In response to a recent story in the Womens Weekly magazine I’ve decided to run some of my own profiles on prominent women in the anti-unconventional gas and coal social movements. These are from interviews I conducted for the WW, when they agreed to hire me as a researcher.
These stories however, are a little more in-depth and dare I say it, political, without the constraints of that mainstream publication. It’s interesting to note that all these women remark upon the unifying effect of these campaigns upon communities – surely one of the truly positive knock on effects, and one that has corrupt politicians and corpulent corporations shaking in their boots.
The first of these is on Julie Lyford, of Gloucester NSW.
Julie Lyford came to Australia from London as a teenage backpacker in 1975, with $18 and a suitcase. After working as a nurse in Sydney she married a doctor and moved to Gloucester, NSW, where she was in local government for 17 years, including two years as mayor, a year as deputy mayor and an illuminating stint as chair of the Hunter Valley Council.
“When I was chair of Hunter Council I met with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. I’ve met with many ministers along the way including (current alleged Federal Environment Minister) Greg Hunt and Tony Burke.
“That was a brilliant learning curve to work out what’s really relevant and what’s really important to be a part of. Local government is just not doing enough – even though it’s a really good social justice change agent, it really wasn’t addressing the key issues that were affecting our valley.”
After leaving local politics, she concentrated her energies on fighting the large scale coal and coal seam gas projects that threaten to turn her adopted home into an industrialized wasteland.
“Local government is a good place to see things happen on the ground and you’re able to make a difference, but then when you start to mix it with the Federal and State level, that has been a real eye opener.
“Currently we don’t have a good democracy because the government has been infiltrated by big business and especially the resources construction industry are manipulating the legislation. The people who are decision making are all jumping into the industry’s pockets and when we put that map together of all the people who have gone from government from industry and into industry I think it’s going to blow people away – the corruption is quite profound.
“Some of the things that have been said to me personally, just the level of arrogance and complete disassociation that their actions have any impact on the communities and that the communities won’t notice. The bullying and the aggression I’ve found quite astounding. I was called a left wing socialist trying to destroy the economy by Chris Hartcher (who’s now in front of ICAC) for simply running and organising the gas conference in Gloucester.
“The provocation against ordinary folk who are trying to look after their land or their air quality or their water takes your breath away and it’s an ugliness that I haven’t seen before and it disturbs people. But it’s not working any more.”
She now chairs Groundswell Gloucester, a group that includes ex-corporate warriors, barristers, engineers and academics and is determined to oppose the 330 gas wells that mining company AGL wants to drill next to the town.
Groundswell Gloucester hosted the first NSW coal and CSG community conference in Gloucester in 2012 . Since the group began 18 months ago Julie has been extremely busy lobbying politicians and actively campaigning against AGL’s massive infrastructure plans – a role she relishes.
“In Groundswell we have scientists, we have people who have worked in government and we have people who have never been a part of any of those spheres who have an innate sense of justice. It’s humbling to be a part of such a great movement. We know through a survey in the council elections that 83% of the community support what we’re doing.
“The advocacy role is really important to know that anybody can actually meet with their members of parliament and present their cases, because they in essence are servants of the people, not servants of big business and industry.”
“Gloucester is a town that’s challenged because we lost our dairy and timber industries and that really robbed us. It’s one of the lowest socio-economic towns in NSW but its quality of life I would say is at the top of the spectrum.
“It’s been challenged because people want employment and when the first mine came to Stratford it offered employment. It was a boutique mine that was only going to last for ten years but is now wanting to expand. Against that our tourism industry is now worth $42 million. And why would you want to destroy such a beautiful place for a non-sustainable, polluting industry?”
Julie and husband Gary had three children, now all in their twenties, who have left home and are now at uni or working.
“They’ve always been fully supportive of everything that I’ve done, they’ve appreciated that I’ve been on the phone a lot when they were younger. My husband is really supportive as well. He’s a local GP and he’s concerned about the health effects of CSG. It has had an impact upon our family life but also what it’s done is actually given my kids a great sense of social justice and that you have to really be part of the community in many ways to grow yourself and also to create a really good future.”
“People here have a really great sense of community. We have 192 voluntary organizations in a population of 5000 people. It’s an amazing place to live. I’ve been there for 28 years and we really respect and love the community.”
Julie enthuses that the struggle against mining has created a bond between communities around Australia, citing the Lock the Gate organization particularly as a unifying force. In Gloucester, the trigger has been the looming catastrophe of a massive gasfield and open cut mines that would come within half a kilometre of the town high school, retirement homes – and hospital.
“We’ve got people who are born and bred farmers who have been voting Nationals all their life who will never vote for them again because they’ve seen the disgraceful behaviour of some of these politicians.”
“This is actually bringing communities together. I think we’ve gone a long way and that’s not only due to the individuals that are working in every community but there’s this incredible network now that even the government are a bit astounded by, of like-minded people from across the political spectrum, the socio-economic spectrum, the professional spectrum and even people who work their hearts out on the land or in the school, or at home raising a family.
“All these people are coming together to look after the land and water and to do something about the injustice. That thread has resonated through so many people. The movement is just exploding and it’s very exciting to be a part of the integrity of that movement.
“And I think we are getting somewhere profoundly, we’re seeing changes. There’s things we can see now that are changing politically. They know there’s a massive problem for coal seam gas and the expansion of the coal industry.”
She believes that this positivity can only be maintained by non-violence actions and self-belief of the kind that triumphed at Bentley.
“We need to be mindful that cynicism has no place anywhere in the world because it robs you of the energy to be proactive. You’ve just got to be conscious of making the step forward, have the meetings, present your case, be truthful, be honest, don’t exaggerate, don’t threaten but by the same token be strong and say we’re not going away and these are the issues that need to be faced at some point.
“For me, I firmly believe that people are inherently good and at some point the justice side of issues will kick in and we’ve just got to keep going.”
As a migrant herself, Julie sees Australia for the fortunate, thriving nation that it is, in profound opposition to the negative, fear-mongering divisiveness of the Abbott government’s Budget-led assault on our natural wealth.
“We’ve had lots of refugees stay at our house and they all say the same thing – it’s such a wonderful country that you want to be a part of the future of that country and give back and I think that’s what drives a lot of people in this movement. They are grateful for the country they live in and they want to be part of its future and they’re so deeply disappointed and hurt that the government doesn’t operate on that basis. The corruption and collusion is so profound that it’s really taken the wind out of people about that they really believe to be right and just.”
“Australia’s been so good to me,” Julie smiles. “Every day I feel like I’m a on a little bit of a holiday. It’s such an amazing country and I want to give something back and community service is a way to do that.”