#2 How to win – coalition building
When the largest rally in human history in 2003 didn’t stop the Iraq War it makes you wonder what does it take for a coalition to win?
In the second episode of ChangeMakers podcast we look at Brexit and examine how the types of coalitions used by each side influenced the outcome of the referendum. Then we go to the Northern Rivers in regional Australia look at how a different kind of alliance against Coal Seam Gas sought to organise across the entire community.
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Full transcript of episode 2:
Episode 2 – “How to Win”
HOST: In the months and years after 9/11, many of my friends thought that George W. Bush would be the worst US President of our lifetime. Yeah. I know.
I was working in the union movement at the time. My job was to help the unions establish meaningful links with other sections of the community – a job nobody but me took particularly seriously.
But then February 2003 comes around. George W. Bush places in my lap the most extraordinary reason for the union movement to talk to and join together with churches, mosques, sports clubs, synagogues, student groups and everyone else across civil society.
President Bush was baying for war with Iraq. His pretext was clearly fraudulent. If only we could mobilise everyone to voice our opposition, then surely our government would have to listen. This was winnable.
I jump into action. Together with a group of community leaders, we set up the Walk Against the War coalition. We decide to join a global protest march against war.
15 February 2003 was the largest protest march in the history of humankind. At least 10 or 15 million people marched. Some say it was 30. The Sydney march was the largest in my city’s history. The route went on a large loop around the city but there were so many people that day, the front of the march arrived before the back of the march had left, gridlocking hundreds of thousands of people in an infinite loop of protest. There just wasn’t enough space in the city for all the people who opposed war that day.
I doubt I’ll see a mobilisation that big again in my lifetime. Probably because… we didn’t win. Far from it. A bit over a month later, the coalition of the willing invaded Iraq. By the end, 100,000 Iraqis were dead.
But it begs the question – if mobilising the largest protest in human history doesn’t work, then how the hell do you win?
Hello. I’m Amanda Tattersall. Welcome to ChangeMakers – the podcast about people trying to change the world. Changemakers is supported by our launch partner Mobilisation Lab.
First up, I’m in England, where they recently had a poll to leave the Europe Union that nobody expected would win.
GARETH: Even the people that voted to get out didn’t believe we were going to get out. Nobody believed we were going to get out.
HOST: Let’s go
NIGEL FARAGE: Ladies and Gentlemen, dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an Independent United Kingdom! (CHEERS)
HOST: That’s Nigel Farage sounding like he’s doing a “hero speech scene” in a B-grade action movie. His nation has just voted to tear up the way it had been making laws for the past 40 years, so he’s trying to sound historic.
You might think you’d need a pretty broad coalition to convince a nation to take such a huge step. The truth is a little more surprising.
NIGEL FARAGE: Let June the 23rd go down in history as our independence day!
HOST: Thanks Nigel. Right from the start, campaigners who wanted Britain to leave the European Union had a couple of problems.
First — Europe was actually relatively popular. The side that wanted to remain inside Europe had an 18 point lead at the start. And that’s because it had tangible benefits — especially for business.
INTERVIEWER: When you take it into your own business, do you think that UK’s relationship with Europe has affected your business?
GARETH DAVIES: Well, it has, very positively… a business I’m doing an awful lot of work for, an old hotel is being turned into units, I’m doing all the painting it’s going to keep me busy for months
HOST: This is Gareth Davies he’s a small business owner based in Southern Wales.
GARETH DAVIES: … And they had a girl, a Polish girl, who has a degree in Interior Decorating. She wants to move to the area.
…she’s allowed to be here. She can be here. It’s an opportunity to have somebody working within our business who could be fantastic. … Though I wouldn’t have had the opportunity before if we weren’t in Europe.
HOST: This is the story of how Britain got to the point where a small business owner in South Wales could easily tap the talents of a Polish interior decorator all starts forty years ago.
When Britain joined the European Union in 1973, they were, let’s say, politely late to the party. It had already been going for 20 years. Part of the reason for this is that just a few decades earlier, Britain had been the largest empire in the history of the world, ruling over one-quarter of the world’s population.
Britain had become accustomed to telling other countries what to do. Now they were joining a community that basically was going to tell them what to do. But most people accepted it.
INTERVIEWER: So when Britain initially joined the Common Market, what did you think?
GARETH DAVIES: Couldn’t have cared less. When was that, Seventy-three. So I was a teenager who was probably more interested in sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.
HOST: As the decades went on, the European Union became part of the furniture in Britain. Labour standards were established across the continent, environmental laws were standardised. Polish decorators moved to South Wales and found gainful employment. There was however, one fly in the ointment.
WILL STRAW: You had a virulent Euro-skeptic right wing media who was strongly opposed to our membership of the EU,
HOST: That’s Will Straw, executive director of the Remain campaign in the Brexit referendum. The side that lost, despite starting out with an 18-point lead.
WILL STRAW: And the right wing press was supported by large sections of the Conservative party who had a drum beat of anti-European sentiment over decades.
INTERVIEWER: Why was the media so Euro-skeptic? [Like] on what basis were they distrustful?
WILL STRAW: I think the main reason comes down to ideology. So the European Union at its best had harmonised standards for workers, for the environment, for corporate governance..
HOST: Basically, it was a way to prevent one country from driving down, say, their wages, in order to be more competitive than everyone else. It avoided what economists call a “race to the bottom”.
WILL STRAW: Now to me as a progressive, that is fundamentally a good thing
… The right oppose that and the European Union was one of the things that was bringing in that kind of protection. They painted it as being bureaucratic, elitist, out of touch, expensive
HOST: So the campaigners who wanted to convince Gareth Davies that Britain should leave the European Union had a few problems.
GARETH DAVIES: Politics has never really interested me.
HOST: The people in the middle that the leave campaign needed to convince, weren’t necessarily that engaged. On the other hand, there were a lot of interests with skin in the game in favour of Europe.
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: I could see how all the business groups and the main companies speaking in the media were on the pro-European side of things. Saying how leaving the EU would be a terrible idea.
HOST: Matthew Elliott led the campaign to leave the EU. Essentially, in Harry Potter terms, he was Will Straw’s Vodelmort. His job was to convince Gareth that leaving Europe wouldn’t affect his business. Bit of an uphill battle.
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: It was obvious that the government would basically wheel out all these big, major business leaders to basically say how it would be terrible for the economy.
HOST: So they needed to recruit some respectable business leaders to their side. Especially since the other major group arguing for leave had tiny bit of an image problem.
NIGEL FARAGE: I was asked if a group of Romanian men moved in next to you, would you be concerned? And if you lived in London, I think you would be.
HOST: Nigel Farage and his UK Independence Party. You might call him racist. But apparently that’s just a boring media obsession.
NIGEL FARAGE: Your media obsession with attempting to paint UKIP out to be a racist party is something I’m getting really rather bored of.
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: I could see how UKIP and their leader Nigel Farage only really had a limit in terms of their popularity, of about 1/3 of voters
HOST: To win, Matthew needed more than half the voters. So the campaign decided it didn’t want to be associated with its single biggest ally. That’s a pretty huge call.
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: The trouble was that some of those messengers who we wanted to get on board to attract those swing voters, such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove…. Those people didn’t want to be part of a UKIP based campaign. There were lots of negatives about UKIP and Nigel Farage.
HOST: Meanwhile over at the Remain campaign, it was the exact opposite.
WILL STRAW: It was genuinely cross-party. It was an open and inclusive campaign, that brought into in people from all party backgrounds and one that brought people from civil society, from businesses large and small, from the Trade Union, from faith movements. It was … we believe the largest cross-country campaign this country has ever seen.
HOST: Remember: this is the side that lost.
WILL STRAW: We had some extraordinary match ups. The two heads of research from the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, … coming together in our campaign.
HOST: So what on earth went wrong for the Remain campaign? And – perhaps more interesting – what the hell went right for Leave?
HOST: It’s not as if the remain campaign couldn’t mobilise its supporters.
WILL STRAW: In December, we started holding community meetings. The first weekend we had four community meetings around the country. By June 23rd we have the referendum, we had an average of thousand events taking place every weekend, around the country.
HOST: And it wasn’t the supporters themselves…
WILL STRAW: What we found is that the people who put themselves forward to work on this campaign came with a brilliant attitude. They were absolutely willing to put aside those party differences.
HOST: In fact, the campaign even found a way to make a virtue of the strange bedfellows it had brought together.
WILL STRAW: We always got new members of staff to introduce themselves, talk a bit about their background … to make a strength of the fact that we had people going right from the Green Party and the hard left of the Labour Party all the way over to some very, very Euro-skeptic Conservative Party, who believed it was in Britain’s economical interest to remain in the EU.
HOST: Compare that to the Leave campaign, who all seemed to hate each other.
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: The relationship between Vote Leave and Leave.EU and UKIP and Grassroots Out, was always very difficult. A lot of people within those groups thought there should be one campaign.
HOST: But instead of trying to embrace all those difficult differences like Will Straw did, Matthew Elliott went in the opposite direction, eschewing any sort of formal coalition.
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: Because we were a separate campaign, the other Leave campaign never liked us, there were constant arguments, constant disagreements.
HOST: And those disagreements were about pretty fundamental things, like what the message should be.
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: So the message coming out of UKIP was, let’s leave the EU so we can pull up the drawbridge and basically have no more migration to the UK.
HOST: Remember – Matthew Elliott believed message would work on about one third of voters, but alienate the rest.
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: We did a lot of market research on what people’s attitudes were towards migration. The point that we made at Vote Leave was actually much more in tune with what voters were thinking. Which was basically, Britain needs a certain amount of migration. We want to have the best software engineers from Silicon Valley and the best engineers from India and China. And on top of that, we need a certain amount of unskilled migration as well. To be frank, many British people don’t want to do some jobs that they would consider to be menial and beneath them. And people recognise that and the people in the northeast where we got high levels of votes, they understand that. But what they want is basically to, to coin our phrase, take back control of migration to the UK.
SOT: Take back control… vote leave on June 23rd.
HOST: So, by not entering into a big, broad coalition with Nigel Farage and UKIP, the Leave campaign was able to turn the message about migration into a far more respectable message around control. By having such a tight say over the message, it was much easier to navigate the dual task of washing migration of its racist associations, while retaining a focused emotional punch.
GARETH DAVIES: Thinking about it now they drove this very simplistic emotional campaign around immigration. Maybe they just got the fever of the people, they got it right. It’s like an advertising campaign isn’t it?
HOST: So with that in mind, what did Gareth – a man who employed a polish interior decorator – think about immigration?
GARETH DAVIES: We just can’t keep taking people in. You know, we’ve got to get this under control.
HOST: There it is. Control. It’s over 12 months later and the campaign slogan is still fresh in Gareth’s mind. Meanwhile, those further to the right could continue with more extreme rhetoric. A message that would bring some voters to the polls, even while the official campaign disavowed any association.
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: There was actually one key moment as well, in the campaign, when a lot of people started emailing people to say you’re absolutely right to do it as you did.
HOST: A week out from the referendum, UKIP launched a new billboard advertisement. It’s was a new low, even for Nigel Farage.
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: A picture of refugees from Syria walking across some of the East European countries.
HOST: Across the top of the billboard, in large red letters
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: it said Breaking Point. And it’s a very controversial poster, saying that Britain was at breaking point and migrants are marching across Europe to take our jobs and everything like that.
HOST: Then that same afternoon, terrible news breaks.
POLICE SPOKESPERSON (SOT): Just before 1 o’clock today, Jo Cox, MP for Batley and Spen borough was attacked in Market Street Birstall. I am now very sad to have to report that she has died as a result of her injuries.
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: A Labour Member of Parliament, Jo Cox was murdered, was killed by one of her constituents.
HOST: The attacker was a far-right Brexit supporter, who later gave his name in court as “Death to Traitors, Freedom to Britain”.
MATTHEW ELLIOT: So the juxtaposition of Nigel Farage’s Breaking Point poster with the Labour Member of Parliament, Jo Cox’s very sad death, done by somebody shouting “Britain First” couldn’t have come at a worse time for the campaign.
HOST: People now understood the wisdom of not being in coalition with Nigel Farage.
MATTHEW ELLIOTT: They understood at that point what a liability he was and understood how badly the campaign could have been thrown off course had we stuck with him or been part of his campaign.
HOST: It was an horrific crime and shows the wisdom in the distance they’d created. Nevertheless, it bears noting that Matthew Elliott’s Leave campaign were still happy to take Nigel Farage’s votes, while distancing themselves the violence that it had stirred up.
HOST: Over at the Remain campaign – remember, the big, broad happy family – the issue of immigration was causing no end of headaches.
WILL STRAW: My view, the view of people who were on the labour side of the argument felt very strongly that we could not ignore this issue. We had to take it on, we had to unravel the misinformation that they were giving about immigration.
HOST: The Remain campaign was hopelessly split. Should they address the issue of immigration head on, or ignore it and instead talk about the economic benefits of Europe?
WILL STRAW: The conservatives on the campaign wanted to move away from immigration and use every opportunity that immigration came up to pivot back onto the economy. And we felt that in the face of the leave campaign relentlessly going after immigration that this wouldn’t work.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that the campaign’s inability to really make the call around campaigning immigration was partly a function of this very broad political coalition that’s sat at the top?
WILL STRAW: I think that’s right. If you look at the leave campaign, they had a very small number of decision makers at the top of their campaign. …And they ran it by dictat. We didn’t have the same opportunity.
HOST: Every message they put out had to have the support from an absurdly broad group, from the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron to active trade unionists and green groups.
Far from being a virtue, the breadth of the coalition was becoming genuine problem.
WILL STRAW: There wasn’t one clear message that the remain campaign was putting out. It was a mish-mash of different arguments … Whereas the other campaign had this very seductive idea of take back control, which they used again and again.
HOST: And what did the voters think? Well… let’s check in with Gareth.
INTERVIEWER:What did you think about the Remain campaign?
GARETH DAVIES: To be perfectly honest, 12 months on…I … The only thing i can say was that it was obviously not very convincing because it was the exit campaign that actually influenced me. Claire and I had a brief conversation. What are you going to do? I’m going to vote Leave. And I said, or she said, yeah, I’m going to vote Leave as well. And that was it. It became an emotional issue. It was an emotional vote for us …. A lot of people voted on a gut feeling. We voted on a gut feeling.
HOST: Will Straw’s campaign fell into a classic trap. When you are trying to win a majority of people to your side, it seems common sense to want to build your coalition as broad as possible – to match the diversity of the people that you want to influence with the diversity of your coalition.
But with coalitions, less can often be more.
If you have limited time on your hands, the broader you go when selecting coalition partners the weaker the trust between those partners. Without a strong common ground between the different players, the Remain campaign found itself in a messaging race to the bottom to find – something, anything – that they could all agree on.
Instead of pleasing everyone, its slogans became motherhood statements that didn’t offend any of the coalition partners — and in the process, also pleased noone.
The result – a tactical deadlock that meant they couldn’t respond effectively to their opponent.
It was like the coalition that brought millions onto the streets to protest against the war in Iraq. Within months of that protest, the Walk Against the War Coalition I’d been part of had disbanded in acrimony. The only common ground between the marxists, the unionists ,sports clubs and the christians and jews had been a single tactic, and once that had failed, the only thing left to do was to blame each other for the failure.
By contrast, the leave campaign took the opposite route. They had a narrow coalition, that let them developed a clear message about control that spoke to a majority. On the surface, their coalition looked much smaller.
With fewer people to please they had higher levels of trust which meant they could agree on a clear focused message that didn’t have to please everyone within the coalition. Instead they could focus on getting enough swing voters across the line – in order to win.
INTERVIEWER:Do you have any regrets about voting Leave?
GARETH DAVIES: I think so yeah. … the issue was bigger than we realised, I think than everybody realised. The out campaign did a better job. Were louder, brighter. Whatever they did and I can’t even remember what they did now. It must have been, it must have been stronger because the message got through.
HOST: We’ll be back in a moment.
HOST: Now, for a change of pace, a far more hands-on story across the other side of the world in Australia.
MEG: Terrified, absolutely terrified. When the government was saying there was going to be 850 riot squad police coming in, we just knew that it could be disastrous. And let’s face it a lot of us are not as young as we used to be. And not as nimble.
PETER: It could have been ugly. And the police didn’t want to do it. They knew there was going to be fatalities.
HOST: I’m at the site of the Bentley Blockade, visiting a bunch of neighbours who, a few years ago, decided, against all odds, to take on the fossil fuel industry. We’ll see how a hotch potch group that included farmers to firies, environmentalists, indigenous leaders, small businesses and grandmothers tried to stop gas fields from setting up shop around them. It is a remarkable story of brinkmanship that ended in an astounding way. An outcome that has echoed around the world.
HOST: Our story begins back in 2010 with a couple of grandmothers who had Mondays off.
CLAIRE: Well the Nannas got together – we started off as a spy network, if you like.
HOST: A handful of companies had started drilling holes, looking for coal seam gas in the small town of Keerong in New South Wales, on the east coast of Australia. Claire Twommy became concerned after seeing a documentary about it.
CLAIRE: I saw gas lands on telly and that opened my eyes. And so we decided, we both had Mondays off, that we would check them out each week and just watch what was happening.
They were building the evaporation ponds for the waste water, the toxins really that came from fracking and exploration. So we watched that for a while. That was when we were knitting, and that’s when the idea of the Nannas came about.
HOST: Claire and her friend set up a group called The Knitting Nannas. So what had the Knitting Nanna’s stumbled upon?
IAN: There were some flash Brisbane entrepreneurs, Steve Bissell and Mick Davies, got a hold of leases through their company… they drilled 19 holes.
HOST: Ian Gilliard and his partner lived nearby.
IAN: One of them was in our valley, 3 kilometres upstream from my and Vicky’s small patch of dirt on the floor of the valley.
HOST: Ian too, saw the same documentary and became concerned. He’d been living in Keerong for the past forty years, but there was something in his backstory that none of the companies would have known when they started drilling in his backyard. Ian had… well, put it this way. He had a, well, unconventional approach to authority.
HOST: As a young man growing up in New Zealand, Ian had heard the French government was testing nuclear bombs in the Pacific.
IAN: So with a friend, I organized a boat, went across the Pacific, went to Muroroa Atoll, and had a run-in with the French Navy got rammed. We escaped the clutches of the French courts and military in Tahiti. Went on to Hawaii. Provocatively, the US government put a submarine in the area, a nuclear submarine. So we swam out to that on surfboards.
HOST: When the gas companies started drilling in Ian’s backyard, they probably didn’t suspect what they were about to come up against.
HOST: What Ian wanted to find out was what it was like to live with a gasfield around you. Further north-west, gas fields had been running for years. So Ian went up and see the impact for himself.
IAN: The health effects in the Chinchilla gas fields on human and animal populations are devastating. There are people with nose bleeds, there are people with headaches.
HOST: To be honest, when I started this story, I’d heard of fracking, but I never knew quite what it was. Basically it involves injecting chemicals deep underground to break up the rocks to release the gas caught in the seams. The problem?
IAN: You lose your water table.
HOST: The water near the surface drips through cracked rocks and disappears forever. And water is pretty important. Especially on farms.
HOST: Ian came back from Chinchilla, and did what any self-respecting activist would do. He made a placard.
IAN: When I went to put up my own sign on my gate I was nervous. Coz I was one of the first ones, my own Lock the Gate sign. I said to myself, I’m making myself a target here, you know.
INTERVIEWER: What did Lock the Gate mean?
IAN: Lock the Gate means, you put up a sign on your place, it’s got a high court precedent on the bottom of it. And you say: Lock the Gate – to coal and gas companies. And it says you can’t come in here. You’re not welcome here.
HOST: Even though these companies had a licence from the Government to explore for gas beneath the land, they also needed access to the land. The easiest way to stop that is to simply lock the gate.
IAN: And in the end, we got busy and started printing signs, putting out literature. And other groups started coming to us and we formed rallies in Lismore. Didn’t ask any permission, just set up and did it.
HOST: A campaign was born.
HOST: By showing video documentaries, and holding meetings, the Ian and his newly minted Keerong Gas Squad went around the local community, educating people the impact of having gasfields in their backyard. People like Peter and Meg Neilson.
PETER: Peter Neilson, I’ve been a farmer all my life, born and bred on a farm. Yeah, that’s about the size of it.
MEG: Meg Neilson I work here on the farm. I’m sort of semi-retired.
INTERVIEWER: So when did you first hear about coal seam gas in the Northern Rivers?
MEG: Well, initially they were sort of these mentions of this good little industry that was going to come to the Northern Rivers. It was going to give a nice little power station and provide the area with natural gas. Wow, sounds great!
HOST: But right from the start, the gas company’s story kept changing.
PETER: The company that promoted it here, was trying to promote it as conventional.
INTERVIEWER: So how did you feel when you found out that it wasn’t what they told you it was?
PETER: I felt, I I felt that, that’s not…That’s ridiculous. I think the politicians will stop this. That’s what I thought. I thought they were going to bat for us. Because, you know, you have faith in your politicians.
HOST: So that was Meg and Peter’s plan at first. To trust the politicians. Yeah, we’ll see how that pans out.
HOST: But at the same time, Ian’s approach seemed equally futile. Signs and placards and rallies was not going to stop a mining company. If Ian was going to get them out of his valley, the Keerong Gas Squad needed to broaden its alliance. Enter Annie Kia.
INTERVIEWER: How long have you lived in the Northern Rivers?
ANNIE: My partner and I moved here in the beginning of 1985, from Adelaide.
INTERVIEWER: So why did you get involved?
ANNIE: Went to see Gas Lands, participated in a couple of rallies that they organized in Lismore and then, thought it up, this is, this is…This is a terrible, terrible industry. We have to throw everything we have at this to stop it from getting started. And so I thought, yup, I’m in.
HOST: Like Ian, Annie was also a veteran of social campaigning, having been heavily involved in the anti-nuclear movement in Adelaide. And nowadays she was an expert in…
ANNIE: the dynamics of large human systems and how networks and complexity dynamics play out in those systems.
HOST: In other words — how to build a social movement.
HOST: Before we go on, I’d just like to pause here so we can reflect on the sheer firepower that was starting to line up against these unfortunate gas companies. If you’re looking for the perfect example of picking the wrong opponent, this, might very well be it. Anyway, back to Annie.
ANNIE: We gathered together at that time a bunch of other people, a few other people that we knew had a background in social movements. And met in Ian’s place.
HOST: One of the other people at that meeting was Simon Clough, a local councillor.
SIMON: Well, there was over 300 years of political activist experience in the room. And it showed.
ANNIE: I think there were about nine of us around the table and we got some sticky notes and said, okay, what’s our vision, you know. What’s our vision for what we want? And I wrote them up and mapped out what we wanted to see. Which was mass movement dynamics.
HOST: Instead of placards and signs, or even relying on the local politicians, this group was a tiny bit more ambitious.
ANNIE: We wanted to see the whole population involved. Broad, broad support from every political affiliation.
HOST: So they started building not just a campaign, but an alliance.
ANNIE: We put on a public meeting, showed a film, and asked everyone that was there: You can raise your hands for do you want your roads and lands to be Gasfield Free. You can raise your hands for yes, for no, or for not sure. And, much to our amazement, all the hands shot up bar one in a room with a hundred and twenty people.
HOST: But this wasn’t just democracy as voting. This was democracy as action.
ANNIE: I think this tendency of people to receive bad news in their Facebook feed and click on petitions is really debilitating. Yes petitions can be valuable at times but the real juice is in face to face groups.… It’s not only where the engines of campaigns are, it’s where creativity is liberated, where collective intelligence is liberated. But it’s also where well-being is liberated.
HOST: And so they took the meeting literally into their streets.
ANNIE: We said: Look, not everyone’s here at this meeting. How about we give everyone a chance to have a say, get into survey teams and visit every household? And that means visiting people from every political affiliation.
HOST: The strategy worked across political affiliations because the issue was about something they all shared. It was about the ground beneath them. Literally – the ground was their common ground.
IAN: The strategy then compiled all the results and the first successful Gasfield Free community that was formed was here on The Channon. This is a very important point. We did not petition our politicians or our government. We told them here and now, we will protect our community from gas fields. …this area is declared, self-declared Gasfield Free. Which of course doesn’t have any legal standing but it has powerful community and energetic and moral standing
ANNIE: By that time, the process was going viral. Neighbouring Duneden and places around here, they were picking it up and it was obvious that it was going to be something big. That we were launching, in effect, a strategy.
SIMON: The strategy was very simple. That was building relationships between everyone in the community.
HOST: But wait — wasn’t that exactly the mistake that the Remain campaign made during Brexit, which made it impossible to come up with a message?
INTERVIEWER: What was it about this issue that made, do you think, that helped them connect and agree with each other?
SIMON: The land. It’s just one thing. The land.
HOST: The difference was the common ground that all these disparate people shared, and from which their message stemmed. When it was about the land, they could see their own fate tied up in the message of this alliance. On top of that – these were neighbours fighting together – many knew each other. Trust was easier to forge because they all lived there.
SIMON: Well, because we had tried, initially, to talk about fracking. You know, the horrors of fracking in terms of the destruction of water tables, underground systems and so forth. And we came to the point where we realized that there were incredible limitations to that. And those limitations were around that it did not express the whole problem. And the whole problem was the destruction of rural economy, destruction of these extraordinarily beautiful rural environments, and the loss of water. And when we started talking about that, it clicked.
INTERVIEWER: Did you think you could win in those early days?
ANNIE: I did. Yeah. Coz I believed if we grew a social movement of sufficient strength that we would win. … if you build a social movement of sufficient power, the power resides in the people. It doesn’t reside in the government. Deciding to declare ourselves Gasfield Free, is a spunky kind of thing to do, it’s a feisty thing to do. It’s, it’s saying that we, the people of this place, have a right to self-determination.
HOST: Suddenly in late 2012, the Minister in charge of issuing gas licences Brad Hazzard announced that he was coming to Lismore in three days time, to the centre of the fight, to hold a community “consultation”.
ANNIE I think people had seen Mr. Hazzard in previous meetings and he’s really masterful.
HOST: Based on previous experience, the group feared the meeting would be a whitewash.
ANNIE: Basically, people here decided it wasn’t going to go the way he had planned.
SIMON: I was at the front. It was deafening, you know. To have a thousand people chanting “no CSG!” before the meeting even starts. And essentially what we decided was, we were going to have our voice heard.
ANNIE: The community decided to get hold of the microphone which they did non-violently, through chanting: Let him speak! And pointing to Ian Galliard.
ANNIE: And they persisted in that for a very long time. the community was just saying: No, we’re not going to play this by your rules your going to play this by our rules.
IAN: And we got hold of the microphone it was given to me. … And then I gave it immediately to Kevin Budda, from the Githambul people because … that’s the protocol of indigenous Australia, you know, you give it to your elders to speak. And he spoke. And then I spoke. And then we started handing it around our PhDs and experts.
SIMON: I mean, we had a PhD in biology who talked about, what benchmark studies had learnt. We had a public servant who said, well, of course we all know that surface water is not related to ground water. I mean the whole thousand people in the hall just started braying with laughter. And then of course there was Mariann Lloyd-Smith who had just come back from the UN meeting on unconventional gas and I mean she just put them in a corner and boxed their ears.
SIMON: And rather than walking out disempowered and cowed, the community walked out of that meeting absolutely triumphant.
HOST: According to the normal story about protesting, this is usually where the story would end. Sure, if you talk to anyone who was there that night, they’ll all tell you they left feeling utterly empowered. But that’s not uncommon for mass action. Most people have been to a rally at some point in their lives, feeling that they’d made a difference. That’s certainly how I felt after the march against the war in Iraq back in 2003.
And then we were ignored. That’s how these stories turn out, right?
Well this story isn’t over. It’s just warming up.
HOST: Up until this point, the group had tried four times to stop the mining companies setting up exploration sites around the region using non-violent direct action. Each time they’d failed.
IAN: We got smashed by the riot squad at Glenmoogee and Doubtful Creek, you know. They marched in there, at Glenmoogee the first time and started throwing people around, you know. All the people. They didn’t recognize where they were, these gum chewing hyped up young men and women from Sydney.
HOST: Each time, the companies would call for help from the police, and each time, the number of police would grow.
IAN: Bradley came in with an arm that had a pick jammed into it … It was…was bloody, as bloody as anything you’ll see in Australia
HOST: Remember, all these actions were non-violent. As each battle was fought and lost, the campaigners forged strong bonds of trust and respect between each other.
IAN: Our strength became determination and our strength was organization because by this time we had attracted a very strong core group of people who knew how to organize.
HOST: In early 2013, one of the key organisers, Boudicca Cerese was browsing the web and noticed that one of the gas companies, Metgasco, was planning to start drilling on a farm near the town of Bentley.
BOUDICCA: They’d lost a lot of money with the delays from the previous two blockades.
HOST: Frustrated by the delays, the company had changed tactics.
BOUDICCA: The Bentley Well was actually a well that they thought they could bring to commercial production quite quickly
HOST: If that happened, then the company would at last have a viable foothold in the Northern Rivers. It was clear that the community would need to mount another blockade.
ANNIE: I think everybody entering the conflict at Bentley was very nervous … about it because… Non-violent conflict is difficult, it’s non-violent but also conflict.
HOST: Luckily, the campaign already had a head start.
ANNIE: We had built a campaign iceberg, you know… and we had engaged across the political spectrum, the whole community.
HOST:Up until now, the blockades had been on the side of the road, but this time, a local farmer offered the use of his land.
SIMON: He was hardly a red raging radical I can tell you.
HOST: The whole community seemed to be swinging behind it, the campaign, even those who’d initially trusted their politicians.
PETER: The first time we went down and cleared the site, 20 odd people, 30 odd people..
HOST: Like many in the community, Peter Nielson had never been involved in a blockade before.
PETER: And I looked around, and not being involved before, I looked around – What are we going to do? Thirty people… how are we going to stop them coming in the gate?
ANNIE: Metgasco asked a fencing contractor, I think he was based around Byron, if he would do the job, put a fence around the site in preparation for the drilling. And he said no, You can keep your 12,000 dollars, I’m going to join, I’m going down to join the people there, you know.
HOST: The organisers suddenly found they had eyes and ears all over town.
SIMON: Our intelligence system was ridiculous. I mean, when the police would propose to come in, when there was only 200 of them, we knew they had ordered 250 breakfast rolls with egg and bacon. And we knew where they were going to get them from and who was providing them and where they were going to eat them. It was just a crazy degree of information we had.
HOST: And so, several hundred campaigners set up camp, blocking the ability for any trucks to enter.
SIMON: The mornings were really critical in that … Well it became known as the dawn service, we’d get together at about 5 in the morning, and we were usually very fortunate in having some fantastic musicians.
SIMON: We’d generally have a fire, and we would update people on what was going on in terms of the intelligence we had about what the mining was up to.
HOST: For months this went on. The number of police in town started increasing. From dozens, to scores, to hundreds. But as the numbers of police increased, so did the number of protesters.
IAN: Eventually, a camp manager was employed. And suddenly there were charging stations for all the 2-way radios… And there was a coffee machine. Every good protest camp needs a coffee machine. Cappuccinos there, you know.
HOST: As you can imagine, the company wasn’t happy. And so the state government decided to bring in 850 police from all over the state, to force the mining drills through.
IAN: As time built up it became very apparent that the police numbers built up as time went by until we were facing 850 to a thousand police, dogs, horses, riot squads, and all that. And that was pretty scary.
HOST: Meg and Peter were dispatched to Sydney, the state capital.
MEG: We were trying to persuade the premier not to allow the 850 riot police to be let loose on our community.
IAN: … They said get rid of the young people. And the old people. We said, we’ll get rid of the young people, we don’t want them exposed to trauma at this stage in their lives.
IAN: But we’re not getting rid of the old people, we know why we’re here, you know. We know exactly why we’re here.
IAN: This is our job.
HOST: That night, the lookouts were placed on high alert in case the police decided to come early. A showdown looked inevitable.
MEG: And the phone rang…about quarter to six in the morning
IAN: I was up at Gate A at the blockade site. I was there as I was in the mornings with the loudhailer at my hip ready to give the briefing.
PETER: …one of the TV crews. And they wanted to interview us under the Tree of Life out at the back of the Parliament house.
HOST: It was not the news that anyone had expected.
PETER: They said: They pulled the pin. And we didn’t know. And this was quarter of six in the morning. Yeah, that real brought me unstuck.
HOST: They’d won.
MEG: we couldn’t believe it, we were laughing, and crying. It was just…We had been so – you talked earlier about fear? If we ever felt really frightened. It was just this extraordinary relief and…I’ve never felt anything like it.
IAN: I couldn’t quite believe it but…big smiles on my face. And on everyone else’s as well. And there was a feeling of sheer relief because if those 850 police had come, or more, with all their dogs and riot gear, there would have been fatalities. … these senior police that came actually put in a report to the government. And this report said there will be fatalities because there are lot of older people.
HOST: The blockade was over. The victory was comprehensive. Over the coming months and years, the government ended up buying back the licences they’d issued to the mining companies. Today, Northern Rivers remains Gasfield Free.
INTERVIEWER: So is the fight over?
SIMON: It’s never over. Never ever over.
HOST: It’s an extraordinary tale, really. It’s easy to mistake this sprawling, messy coalition of farmers, greenies, firies and business owners as being an unwieldy coalition, the opposite of what was effective during the Brexit campaign. But in fact, the common ground that these people shared was narrowly defined. Their land. Literally, their common ground.
No one was trying to convince someone else that “their way” was the only way. Farmers and environmentalists have a different way of loving their land – and in this space – where people spent years getting to know each other better – they let those differences be. They could set aside their differences and agree on their commonality – defend the land that they all lived together on.
ANNIE: I think there is a misunderstanding and a misuse of the word ‘movement’ in recent times. I’ve often heard the word ‘movement’ used for what seems to me a tight and focused campaign.… to me, movements are messy, they’re turbulent, they’re generative, they’re creative and, you know, if you’re not tearing your hair out in a movement, you ain’t got one, you know. All you’ve got is a campaign.
HOST: Unluckily for the mining companies, some of the key organisers of this campaign were veterans of social movements. They were die hard, highly skilled, baby boomers all living in a beautiful space – many of them knew each other already which made it easier for them to organise together.
And their experience taught them they couldn’t do this alone. They needed to spread the leadership for the campaign across the whole community. Their alliance included 18 Action Groups. The coalition actively distributed leadership in ways that enabled lots of people to be part of the action. It was complex, but not chaotic – there were high degrees of trust built over years of working together that held the relationships together even when it was tough. By the time of the Bentley Blockade they had built a huge movement. A real movement. A messy, creative movement that had the power to win.
SIMON: And you need to have an overall strategy, and that strategy needs to start from the very beginning…
HOST: Talking of which, remember the meeting that kicked things off, at Ian’s house? The plan they wrote down to build a movement?
ANNIE: It’s quite amazing. I looked back on it after the Bentley blockade, I found the document and had a look at it. Just one page. We virtually achieved nearly all of it.
HOST: Changemakers is hosted by me, Amanda Tattersall. It is produced by Caroline Pegram and Catherine Freyne. Written by Charles Firth. Our researchers are Tessa Sparks, Iona Rennie and Amy Fairall. Our audio producers are Uncanny Valley. Our music is by Justin Shave. Our launch partner is Mobilisation Lab. They are a global learning and collaboration network powering the future of social change campaigns.
Our sponsoring organisations are Australia for UNHCR, GetUp.org.au, the Fred Hollows Foundation and the Organising the 21st Century City project funded by the Halloran Trust based at the University of Sydney.
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