Picture by Tom Ellison
I don’t remember their names. I just recall worrying, that aged 17 and 18 respectively, they might be rushing into premature matrimony.
Although I wasn’t much older than the engaged couple, at 19 I had already lived and worked in a number of places across Tasmania and would have no more considered getting married than I would voluntarily moving to Smithton, where the Police Force posted me in the aftermath of the Franklin Dam protests.
He worked as a labourer on a dairy farm. She had left school at 15 - her career ambitions defined and limited by a desire to marry and have children as soon as possible.
Neither had travelled, although he recounted a trip to Hobart as a younger child, and both had visited Launceston the year before.
Their goals were humble and admirable - to marry, raise a family and live happily in their home town. When they walked down the aisle, she was heavily pregnant. They honeymooned at Arthur River, a short drive from Smithton.
I left that town the week after their wedding (still carrying scars from the buck’s night at the Rocky Cape Tavern), and hadn’t had contact with them since. My memories of their wedding day are still vivid – two young people, celebrating with family and friends, happy and full of hope for the future. I just didn’t remember their names. But this was 29 years ago, and they were but two of the hundreds of young people I met on the North West Coast who were deeply connected with the region, and never wished nor aspired to leave.
Then on Sunday, I was called an ‘unemployed greenie c#@t by an angry, overweight man in a Toyota Hilux, and those memories returned. The gentle young fellow who shyly asked the local copper to his wedding in 1983 was part of a convoy of vehicles intent on expressing their anger against what, in their minds, is Green treachery against their financial prospects.
I lived and worked on the North West Coast for less than three years. That’s long enough to accept that most of the locals genuinely deserve the oft-misused moniker `hard-working.’ On the whole, the people of the coast are the nicest one could hope to meet, although we should still be mildly wary of anyone from Devonport.
Still, harding-working is not the only adjective one could apply to those from the far North West. Other attributes which might have been acceptable in decades past, like homophobia, misogyny and intolerance, are still rampant in this patch.
That the region has suffered as a result of globalisation is beyond dispute. That sustained pork barrelling has favoured a handful of businesses over the general welfare of the region is also difficult to argue against. Circular Head enjoys infrastructure better than many regional cities on mainland Australia. Fewer than one in sixty Tasmanians live here, yet local business has accepted more than $40 million in handouts in the last few years. Somewhere, somehow, somebody has become rich from welfare to the region, at the expense of others. Because the locals are anything but happy.
I attended a quiet vigil at the turnoff to Wuthering Heights Road in the Tarkine on Sunday to support those who against, in regional terms at least, face insurmountable opposition in their campaign against open-cut mining. The brave 20 people who were prepared to stay in filthy weather conditions, aware that a convoy of angry locals were en route from the Marrawah Pub were inspirational. The media, who fled the wind and sleet as soon as they could, described the mob as well behaved, and on the whole, they were (although video evidence confirms that at least a dozen vehicles contained people out for blood). The message from Sunday, if there is one, is that there are still a few people prepared to take risks to stand up for their beliefs, but plenty more happy to conform to a pack mentality.
The 400 or so in the pro-mining convoy aren’t risk takers. Nor are they information seekers. Empowered as part of a lynch mob; talk to them individually and one gets the impression they feel threatened, confused and even scared about the future. As they should be. Yet the enemy isn’t the environmental movement.
They’ve been told mining will be their saviour. Just two months ago, Premier Giddings told the same people billions in mining dollars would flow to the region now approvals for a couple of open-cut mines are in place. Labor stresses its pro-mining credentials. The Liberal opposition does the same. But it’s all lies.
Even the ABC continues to spruik Shree Minerals’ $20 million mine. It isn’t a $20 million mine - the total capital cost is less than one third of that, with much of that spend going to mainland suppliers. Shree will leave Tasmania in two years, leaving a large desecrated pit in the Tarkine, and virtually no positive economic input to our economy. Talk of a ten-year mine life is just that - talk. Extending the pit beyond the initial DSO ore body is untested, unproven and unlikely.
Venture Minerals is hoping to emulate Shree, but with even dodgier prospects. Outside those two, there is no funded proposal on the table. No billions in wealth. No silver lining for those struggling in Circular Head.
Every time the locals rally in support of mining, they become more vocal. A handful of politicians, most notably from the Liberal Party, encourage them. Having listened to transcripts from some of the events, it’s clear the Liberal Party is keen to attract votes from the disenfranchised, but less enthusiastic about coming clean on potential workplace relations reforms, and their impact on regional communities.
In short, people in North West Tasmania, and the West Coast have been screwed. They enthuse about 130 years of mining, yet remain either indifferent, or ignorant about the economic failure of that industry to reward local communities. More recently, they’ve become the target of vote-seeking politicians in marginal seats, who offer the world, yet lie about the impact of their policies. People in this part of the world deserve better education, better opportunities and a chance to participate in the potential of a changing economy. Instead, they’ve been fucked over.
I’ve lived and worked in this region. My family were early pioneers on the West Coast; their tombstones lie in the Zeehan, Balfour and Queenstown cemeteries. The locals may shout abuse from their heated vehicles – telling me to get a job and go back to the mainland, advice I will probably take.
But if the locals really want conflict, they will inevitably get it. Not from peaceful protestors. Not from latte-sipping homosexuals in Salamanca Place. Probably not even from mainland blow-ins. Inevitably, the productive elements of our society will demand the end of corporate subsidies for failed resource extraction industries. Then, the people in new Toyotas on the North West Coast will have a real fight on their hands.
- Tom Ellison
Tom Ellison has never been a member of a political party, nor does he particularly endorse the policies of any. He is expressing his views in the capacity of a freelance journalist and observer.
Main picture, by Rob Blakers, who says: The assertion is that the mine site is in button-grass, but the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment website says: Devils “...live in coastal heath, open dry sclerophyll forest, and mixed sclerophyll-rainforest.” That pretty much sums up the habitat shown in this photo of Shree Minerals proposed mine-site on the Nelson Bay River. That’s the river, by the way, immediately adjacent to the site on the left.
Matthew Newton’s Picture Essay of the weekend protests ... for and against mining the Tarkine ...
Photography / Cinematography
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• Anne Cadwallader, in Comments: A clearer, more informed, better written analysis of the Northwest Coast situation is impossible to imagine. Well done Tom, and thankyou. It could equally stand for a description of the whole of Tasmanoa - shafted people with very little education or insight, being manipulated by corporates sucking on the public purse. Thank God for a brave resistance that is gradually growing stronger.
• Dr Nicole Anderson, in Comments: Tom, I wish I could convey my thoughts and feelings as eloquently as you have here. Truly moving reading. You are not alone in your despair over the gross exploitation of the good naturedness and generosity of the people of Circular Head and the NorthWest. Here I have seen some of the finest but more recently, most vile sides of human nature. This community gives 110%, it punches way above its weight when it comes to support, donations, passion. This is evident whether they are arm in arm fighting a cause as noble as cancer or as pathologically irrational greenie bashing. Strong emotions are forged because of the resilience required to farm, fish, log and mine an extremely testing environment, forming the frontier personality of old which still sends shivers of respect down the spine of any who are privileged enough to speak with or hear the stories from the early days of settlement here. These days are long gone.
• Paul O’Halloran: Minister had no knowledge of connection between Shree and NZ mine directors “As a result of being ordered by the New Zealand Government to pay $3.4m in reparation and fined $760,000 over nine charges, Pike River Coal Ltd went into receivership after paying only $5000 of the $110,000 owed to the family members of the deceased miners,” said Mr O’Halloran. “The Minister finally admitted after two days of questioning that he had no idea that two of the current directors of Shree Minerals were also directors of Pike River Coal Ltd at the time of the incident.” “This admission raises serious questions about the rigour of the State’s due diligence procedures when applications are being assessed.” “The Minister owes the Tasmanian public the assurance that safeguards are in place to shield the Tasmanian taxpayer from incurring similar liabilities that the New Zealand Government has had to wear.”
• Rob Blakers, in Comments: The aerial picture at the top of this article is of the proposed mine-site at Nelson Bay River. Button grass occurs at the site but plainly this image refutes the assertion that the mine site is in a button-grass grass plain. The Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment webpage tells us that Devils “...live in coastal heath, open dry sclerophyll forest, and mixed sclerophyll-rainforest.” That pretty much sums up the habitat shown here. That’s the Nelson Bay River, by the way, immediately adjacent to the site on the left. The proposed mine would be 180 metres below the level of the river, which will have interesting implications for the hydrology.