'We Shall Never Be Moved': Australian Developments in Nonviolence

By Branagan, Marty | Journal of Australian Studies, January 2004 | Go to article overview

'We Shall Never Be Moved': Australian Developments in Nonviolence


Branagan, Marty, Journal of Australian Studies


Within the Australian environment movement can be found a variety of modes of action, from the extremes of machinery sabotage to a strict or 'orthodox' nonviolence. (1) 'Orthodox' nonviolence has been widely used and has produced a number of successful outcomes for campaigns. However, it has also been criticised for being imposed on grassroots activists from above, for being inflexible and dogmatic, and for being inappropriate in some situations. These critics have developed new forms of action in between the two extremes, forms that have also proven effective. This article discusses from an 'emic' (2) or insider perspective what these methods are, and why they have emerged. It argues that they too are nonviolent, according to a broader and more realistic definition of nonviolence. The article notes areas of controversy within Australian nonviolence, including property damage, secrecy, and consensus decision-making. These controversies, although at times divisive, have produced a dialogue that has helped to build nonviolence into a continuously evolving praxis that can be adapted by those who use it, providing a wider range of options for activists, and maximising its usefulness for diverse situations in modern times.

Nonviolent praxis has been a key ingredient in the successes of many Australian environmental campaigns; the 1982 blockade to save Tasmania's Franklin River from being dammed is one success story. Because organisers The Wilderness Society (TWS) controlled the only access--a boat--to the remote blockade site, they were able to require blockaders to undergo a comprehensive, three-day training course in nonviolent action (NVA). As a result, all blockaders were well versed in nonviolence, and NVA was a constant topic of conversation, permeating the whole campaign. More than 1,300 people were arrested in civil disobedience actions--making it one of the largest actions of its kind in the world--yet there was almost no violence by protesters, including violence toward property. NVA created an atmosphere extremely conducive to conversion, particularly of media but also of police and workers. The absence of violence and bad publicity enhanced the growth of the campaign into the international arena. This attracted high profile activists like Professor David Bellamy, whose arrest continued this upward spiral of publicity. Politicians in the Democrats and Australian Labour Party (ALP) also began to support the cause, influenced no doubt by this nonviolence contributing to the concept of popular disaffection rather than lawlessness. TWS campaigned nationally for the ALP, which gained power and acted against the dam. The Franklin example shows that nonviolence can be achieved on a mass scale, and that it can be very successful. This influenced activists in later campaigns and other areas of life. It publicised nonviolence as an effective tool throughout Australia and the world, and showed that nonviolence is a continuing tradition that can be effective in modern times.

Where nonviolence has been absent or poorly implemented, however, there have been conspicuous failures. An example is the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) blockade of old-growth forest logging at Carrai, New South Wales, in 1996. Although most activists there employed nonviolent strategies, there was no training in and little discussion of nonviolence, and a professed disdain for nonviolence by some, who deemed it outmoded or ineffective. One night a handful of protesters sabotaged a bulldozer. As a consequence of the backlash created in the media, and by loggers, State Forests and local residents, NEFA felt obliged to withdraw their support for the blockade, which subsequently collapsed. The area was logged.

These cases illustrate the two extremes of environmental action and the relationship that exists between them. There were many critics of the type of nonviolence advocated by TWS, despite its success. As a result, there were reactions against it, with sabotage being the most extreme. …

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