Shoot to Kill

Shoot to Kill  Mick Daley © 2018

A former SAS and counter terrorism soldier has described as ‘terrifying’ the Attorney General Christian Porter’s announcement that Australian soldiers with discretionary ‘shoot to kill’ powers could be used to enforce political decisions at civil protests or demonstrations.

     Trooper RJ Poole, who in 1978 was the youngest ever soldier to be accepted into the SAS regiment, said that in his experience the ideological culture within the armed forces would not be conducive to the fair and peaceful treatment of civilian protestors under such orders.

     “The normal military is pretty right wing, sexist, racist and homophobic anyway. In the special forces that is just ramped up,” he said. “The prevailing culture is of bitter hatred towards other races. It is very much a white supremacist culture.”

     Poole points out that the most recent occasion when the SAS were called upon to intervene in a civil matter was during the incident known as the Tampa Affair. In October 2001, then Prime Minister John Howard deployed SAS troopers to prevent a Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa from entering Australian waters with 443 refugees on board. During an election cycle, Howard claimed that the asylum seekers threw children overboard after they had sabotaged the boat.

     Howard’s claims were largely discredited by an Australian Senate select committee inquiry. In 2013 the former head of Military Public Affairs, Brigadier Gary Bornholt, told the ABC that the asylum seekers on the Tampa had not represented a security threat.

     “That’s a pretty clear indication that the power to call out the SAS, who are essentially trained killers, can be misused by those in power,” said Poole.

      The Coalition government is attempting to introduce a Defence Amendment Call out of the Australian Defence Force Bill 2018, which had a second reading in Parliament on June 28, 2018. That Act would allow a minister to authorise defence personnel to be deployed to quell any kind of protest, if it were deemed by that minister to be a threat to civil order. Army officers in charge would then have discretionary powers to decide whether a ‘peaceful protest’ had turned into a ‘riot’, at which point they would have the powers to order ‘shoot to kill’.

     Fahim Khan, Senior Lawyer at Criminal Defence Lawyers Australia, says the Defence Amendment Call subverts democratic norms.

     “From what I understand firstly, there is the lack of a suitable test for when they call the military out for a peaceful protest by Australian citizens. Initially it needs to be at a request from the police and secondly, threats to the national security of Australia. At the moment, if this new legislation was to come into effect, it would simply be a discretionary matter of the authorised minister to call out the military, even without police requesting assistance.

     “With that comes additional powers for the military personnel and those include arresting, detaining, searching and maybe on a very limited occasion ‘shoot to kill’ if a danger to other human life arises.

     “Now that is not something different to what the police have, however the police are civilly regulated by the Law Enforcement Powers and Responsibilities Act (LEPRA). They’re not simply free to do as they wish, because their actions do infringe upon citizens civil rights and liberties.”

     Mark Burgess, CEO of the Australian Police Federation says that in principle the the legislation has been supported from a police context.

     “But that it would need to be strongly underpinned by guidelines and standard operating procedures to be developed in consultation with police across the country. It needs to be really clear and concise, with no room for misunderstanding about what the procedures look like,” he added.

     “When people get deployed to these things, I’ll use as an example the Lindt cafe siege, when you look at a lot of matters that have occurred overseas or even here in Australia, they’re over in a very short space of time.

     “The ability to deploy personnel is quite often very limited. More often than not you find the first responders are going to be security guards or in fact general patrol police officers and quite often the incident is over before any specialists can be deployed, but what happens in these situations is they become a critical incident investigation because unfortunately  sometimes people lose their lives. Then those investigations are undertaken by police on behalf of the coroner.

     “If ADF personnel were involved, they would be subject to the  investigation, so how is that going to take place? We operate in a policing context, so our people are subject to certain orders and we have to comply and make ourselves available to give evidence.

     “I’m not sure if anyone’s worked out what that’s going to mean in the context of the ADF. What powers would the coroners have to compel them to give evidence, to be interviewed? Where does the buck stop when these things are investigated, post the event?”

    Julian Burnside QC is satisfied that Porter’s proposed amendment answers to most legal concerns, but grants that it has the potential for disastrous side effects.

     “It is fairly tightly drafted.  It remains to be seen whether it will ever be invoked, and (if so) whether it is invoked reasonably,” he observed.

     “I accept that the legislation may be used in ways not contemplated by Parliament: that’s true of any legislation which contains normative expressions which are to be interpreted and given effect by people with extreme views (whether left or right).  When the results can be fatal, Parliament needs to think very carefully whether the legislation is necessary.”

     The Defence Amendment Act comes hard on the heels of the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill, which promises prison terms of up to 20 years for journalists and Government whistleblowers who leak information deemed damaging to national security.

     Described as ‘creeping Stalinism,’ by Ethicos Group specialist Howard Whitton in The Guardian, it has drawn widespread condemnation from human rights and media groups. It was passed in tandem in June 2018 with the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill, which the Law Council of Australia’s president Morry Bailes warned may inhibit public policy dialogue.

     Christian Porter claimed such measures will enhance Australia’s national security. But Fahim Khan warns that if these distinct Acts were used in unison they would endanger democracy in Australia.

     “If the Defence Amendment Act were combined with some of the other legislations, we’re essentially criminalising dissent.

     “After 9/11 there have been up to around 70 legislations passed in Australia, the effects of those are slowly abolishing our individual civil rights and liberties, one act at a time.

     “What is even more concerning for Australia, we don’t have an entrenched Bill or charter of rights, nor do we have a separation of powers between the Parliament and the judiciary, so in effect, not too far in the future we may reach a position where our very basic fundamental civil rights are abolished through the enactment of such legislations.”

     Sue Higginson, the former head of the Environmental Defender’s Office (EDO) and currently campaigning for the Greens in the state seat of Lismore, has made resistance to anti-protest laws a mainstay of her campaign policy. She is specifically campaigning against a new regulation under the Crown Lands Management Act, which removes the traditional right to peaceful assembly, gathering or protest on public land anywhere in NSW.

     “You have to ask the question, where is this ideology taking us? Is it a deliberate plan? It’s definitely from the same song sheet – this NSW anti-protest law is consistent with what the feds are doing. They say they’re concerned with national security and terrorism and so forth, the states are saying they’re trying to look after business interests, but the two meet to a massive extent, it’s all very neat and why is it all happening at the same time?”

     During Higginson’s work as a public interest lawyer with the EDO, she successfully defended the town of Bulga in NSW against mining giant Rio Tinto’s plans to extend its Warkworth mine, only to have the government change the laws and approve later appeals. She says that under pressure from the resource extraction lobby, the NSW government is dispensing with democratic procedure.

     “I think the NSW laws are part of a broader attack on democracy and all of the elements within it,” she said.

     “This regulation is part of a suite of control laws creating new aggravated offences that seek to protect resource extraction projects. Previously we saw massive increases in penalties for people protesting about coal and gas projects specifically and now this next round of control applies to people merely protesting on public land together. By preventing the community from doing that you are literally stifling the democratic process.

     “These laws are drafted to give capacity of decision makers to exercise discretion in a draconian way – they are not best practise laws under an advanced and healthy democratic system.”

     Higginson says that introducing the armed forces into protest situations would only exacerbate threats to democracy.

     “These laws are really problematic in the sense that they’re disempowering civil society from doing the very thing that helps maintain a safe, peaceful and humane democratic system, because governments can act corruptly, can act complicity and they can just get it wrong. They may make a decision that has a really terrible impact, so the one safeguard you have is that people can come together to express dissent, and the minute you take that away you’ve lost that last resort safety net of protection, whether it be against wilful corruption or just really bad decision making.”

         Aidan Ricketts is a lecturer in law at Southern Cross University, Lismore. He was part of the police liaison team at the Bentley Blockade, a 2014 protest action against speculative coal seam gas mining company Metgasco’s bid to drill up to 50 CSG wells in the Northern Rivers area.

     In that role he was in close contact with senior police right up to the eve of May 19, 2014, when 800 police were deployed to evict protestors the following day.

     Ricketts has accessed a document through the Freedom of Information Act which shows that police considered Bentley the biggest public order crises they had ever faced. It also shows that they were warning the NSW Energy Minister Anthony Roberts that human casualties were expected.

     “These are documents which the police provided to the minister as advice,” says Ricketts. “They attest to (the blockade’s) growing support throughout the region, to extensive support from local mayors. In their final document they advise the government that the risk of casualties, including death, was high to very high and the risk of litigation was catastrophic.”

     “But in the end, for good political reasons they decided that foisting 800 police on 5-10,000 people was bad politics. The alternative outcome, if this legislation enabling the call out of the military was used, is that that the kind of consideration that went into handling the Bentley Blockade could be missing. What you could have seen is potentially terrible violence against ordinary people, whereas the police had some sense of restraint.”

     Ex-SAS trooper RJ Poole points to his experience at the Bentley Blockade.

    “I can remember being out at the Bentley protest and we had the prospect of the riot squad rocking up and I can remember feeling like, ‘wow, I don’t know how I’m going to react to that, too old to do anything but could still kick up a fuss’.”

     “I know the regiment would have viewed all of us at Bentley as a pack of left-wing, tree-hugging hippies. They wouldn’t have had any qualms in dealing with us whatever way they were told.”


Album review – Ironsight, Handasyd Williams and the Primitives

One listen to Ironsight confirms that country rock oughta have its own commercial designation, rather than being lumped alongside modern country artists.

While Handasyd Williams and the Primitives wear their country influences proudly, they’re following an outlaw tradition steeped in renegade anti-glamour, glorying in unabashed big ideas and unhinged electric guitars as much as fiddles and mandolins and eschewing the rum and bubblegum post-pop of the mainstream country music variety.

Contemporary country music, whose jingles and videos mostly reflect the delusional notion that all is sunny and well in Abbott’s Australia, oughta be filed in the Kids section.

The Primitives’ take on country rock revels in its antecedents in Americana – the furious rumblings of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Dirty South, Jayhawks, and Uncle Tupelo. That rock and roll strain grants itself license to savour elements of grunge, punk and folk music while allowing a free hand at political and social issues. Psychedelia is only a feedback solo away and that leaves the ground way open for left-field subject matter. They are an entirely different bag of cats.

Ironsight takes that license and runs hard with it, riding a lyrical wave that veers from pure Nineties angst to more rarefied political and sociological dialogues.

It’s outspoken and it’s angry, and in a world like ours, any worthy artist is angry about something – whether that be a dodgy record deal or say, Bayer selling HIV infected haemophiliac medication to Japan and Germany.

The subject matter is wide and far ranging, but if you’re a corrupt banker or politician, an arms dealer or a coal miner, you can bet you’re on its hit list. Handasyd favours a cranky falsetto to assassinate his various targets, and an enigmatic lyrical approach that leaves the Enemy fairly well open to interpretation. The album owes as much to Husker Du and Dinosaur Jnr as Willie Nelson, so greasy electric guitars lubricate the grim subject matter enough to keep it taut and wild.

The Primitives are a well oiled machine, giving heft and balance to the vitriol contained across twelve tracks. They’re adepts at the loping cadence of country rock, and the multi-instrumental attack of Rhys Webb and Handasyd Williams, in cahoots with Mark Oats’ fiddle and the deadly presence of Jason Walker’s pedal steel makes for some convincing ruminations.

Ironsight is a tough, no nonsense trek through contemporary country rock territory. Consumed by some pretty serious issues, its fixation on the wild side of dirty rock music holds its head above a death by polemics.




Standing Farm (my title Last Woman Standing) published in The Saturday paper, 18/7/15

Wendy Bowman, an 81-year-old widowed grandmother, is the last woman standing between fertile farming land, the village of Camberwell and yet another massive mining expansion in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. She still works a 190-hectare farm by herself at Camberwell, near Singleton, in country that’s been in her family for generations and was part of the original settlement in the area.

Land and Environment Court judge Nicola Pain has permitted the Chinese-owned mining giant Yancoal to expand its Ashton open-cut coalmine and operate it for a further seven years, on the condition that it acquires all the neighbouring land in the coal lease area in that time.

Wendy is refusing to sell.

When we visited, she was hand-feeding her plump droughtmaster cattle with the abundant lucerne that grows on this rich alluvial soil.

“I don’t believe that any food-growing soils should be dug up.”

“Yancoal’s lawyers told the court that this was not good farming land. Well, take a look around,” Wendy chortles, indicating lush green paddocks and a garden bursting with vegetables.

“I don’t believe that any food-growing soils should be dug up.”

Her farm is surrounded by massive open-cut coalmines, but here in this green valley you could be forgiven for thinking they were a million miles away. It is abundant with native wildlife, pushed from surrounding areas by mining.

“They can’t really do anything because they’ve got to buy me out and there’s the common up near the highway, which [registered claimant] Scott Franks has slapped a native title on. It’s a well-known fact that the Aboriginal people used to come down from Mount Royal to here, where they had fish, platypus and kangaroos in plenty.”

Sue Higginson of the NSW Environmental Defenders Office (EDO), who fought the case in the Land and Environment Court, says Justice Pain’s decision was just and equitable.

“Normally through the power and weight of importance [mining companies] granted themselves they’ve been able to basically bulldoze their way through from the outset, but Justice Pain said no. These are reasonable conditions in the circumstances,” Higginson says.

“You have to remember that it’s a mining project, it’s not a public purpose – at the end of the day you’ve got two competing private interests.”

The mining interest is undergoing serious financial woes. In June 2014 Yancoal announced it had debts of more than $5 billion and had posted a $192 million loss for the year. It was seeking to fund a $US1.8 billion debt owed to its parent company, Yanzhou Coal, which is haemorrhaging money to bail out this ailing subsidiary.

Nonetheless James Rickards, investor relations manager at Yancoal, says that economic conditions permitting, they’re determined to carry on with the expansion, dubbed the South East Open Cut Project, which will earn a projected $109 million over its seven-year life.

“We reported a significant loss in the last annual results,” he says, “but we are rebuilding an organisation that has been financially challenged for quite some time. And very difficult economic conditions don’t assist with that.

“We haven’t appealed the new decision at this time. There are a lot of other options we have to consider before then in regard to the lease of that land.”

Rod Campbell, research director of The Australia Institute, an independent expert witness in the EDO’s case against Yancoal, found the economic reasoning behind the proposed expansion spurious from the outset.

“Initially they said the dollar value benefit to NSW was to be $368 million, and one thing I argued was that original number included profits going to China and so shouldn’t be considered. In the end the judge largely accepted Yancoal’s second analysis that, if it went ahead, the mine would earn $109 million in royalty payments and corporate and payroll tax.”

Just up the road from Wendy is the rambling Ravensworth Homestead, built by the First Fleet surgeon John Bowman (unrelated to her). This colonial sandstone manse is falling to pieces on mine-owned land, despite a court order that it be restored as a heritage building.

Wendy says that if she sells, Camberwell will join a list of towns destroyed by mining in the Hunter.

“The Department of Health have said no one is allowed to live there if this mine goes ahead, so the stupid mining company have said to everyone who owns their own homes, ‘Just go away for seven years and then you can come back.’ Can you imagine the state those houses would be in if everybody left them for seven years?”

One of Camberwell’s most vocal residents, Deidre Olofsson, began lodging freedom-of-information requests with the Department of Planning in 2012, asking for copies of minutes from Ashton’s discussions with them. It took three years to learn there had been meetings between Ashton Coal and the Department of Planning, the Office of Water and the Planning Assessment Commission prior to 2010, but that no minutes had been taken.

It’s a glimpse into a political process begun by NSW Labor’s former planning minister, Tony Kelly, who escaped criminal charges after the Independent Commission Against Corruption found him guilty of corruption over property dealings.

He acquired the Camberwell Common in 2010 from the community trust that had managed it since 1876 and awarded its control to Ashton Coal. Under community pressure, the government subsequently re-gazetted the land to be managed by a new community trust, but objections brought by Ashton Coal have tied the matter up in the Land and Environment Court.

Olofsson also questions possible connections between members of the government’s Planning Assessment Commission and the mining industry.

“I started to ask questions of the Planning Assessment Commission (PAC) whether they’d registered the pecuniary interests of each commissioner between 2008 and 2012. They couldn’t give them to me because they didn’t have them – there were no registers,” she says.

The state ombudsman’s office has criticised the PAC for failing to maintain a register of financial interests of its members before 2012, and instructed that it do so in future. It has now been asked by the EDO to investigate the possible conflict of interest of two members of the PAC.

Olofsson holds little hope for the village if Yancoal should prevail. “Once they’ve gone there’s no other industries to come. There’s very few dairies left, most of the land is destroyed. There’s going to be a mass exodus from this area. Camberwell is riding on whether Ashton appeals the court judgement and what happens to the Bowman property in the future. It comes down to Wendy’s age and Wendy’s family. So if Wendy goes, it’s over.”

Twelve towns like Camberwell have been eaten up by mining operations in past decades. Another on the verge of extinction is Bulga, just 36 kilometres away.

Bulga’s defenders have won a Land and Environment Court challenge and a Court of Appeal challenge to stop the mine expansion. Following their success, the Baird government has tweaked the planning laws to attempt to drive it through. A third decision on whether the mine can go ahead is pending.

Open-cut mining started in the Hunter Valley in the 1980s. Wendy’s husband Mick, who passed away in 1984, was a vigorous opponent to projects that eventually claimed the family’s historic Ashton homestead and farm that is now the main Ashton Coal mine.

“I had to sell Ashton in 1994 because upstream, Coal and Allied had been allowed to mine under Bowman’s Creek,” Wendy says. “The bottom of the creek broke through, so we didn’t have any water in the creek for two weeks, but all of a sudden it came up two kilometres away in a spring on another property. We tested the water going in – it was between 300-400 parts per million salinity, and when it came up it was between 1200-1500ppm. And we’d wondered why the lucerne was dying. We had to sell because they sent us broke.”

Wendy points east to the ridge where Rixs Creek and the New England Highway intersect, and describes the mine’s proposed expansion.

“All the flats and right up to the bottom of that ridge would be mined,” she says. “There are a lot of aquifers up and down the ridge. This is a very important waterway. It provides a pipeline to Broke, clean water to Singleton, Branxton, Greta, Lochinvar and the farmers and vineyards there, as well as the abattoir. It provides water to Pokolbin, and that’s a very important tourism destination.

“This is one of the richest valleys in the whole of Australia and has some of the best regulated water from the Glenbawn and Glennies Creek dams. You’re less than two hours to Newcastle, with all the export facilities for everything that you grow.

“Now when all this mining is finished, everybody in the Hunter is going to have to rely on the stored water in those two dams, because all the aquifers that used to keep them refreshed in a dry time have all gone.”

Wendy looks around her property and east to Camberwell, where the South East Open Cut Project is ready to swallow her farm. “The best thing that ever happened is this downturn in the mining industry,” she says. “It’s made them all sit back and think. Anything that goes mad comes down with a thump anyhow – always has, hasn’t it? That’s how the world works.”


CSG and coal mining stories, Writing

B Day at Bentley – a political solution, or a democratic hand grenade?

As the tents and the tripods come down and people start figuring out how you extract several tonnes of vehicle and associated implements embedded in concrete, the Bentley Blockade is already being analysed and dissected by journalists, academics, police, politicians, conspiracy theorists, the Mining Council and think tanks across the nation.

This blockade camp, which lasted nearly three months, was vindicated on May 15, when certain technicalities, conveniently brought to light under immense pressure from community resistance, lobbying and some peculiarly acute political conditions, culminated in an announcement by NSW Energy Minister Anthony Roberts that gas mining company Metgasco’s bid to drill in Bentley had been foiled. Up to 1000 riot police had been booked to come in on May 19 to break up the camp – projected to have been filled with at least 7,000 people, on what I’m calling for convenience ‘B’ day – in an action that it now seems was prepared for casualties, even deaths.

The conclusive victory two weeks ago, which saw a speculative mining company brought undone, a deeply compromised State government stopped in its tracks and a police force tentatively align itself with a community based mass movement, has enthralled the anti-gas bloc and those lefties already reeling under a brutal Budget whose architect was the Big Business moguls whom the LNP government is most desperate to please.

In fact the Bentley victory has been described as a counter-reaction to a purpose-built economic attack on a nation – a democratic uprising against the agendas indelibly inscribed in this Budget. Western Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlum, visiting the camp with fellow Greens Larissa Waters and Jeremy Buckingham, made precisely this observation after a dawn vigil and breakfast on Sunday May 18 – the day before ‘B’ Day.

“It’s been an awful week, the whole country got attacked. The mask is well and truly off and on Thursday, when we were just starting to ground ourselves a bit and work out what the counter response needs to look like, you lot provided it for us.

“What you’ve done up here is immensely and profoundly important. Industry reached a tentacle out, it touched the ground here, and you bloody well chopped it off.”

Amidst loud and sustained cheering, he inserted a cautionary note.

“Larissa and I came up here to learn how you did it, because examples like this are a bit rare. The stories told of the Franklin, of Jabiluka, they’re gonna be told of Bentley and the reason those stories are told is that we really need to know how you did it, because this is a climate emergency. Linking arms with other countries around the world is the most important thing we can do now.”

Apart from the rather perfunctory visit of Federal Labor MP Justine Elliot, the Greens senators were the only politicians to spend any meaningful time in the now iconic camp. And while it may appear opportunistic, the Greens had been coming to face the police on Monday 19 in solidarity with the ‘Simmos’ who’ve been holding the line for months.

Having had the rare political fortune to stumble onto a winning moment, they made the most of it, breakfasting with the protectors, breathing in the camp smoke and demonstrating a real commitment to the genuine outbreak of democracy that’s challenged – and beaten the stranglehold of mining over our corrupt Parliaments.

Indeed at their forum in Mullumbimby the night before, the packed crowd of locals and standing ovations attested to the genuine respect these Greens Senators are held in, for their self-evident integrity and tireless work in combating the vested industry interests in Parliament.

In stark contrast, derisive residents of the Northern Rivers were treated to the sight of the Nationals member for Lismore, Thomas George, whose son works for Metgasco and who has refused all entreaties to support his community’s emphatic demands, nodding owlishly behind Minister Roberts as he announced the suspension of Metgasco’s license on May 15.

Along with three other National Party MPs, Ballina MP Don Page, Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis and Tweed MP Geoff Provest, George concocted a media release affecting to have played significant roles in that decision – a flagrant fabrication that will do little to dispel the widespread disillusionment in the National’s core constituencies.

This shameless opportunism has served as a timely reminder of the horse-trading of governments on both sides of the illusory political divide. As they hastily re-aligned themselves with the winning side, sensing if not vast riches there at least a harvest of votes, analysts will be less concerned with such carpetbaggers and more concerned with how they were beaten.

There are as many different interpretations of events as there were people at the blockade, but there were some factors undeniably essential in framing the minister’s decision to thwart Metgasco.

The assertion of our indigenous people’s power and dignity, as they positioned themselves at the heart of this movement, gave it a gravitational focus, momentum and purpose that has immeasurably enriched all involved. Their selfless reconciliation with farmers and a culture that has treated them less than kindly in the past has given the movement an intrinsic power. Grounded in truth and moral weight, it has become an irresistible force.

An incredibly sophisticated electronic and social media campaign, orchestrated by dedicated volunteers, spread the news of the blockade virally and made it an international rallying point for climate change and anti-gas mining advocates.

Fund-raising and public awareness campaigns spawned spontaneous and highly orchestrated events and concerts that attracted eminent performers and public figures to stand as popular figureheads of the movement.

The timely juggernaut of ICAC’s investigations into political donations has opened up a black hole so potent that it’s already sucked eight LNP MPs including former Premier Barry O’Farrell into disgrace, political limbo and hopefully, criminal charges. With crooked former Labor MP Eddie Obeid at its black heart, this vortex has become so powerful it’s threatening to haul Abbott himself down, should he allow an unravelled thread of his entitled trousers to stray near its ravenous maw.

In this dangerous political climate Metgasco themselves were ensnared, as Energy Minister Anthony Roberts nimbly intercepted ICAC’s lethal trajectory, drawing a bead between their chief shareholders, a company compromised by its toxic connections to Australian Water Holdings, the corporation at the heart of the Obeid dynasty.

As well, Alan Jones’ timely radio broadside cannot be underestimated. Though his personal narrative and political views are largely abhorred by left leaning constituents of the anti-gasfields alliance, there is no denying that his personal feud with the industry and his own incipient political influence were mighty, if unlikely allies in this campaign. His interviews with anti-gas activists, last minute announcement of the costs of the impending police campaign, projected at $14 million, and his personal intercedence with State ministers proved crucial in getting the message across that this was a mainstream concern.

But Annie Kia of Lock the Gate is emphatic that while the inexorable growth of an aligned social movement was instrumental in this decision, a last minute tactical intervention helped turn the tide.

“The political campaign that ramped up in that last fortnight from the Gasfield Free Northern Rivers advocates and from the landowners from Bentley” was vital, she noted.

“We made available to government a very specific brief that outlined the deception involved in Metgasco’s statement in blow by blow detail – that they had specifically characterised it as a conventional well, when in fact in other places they had made it clear that they were seeking tight sands gas potential and I think that was a significant thing and it’s pretty hard to say because the outcome has many mothers and fathers but there was unbearable pressure on the government during that last week.”

The police force itself displayed a distinct reluctance to be that wave of storm-troops that the industry demanded. Quelling a genuine spontaneous community uprising with violence proved not to their taste, as events proved.

Aidan Ricketts, the veteran activist and academic whose work on social movements has been instrumental in framing the Gasfields Free Northern Rivers community strategies, had this analysis of the police response.

“I think we achieved something very significant where the police look at themselves and say, ‘We don’t want to do this, this is our people’. I think that’s one of the most amazing things hiding in the background of the Bentley story, because of course the police don’t want to come out and say it explicitly, but they were very reluctant.

“It started with the Regional Command up here. They’ve had that view all along, even at Doubtful Creek. On the 31st of March, the police were supposed to come in, the motels were booked but the operation was called off because they didn’t think they had the numbers to face off with how we were gathering that week.

“The next stage was the police basically nudged us and said, ‘We’ve called for more resources, they’re sending up some senior police from Sydney to assess the size of the crowd, it would be a good idea if there was a lot of people there on Monday morning’. That was about the 14th of April. So the police were partly hoping for a political solution, but writing up the invoice for the state government if they wanted a policing solution.

“So there’s a sense that there’s a little bit of a subtle resistance in that they were saying ‘Ok we need 900 police for eight weeks because that’s how long the drilling goes and we know this community isn’t going to back off and they’re going to stay in hotels and it’s going to cost you’ – the basic figure was $10 million and there was no assurance it was going to stay within that.

“I know from our meetings with the police they were very clear that they would have preferred a political solution and they were very relieved when there was one, they phoned us straight away and congratulated us.”

The community representation at all levels was absolutely vital – from ‘Simmos’ (shorthand for volunteer arrestees) camping throughout all weathers and threats to the work of lobbyists in Sydney – all adding weight to the tipping point.

“There was no simple point of victory,” Aidan observed.

“If they got their rig in it would have been like George Bush claiming victory in the Iraq War – we got our rig in – now what happens? As soon as the police go away there would have been 3,000 people sitting on the rig and that could have happened as many times as was required – at ever spiralling cost to the State Government.

“It remains an incredibly amazing story because there’s no historical precedent that I can think of in Australia where an entire region has stood up on an issue like this right across the board. Business people, farmers, indigenous people, tree-changers,  mayors climbing tripods, Anglican Ministers being there.

“That’s a very big part of the story, the idea that this was not just a protest movement, it was an entire region. That should have been obvious from the day 87% voted no to CSG, but the government ignored that, the company ignored that and proceeded. It started to become more obvious when we had the mayors of every shire except Richmond River visiting the blockade and/or climbing the tripods.

“When we had a parade of celebrity musicians coming and playing it should have been obvious it was getting bigger and bigger.

To see the police stand with their community is an indication that this is something that’s not really precedented in Australia.

“The great relief is the government eventually realised it was in a doomed position and backed off.

“In terms of how big a victory that really is for democracy? It’s definitely a victory for democracy in that we fought the hard fight, we stood right up to them we didn’t blink we weren’t afraid and they backed off.

“It’s sad to observe though that this is where it’s got to, that the embedded corruption between the mining industry and governments across Australia has reached the point where this is what you have to do just to be listened to. We know that in any other issue where there’s not corrupting interests involved, if 87% of a region say ‘we don’t want something’, the politicians respond quickly.

“So what we’ve revealed is that they were prepared to spend ten or 14 million dollars to send 900 police to invade a region. That that was even considered a viable response is damning of how big the problem is in this country.

“What we’ve achieved is huge because we’ve broken through the mining industry control of our parliaments and we’ve put a crack in that wall and when social movements put a crack in a wall like that you can elbow in and make it bigger and bigger from then on and other communities will be excited and follow some of the processes we’ve used.”

Annie Kia is rather more cautious than Scott Ludlum in backgrounding the victory against the Abbott government’s big business budget, but does see in it an emerging phenomenon of spontaneous democratic energy.

“In terms of this alliance I don’t personally see it necessarily aligning with this anti-Abbott government stuff that’s emerging. I think the Lock The Gate alliance will stay focussed on our core campaigning, which is to protect our water, our farmlands, our communities and our precious wild places from inappropriate mining, however I think we’re learning to throw off our passivity. And that’s the amazing thing, as we work together, we’re finding that in communities we can take charge of our destiny and by working across boundaries with very disparate groups we can find the common ground.

“I think the mainstream press is really starting to show an interest in the diversity of the people involved in this movement. Our opponents have very active PR components that continually characterise us as a small bunch of extremist hippies. But they are just absolutely incorrect because we really are a collaboration of all different kinds of people. So I think that the media are starting to look at it in a new way and the country people that are stepping up to defend our common heritage are becoming more confident and becoming wonderful advocates.”

Above all though, she attributes this astonishing victory to the thousands who turned up.

“I believe we would have had 10,000 people there, ready to face a thousand police. We were growing exponentially and there are mass movement dynamics at play here.

“We became a different kind of organism, like an immune response going to a source of infection, or a pathogen. That’s what Bentley was, we just swarmed there in massive numbers and maintained our non-violence and it’s really quite inspiring, so I think that will give hope to people in other regions as they mount their campaigns to fight invasive coal mines or gas fields in their landscape.”

And where to from here, as Metgasco vows to return to the Northern Rivers, Santos continues to plunder the Pilliga and incoming Premier Mike Baird’s previous adviser now heads up the Australian Minerals Council?

Aidan Ricketts sees an opportunity to rigorously examine our democratic institutions.

“The Bentley victory is worth celebrating and spreading to other communities, but it’s worth continuing to assert that Australia is in a democracy crisis.

“This corruption being revealed at ICAC is really the tip of the iceberg. It can reveal illegal corruption, what it can’t reveal is the business-as-usual conflation of political and mining interests in Australia.

“When the tiny town of Bulga won its court case against Rio Tinto on socio economic and environment grounds, the response of the NSW government was two things. One to join as a party in the appeal against the town and secondly in any case to change the legislation, so social and environmental grounds were no longer significant compared to economic grounds. So even when they went on too lose in the Court of Appeal in the second round, it didn’t matter because they could put a new DA in and go through the process of getting the NSW government approval under the new legislation written in their favour.”

He does see existing solutions to this problem, but believes they’re just a starting point for a comprehensive overhaul of a system that’s broken.

“I’m reasonably satisfied that with the Greens we’ve got one significant effective political party that is not captured by the mining and fossil fuel industry or the global media corporations, whether they’re to everybody’s taste – well nothing will ever be perfect but we have one viable political party.

“But I think what we need to invest our energy not so much in focussing on parliaments, politicians and political parties and elections, but focussing on building an empowered and effective community networks and social movements, because you get maximum bang for your buck from social movements.

“Lock the Gate is rapidly transforming from a coal and gas focussed campaign to be the battering ram of the pro-democracy movement in Australia.

“So we will achieve a gasfield free northern rivers, but the issue is whether we can achieve a healthy democracy in Australia.”

Annie Kia has an immediate remedy in mind.

“I think our future is in reaching out to people in cities to invite or help them touch base with what our common heritage is – our common farm lands that feed us all, our water supplies that are at risk, our catchments and our common heritage in terms of cultural and wild places.

“The assault on these life support systems is so extreme at the moment that we need to reach into the cities and find a way to work with people there, to defend these things together.”

Or as Larissa Waters declared on Sunday, May 18 to the gathered protectors around the Bentley camp fire,

“We are going to take our country back.”


On the rails with Margo Kingston

(At the time of the interview on April 30 the #BentleyBlockade was the subject of shouting matches in NSW Parliament as the Labor Opposition Party belatedly tackled new Premier Mike Baird over his plans to unleash riot police on thousands of peaceful farmers and townies. Senior police had confirmed that a riot squad deployment of up to 700 fully kitted out storm-troopers would arrive soon. Social and local print media was roaring with anger at this affront to democracy, food and water security.)

Underneath a small marquee in the heart of the Bentley anti-coal seam gas protest camp I’m sipping lime cordial with renegade journalist Margo Kingston. It’s a dry camp, but the 500-odd people currently in residence on this cool, late April evening have no problem enjoying themselves – to go by the hum of conversation and the hubbub of drums, guitars and didgeridoo emanating from the nearby fires.

Margo is highly animated, cackling and thumping the table for emphasis as she regales us with her adventures in journalism – and her plans for the future.

Seated next to her is Dean Sewell, now a freelance photographer of no small renown and Margo’s offsider during her most famous exploit, her coverage of Pauline Hanson on the campaign trail in 1998 for ex-employer the Sydney Morning Herald.

Dean is frequently Margo’s foil as she reminisces about the extraordinary intensity of that mission. The Hanson saga, and her ensuing book Off The Rails spelt the beginning of the end of Margo’s career as a mainstream journalist which finally burnt out after a series of spectacular forays into difficult truths. She had already run a notorious path through the displeasure of editors and powerful people alike and blazed a pioneering trail through the future of journalism with her prescient (and doomed) online forum Webdiary, first for the SMH then as an independent site and after her 2004 book Not Happy, John! Defending our democracy.

Margo’s Twitter-based new baby, the ‘citizen journalism’ site No Fibs, heralded her return to public life after a prolonged ‘retirement’.

“What I’m doing with No Fibs is really no different than what I was doing with Webdiary,” she says. “I’m very keen on citizen journalism, very keen on getting people’s ideas into the site, very keen on debates.

“I’ve said many times I feel the future of journalism is a collaboration between the professional and the citizen journalist – and if we don’t collaborate our profession could be lost.”

Margo’s had rock-star treatment in the camp – she’s been provided with a nicely appointed tent and beautiful meals as befits a bona fide guerrilla-journalist paragon whose narrative is grounded in the coal face of democracy and whose brutal honesty is a driving compulsion. She’s quite flabbergasted with her reception, being used to campaigning rough in the thick of the action.

This camp sits in a humble cow paddock some 15kms from Lismore, precariously balanced between the unfriendly territory of Richmond Valley County Council, whose pro-gas Mayor has failed to evict it, and the home turf of Lismore, whose extremely vocal residents are overwhelmingly opposed to having an industrial gas field in their back yard.

Margo thrives on this charged atmosphere.

“I’m really pleased to be reporting in this green shoot space now that the media system is fucked worldwide.

“It’s closed and it’s insular. People just argue stupid points and nothing ever changes. Australian media is locked into the establishment way of looking at and reporting politics, that closed world of the Canberra belt where anything else is like, ‘Well a focus group will sort that out for us’, or ‘What’s that poll say?’

“But #leardblockade and #BentleyBlockade and #Pilliga is people on the ground saying, ‘Y’know, we’re gonna try doing something else. They’re real stories, actual real stories, and I’ve got the field to myself because the mainstream media won’t walk into camp.

“My point of view always has been since Hanson and all through Webdiary that it’s best if you say what you believe. And you’ll be judged on your accuracy and your this and that, but it feels more honest.

“I feel that this whole idea of journalistic objectivity is completely bullshit in the modern world, because politics and business and sport and entertainment – they’re staged events. We’re not standing back reporting what they do, they’re producing an event for us. It’s bullshit.

“I’m very well aware that I’m walking a tightrope, and I’ve walked a tightrope my entire career because I only write about what I’m passionate about and what I’m outraged about. I actually can’t just tap it out, can I Dean?

“I’ve always pushed the envelope and I feel this is a natural progression for me. Now that I look back, I thought when I retired hurt – I had a nervous breakdown, a financial breakdown, a physical breakdown – that I was gone. It took me two and a half years to get off the floor. I never thought I’d come back, so for me to come back and to be so excited by journalism again after being so burnt out by it, I feel like I’ve been given another go.

“I have these terrible arguments with my sister (veteran journalist and editor Gay Alcorn) – she says ‘You’ve completely crossed the line, you can’t be doing this’.

“I say ‘Well if I don’t do it no-one does it and this doesn’t get out – this world, this movement, this energy’.

“I think people would say that I have taken a radical position, but the thing that thrilled me was that when the Daily Telegraph (reported) that I was arrested they put “radical journalist arrested”… both their articles called me a journalist.” (Police claim intimidation via Twitter by anti-mining protesters, including former Sydney Morning Herald journalist Margo Kingston.)

“They didn’t say ‘a former journalist who’s gone right off the rails’.” (See Getting #leardblockade arrested, WTF is journalism and who’s the extremist: @margokingston1 interview with @dailytelegraph.)

Formerly a practising solicitor, and having worked for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, the Canberra Times and Jana Wendt at A Current Affair, Margo is well aware that being embedded in protest camps violates just about every tenet of modern journalism. But it’s a deliberate act about which she has formulated a few tenets of her own.

“It’s really difficult because I come from a tradition where, y’know, (journalists) have all got their own sources and they know things they can’t say – I couldn’t stand that stuff. I’m like Dean, I go in, I want to get the story out. So then you’re embedded and there you are, you’re witnessing their training and their tactics and what they’re gonna do, but I can’t report any of that.

“If I report the details of their training, that’s evidence for a conspiracy, If I report that they’re planning to wake up at three the next morning and do something, well I can’t. You have to be trusted to be able to get inside something like this.

“Now potentially that’s terribly compromising, so you have to make a judgement. If something goes wrong on the action, my policy is I report that something went wrong. At ActUp 2 at #leardblockade they had this beautiful structure outside the gate and tripods and everything and they forgot that there was a side gate and the police went in through there … (laughs)

“If I was ‘in there’ I’d pretend nothing happened, but I Tweeted “outfoxed – go to Plan B”.

Margo reports via Twitter, a domain she refers to as a ‘public diary’, where she maintains that her feeds are augmenting a new kind of journalism.

“I read an article which said that Twitter has become the birth of news. That’s where it hits. All these different people asking these different questions. All the journalists are on Twitter now and they’re all watching people who they feel they need to watch. I’d hate to be a mainstream journalist now, you have to do that as well as everything else like write five pieces a day, do some video …

“I went to Canberra for Cathy McGowan’s maiden speech and watched journalists watching a press conference on TV. One dictated grabs at another typing – they’re all trying to press the button first. It’s just a nightmare.

“Mainstream media flicks from one thing to another – who knows what happened last year or yesterday? But (the people on) Twitter do. They say, ‘What about who said that there’ and publish the link, so Twitter is building its own story and the good journos will take that and go with it. You’ve actually got an incredible resource with Twitter.”

Margo became a convert to Twitter in late 2012 and has deferred her nearly-completed nursing degree.

“It was a huge decision to defer because all my friends except one said, ‘Oh my god Margo, move on. Journalism is something that you have an interesting relationship with, but inevitably it means you go off the rails and that’s the end of it.’

“In my opinion no-one knows how Twitter works. You find your spot. There’s a million different worlds in Twitter. So my spot is Australian politics. That’s my milieu.

“I got a head start when I got into it. A lot of people followed me early, they said things like ‘Oh I thought you were dead’, y’know, ‘You’re back!’

“Just being a Twitter-based journalist I was creating – and I hate using these words – I was becoming quite powerful in my own small way. I don’t wanna tell people what I had for breakfast. I run a pretty hardcore political tweet thing and I think I’m ahead of the curve.

“For example imagine how thrilled I was when The Guardian ran my #leardblockade portraits, then published my pic for their piece on war veteran Bill Ryan where he told his story about why he got arrested at #leardblockade.

“The Tele ran pictures by me too, and were shocked because they had this conspiracy theory that The Guardian was paying me at #leardblockade.

“I said no, I’m doing this as a service for the mainstream media. They can pick up my pictures and rely on that I’ve given them accurate figures of arrests and accurate accounts. Y’know, take it and run with it, it’s yours.

“The Tele reporter asked, ‘Who are you working for Margo?’ I said ‘I’m working for my site’. He said ‘Are you a member of any of these (environment) organisations?’ ‘No.’

He said ‘You believe that climate change is real and that coal mine shouldn’t happen, don’t you?’ I said ‘Yes I do believe that’, and he goes, ‘Well how can you say you’re a journalist?’ I said, ‘I’ve told readers what I believe, what’s wrong with that?’

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel they can’t touch me. I work for no-one but myself. I haven’t got bosses coming down on me and every time the Tele targets me it increases my profile. So I feel they’re in a no win – but maybe I’m just being silly.”

This kind of exposure to the news, in becoming the news, has come with its own problems and credibility issues.

“It’s a very knotty area, I’m not saying I’m completely confident. Several times I’ve had images of things I’ve done at the blockade come to mind and gone ‘Oh I shouldn’t have done that’.

“These are really curly ones, but my point of view is that it’s far better to make those compromises and get that story told which otherwise wouldn’t have been told. Tim Blair (Daily Telegraph blogger) would say, ‘Well you’re not getting both sides of the story are you?’

“No, I’m not. I am reporting this side of the story. There are many people reporting that side of the story, and there are many journos in the middle and long may they reign. Both sides will speak to them. I don’t know if they would speak to me, I’ve never asked. And maybe I should but I felt it’s a good role for me to say, ‘I’ll tell you what’s happening on the ground and you do what you like with it. That’s my job, that’s what I do, I’m there. You’re somewhere else, you do your job.’”

Margo attributes the nature of her new vocation to the evolution of reporting in the volatile social media era.

“Basically I’m one of the players in the radicalisation of Twitter, and more and more people want to be a bit more radical so I think I’ve found a bit of a niche there.

“Basically No Fibs is a site of radical action. There’s a lot of angst around Australia and No Fibs is reporting that.

“I think there was frustration last year with both the performance of the Labor government and the media’s role in the failure to scrutinise the opposition. You had a Murdoch press that made it impossible and you had the worst ever campaign by a Labor leader. Yet the Libs did not win in a landslide. So you’ve got this unease and I think people like me have helped convert that negativity of Twitter into – ‘Well, what you gonna do about it guys?’

“After the election Abbott was so bad so early that people really wanted to do something. #MarchinMarch was a big breakthrough because everyone, including me, completely wrote it off as a sort of virtual reality type thing – yet people turned up.

“No Fibs did the best coverage of #MarchinMarch, with people on the ground live tweeting into our hashtag and then, even up to two weeks later we had people writing in and saying ‘Would you mind if I told my story?’

“Like the campaigns on the ground for Lock the Gate, people just went off and did their own thing where they live but it came together and it was so exciting and so empowering. A lot of Tweeps went off at the mainstream media about their (lack of) reporting. I thought the MSM were dealt a devastating blow with the lack of #MarchinMarch reporting. Embarrassing. It showed why the Press Gallery is out of touch.

“The role of the Press Gallery is to bring the people’s concerns to the powerful and hold the powerful to account on behalf of the people. It’s really simple. If you don’t have a clue what the people’s concerns are or couldn’t give a shit because it hasn’t been proved by some focus group which gives you dot points, it’s awful.

“I just think if they don’t report things like #MarchinMarch they’re out of the game, because this is where the game is now.”

Margo’s passionate belief in this new form of journalistic shorthand, where brevity and immediacy are the parameters, has been confirmed in the field.

“The head of the NSW Minerals Council Stephen Galilee did an op-ed where he just went for me, really hard. And I know why – it was my coverage of the #leardblockade campaign in early January. Greenpeace had gone on holidays and the protesters had been evicted from camp and there was just a little group left. A friend dragged me in really, and I start live tweeting ‘civil disobedience arrests’ and established the Twitter hashtag and educated my followers and the environment groups and people on the ground to use it and it became Twitter’s news feed.

“Twitter loved the live stuff. Like, ‘now the cops are coming’, ‘now they’re consulting’, ‘now this is happening’. The momentum built and at the debrief after the second ActUp the Greenpeace guy said ‘I’m convinced’. Basically Twitter got the campaign going again and when Greenpeace got its act together they took over. The Minerals Council and the Mining Australia magazine and the Right use #leardblockade too, so whoever’s interested in goes there.”

Margo has now been asked to write another book as part of a Phd for Macquarie University, a project that will include documenting and analysing her ongoing experiment – collaboration between citizen journalists and professionals.

“I’ll have to tone down the Twitter addiction and not worry about being on top of everything. Take a step back. But I do have a commitment to the #leardblockade campaign. I feel that’s where I’m taking a stand on climate change and I’m very interested in the broader movement and how this might play out.

“These are the possibilities. This is what Webdiary was doing between 2000 and 2005 until the SMH stupidly fucked it up. Anyway, they admit that now. Pity they had to destroy me in the process, but it probably was about time.

“I remember saying to a friend of during Webdiary, ‘Oh it’s so frustrating’. She said ‘Margo, you’ve got away with the impossible for years. You are one of the luckiest journalists in Australia, if not the world. You have had this space in mainstream media which you’ve done whatever you like in.’ I had to say, ‘Yeah’.

“You know what I feel Dean? What I’m doing now with Twitter is reporting grass roots movements, like the Hanson phenomenon. It’s seat of your pants, anything could happen. I’m really loving it and I really think I’m doing good work. I just do. I know I am.”

– See more at: http://nofibs.com.au/2014/05/20/off-the-rails-with-margokingston1-at-bentleyblockade-mickdaley1-interview/#sthash.GWVp1IBq.dpuf