By Laurie Patton | 12 July 2019
The New South Wales deputy premier wants to allow logging in a national park in the state’s Riverina. John Barilaro says he intends removing statutory protection of the 42,000 hectare Murray Valley National Park – either by de-gazetting the entire area or reducing its size.
Forty years ago we fought to stop the logging of a rainforest at Terania Creek in northern NSW. I cannot believe this issue is back on the political agenda.
When former NSW premier Neville Wran retired from politics he was asked at a news conference what was his greatest achievement. His immediate response was “saving the rainforests”. Years later he added: “Terania Creek and the men and women who fought for it, played a critical role in shaping my views and the views of the government of the day in relation to conservation. Indeed, there is no doubt that Terania Creek was a milestone in the history of conservation in Australia”.
Back then the National Party was gung-ho in support of runnning the bulldozers over just about any tree found standing. In what was a low point for the Labor Party, some of its more right wing MP’s also supported wholesale logging. To be fair, this was not so much about any disregard for the importance of our rainforests as it was a keenness to protect the jobs of timber workers.
Wran’s eventual Labor successor Bob Carr holds the mantel of the state’s premier who gazetted the most national parks. Bob Debus as Carr’s environment minister also justifiably lays claim to having played a key role in saving our rainforest heritage.
But it was Wran’s Attorney General, the late Frank Walker, who should be given credit for achieving one of the first big breakthroughs in the protection of our natural environment. Saving Terania Creek set the scene for the next two decades of progress. As a small disclosure, I was Walker’s speech writer and policy advisor at the time.
While various people and organisations have rightly claimed their share of the credit for saving the Terania Creek forest, the untold ‘back story’ is worthy of recognition. Nothing that I have read about others’ actions is in dispute. I’m just adding an important component to the history.
While Walker had no direct responsibility for environmental matters he was a committed and well-known greenie. It was for this reason that the situation at Terania Creek was brought to his attention well before many others in the Wran Government became aware of it.
A noted interventionist across other portfolios, Walker’s response to hearing about Terania Creek was to dispatch me and a colleague to undertake an informal inspection where we met with local activists. On returning to Sydney our advice was that the forest should be saved. But more important in the telling of the full story and what really happened, we said that in our view the determination and resolve of a band of recent arrivals in the area – young professionals, the first ‘tree changers’ – was such that they could be expected to create serious grief for the Government.
Walker immediately reported our observations to Wran and subsequently convinced him to act. As I said earlier, nothing that I have read elsewhere is in conflict with what I am recounting now. Wran then set about instigating processes that led to more official visits to the area and formal investigations.
As the media reported at the time, Terania Creek “was the first time citizens physically defended a rainforest by placing themselves in front of police and loggers”. Another small disclosure. Walker’s staff might not have discouraged the protestors from taking that action! It was relatively short-lived, but it certainly gave Wran the political cover he needed to prevail over his combatant MP’s.
Understandably concerned about the future employment prospects for timber workers a small but powerful lobby within the Labor Party fought hard against our plan to ban logging at Terania Creek. It was Walker’s persistence and his success in convincing Wran that was the crucial determinant. This was assisted by compensation including a retraining scheme and a redundancy package for displaced workers. A model that should be repeated more often when change affects jobs.
Walker’s actions behind the scenes should now be publicly recognised. Under immense pressure from some of his Caucus members, who in turn were being lobbied by the timber workers union, Wran certainly needed some persuading. So it was really Frank Walker who saved Terania Creek.
Four decades later it looks like we’ll have to go through it all again. Can you believe it?
The Australian Labor Party has changed significantly since the Wran era. One of its wiliest members to occupy a positon of power on behalf of the dominant NSW right wing, Graham Richardson, went on to serve as Environment Minister in the Hawke Government.
(Laurie Patton was an advisor in the Wran Government from 1977 to 1982.)