Originally published Sydney Morning Herald 16/5/14, this piece tells the story of the Gasfield Free Northern Rivers campaign, immediately after victory at the Bentley Blockade. The campaign went on to force the government to buy back gas licences that covered the region. These victories, and the mass-movement dynamics that underpinned them, would not have been possible without a system of distributed leadership.
The citizens of the Northern Rivers of NSW are in revolt against gasfields. There are 280,000 people here who love this verdant place: this food bowl, this tourist mecca. The vast majority of us reject the despoliation and risks that come with unconventional gasfields.
Since February, we have held vigil at Bentley, near Lismore, to stop gas miner Metgasco prepare a site for drilling. On Thursday the state energy minister Anthony Roberts announced its licence would be suspended due to insufficient community consultation. That there was insufficient community consultation was no surprise to us. Numerous surveys have confirmed the 2012 electoral commission poll for Lismore Council that showed 87% opposed to coal seam gas developments.
There are mass-movement dynamics at play here in this region that have not occurred since the Eureka Stockade. The broad base of our revolt is evident in the 125 communities that have unilaterally declared themselves Gasfield Free. Forming survey teams, we asked each household Do you want your road/lands Gasfield Free? An average of 95.6% replied YES. We presented our mayors with declaration scrolls stating our intent to defend ourselves. Resolute communities erected signs that said Lock The Gate. Lock The Road. Protect the Region.
A powerful social movement grew under the aegis of Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, an alliance of 20 community groups. We represent every political loyalty and section of society. We are farmers, teachers, plumbers and retired CEOs. We are Indigenous and non-Indigenous, ex-National Party office bearers and environmentalists who have mastered the art of collaboration. We understand that invasive gasfields are a threat not just to our home, but to much of our country.
On March 30, something remarkable occurred. Two hundred police assembled to get Metgasco into this drill site. When word went out, 2000 people swarmed to the Bentley Blockade, many willing to be arrested in the nonviolent tradition of Gandhi. Outnumbered, the Tactical Response Group quietly withdrew. On April 14, the social movement flexed again to show our strength. By 4.30am people flooded the blockade site, determined to protect our water, farms and communities. Three thousand of us stood in darkness. As has become the custom in this daily rite to greet the dawn, a Protector dressed as an angel appeared on the Tripod just as light was breaking. This and other moving events are captured in our YouTube channel.
Our region morphed into a network of resistance. Intelligence flew to our movement because we are the fencing companies that refused the job from Metgasco. We are the Fire Brigade volunteers who objected to their shed being used by police to break the blockade. We are the local police, with whom we maintain respectful relationships. We are the local farmers, and the Anglican minister who daily attended the Greet The Dawn rite at the defended gate, with a chain around his wrist, ready to ‘lock on’. We are the elders of the original people, lighting the sacred fire, smoking the gates in ceremony. We’re the local mayors who climbed the tripod, and the musicians and artists who sang at the gates. We’re the butchers and bakers, the tinkers and tailors of the Northern Rivers, all feeding information about Metgasco and police movements, developing a response full of surprises and collective intelligence. On Anzac Day, we stood in silence at the Gates, remembering those who died defending our land and communities.
As each day passed, our network grew stronger and more resilient. In early May, tension was high as the police transported a huge contingent up the coast, but we were growing exponentially. On May 15th the government suspended the drilling licence.
We regret the drilling contract signed by an absentee landowner, and wish him no ill. We always made sure he had access to his paddocks to care for his cattle. But at the same time, we could not allow our common heritage to be put at risk.
Our battle is not over yet. Petroleum exploration licenses still cover the Northern Rivers. We still have a crisis of democracy, with governments doing the bidding of corporations via shady webs of influence. We still have systemic failure of government departments that are meant to work for the people. But for now we celebrate a victory for nonviolent people power in one of the broadest, deepest and best-networked regional movements in Australian history.
We say to government: we ask you to withdraw all petroleum licenses in the Northern Rivers. To Metgasco: it’s time to activate your exit plan.
POSTSCRIPT. Following the victory at Bentley, when this piece was written, there were still gas licences covering much of the Northern Rivers. In this conservative region, the National Party had held all four seats by huge majorities for a long time. But in the 2015 March election, they suffered unprecedented, crushing swings. They lost the seat of Ballina to the Greens, and very nearly lost the seat of Lismore. Their other two seats had large swings. The strength of the campaign was evident in the fact that many National Party supporters preferred to vote Green than for gas-pushing National Party MPs. Realising that they faced a resolute, united People, the Coalition embarked on buying back the remaining licences. Final victory came in December 2015 when Metgasco agreed to the government’s offer to buy back the last 3 licences. At the beginning of the campaign, 14 gas licences covered the region. Today, there are zero.