acted as junior to TWS’s senior counsel, Michael Black, who later became a Federal Court judge. For the TWS campaigners who crowded the Court’s stalls, the case was incomprehensible and alienating. It was a technical debate concerning arcane constitutional precedents. TWS’s attempt to introduce photographs of the rivers to the judges’ deliberations was dismissed by the Chief Justice as something that could only ‘inflame our minds with irrelevancies’. But to legal professionals such as Lincoln, the case was the climax of 18 months of hard and relentless work extending from the minutiae of trespass law all the way to the highest court of the land.
When the verdict was finally announced in Brisbane on 1 July 1983, Lincoln was there with Bob Brown and other TWS campaigners to hear it. The dam could not be built. The rivers were saved. The World Heritage status of a wilderness had been recognised. And the power of the Australian Government to save the nation’s most outstanding landscapes had been confirmed. By four votes to three.
But the verdict did more than just resolve a question of the relative powers of state and federal governments. It was also a triumph for people power. Citizens from all walks of life had taken on and beaten the combined forces of government, corporations and bureaucracy. The outcome was the result of a happy combination of research, logistics, strategy, advocacy, passion, imagination, vision and protest. Lincoln Siliakus participated at all levels, often playing a crucial role. His motivation sprung largely from his love of the natural world. He had rafted Tasmania’s wild rivers and bushwalked its remote mountain ranges. His passion for south-west Tasmania was translated into forceful and intelligent action.
Lincoln’s contribution to conservation in Australia did not end with the Franklin decision. He became a councillor of the Australian Conservation Foundation. He worked on campaigns to protect other World Heritage areas, such as Kakadu, the Great Barrier Reef and Queensland’s tropical rainforests. He advised forest campaigners attempting to stop logging in Tasmania’s south-west. He helped establish Tasmania’s Environmental Defenders Organisation. He was a board member of Bush Heritage Australia. He attended meetings of the World Heritage Committee where his legal and French-language skills played an important role in UNESCO’s backing for environmental protection in Tasmania in 1995, 2003, 2008 and 2014. When Kakadu was threatened by the proposed Jabiluka mine in the late 1990s, he helped campaigners Alec Marr and Christine Milne in their bid to secure ‘in danger’ listing for the World Heritage site. Though unsuccessful, these efforts infuriated the Howard Government sufficiently for it to propose watering down the World Heritage Committee’s guidelines at a specially convened meeting. Lincoln played a major role in defeating this proposal, thereby helping to maintain the integrity of the World Heritage Convention.
Lincoln Siliakus died of cancer in France in July 2015. Conservationists all over Australia mourned his passing and conveyed their condolences to Lincoln’s family and his wife, Anne Froger. His ashes were sprinkled amongst the grape vines of his beloved Sablet in the south of France.
A year before his death, when reflecting on a previous bout of the illness, he said ‘I’ve had a bloody good life.’ Indeed he had. But it was also a life of making a difference, of seeking and creating outcomes of enduring value for Australia’s irreplaceable natural environment.
*Geoff Law is a conservationist who has worked to protect Tasmania’s wilderness areas since 1981, when he moved from Melbourne to Hobart to join the campaign to protect the Franklin River from being dammed for hydro-electricity. After the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam was stopped in 1983, he campaigned vigorously to protect Tasmania’s oldgrowth forests from logging. In 2013, he became a member of the Order of Australia in recognition of his contribution to the reservation of large tracts of forest in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and other reserves. He has attended several meetings of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee and also worked on forest issues in Indonesia.
• Norm Sanders in Comments: … Actually, I never planned to land down the runway at all. With that wind strength, I landed ACROSS the runway and stopped by the time I reached the centerline. The Geo Peko crew was disappointed, but Lincoln was jubilant about being alive and not being in Queenstown …