Wednesday, January 29, 1997

Lessons of the Tarkine campaign

"...the high media profile of many of these events was ultimately ineffectual. Public education is important, but watching telly is not very empowering..."

The environment movement was probably the biggest, most vibrant social movement of the 1980s and early 1990s. Many people became involved in environmental groups and campaigns. Half way through the next decade, destruction of the environment continues unabated. Worse, while green consciousness is still high, the number of people actively involved in groups and campaigns has markedly shrunk. What has gone wrong?

The 1995 Tarkine campaign in Tasmania displayed many of the weaknesses typical of recent campaigns; it also had many strengths worth reflecting on.

The campaign was initiated when the government resumed work on the unfinished Tarkine road, to cut the largest rainforest area in the country in two. The road is a massive subsidy to the woodchipping companies operating in the area.

While one justification for the thousands of dollars spent was job creation, jobs could easily have been created elsewhere if the government prioritised social and environmental services rather than business handouts.

A fairly large number of activists got involved in the campaign in late 1994. Initial meetings were held at the Wilderness Society (TWS), but the most active campaigners soon grouped into an independent network, the Tarkine Tigers (after the extinct Tasmanian tiger, reputed to still live in the Tarkine).

The group focused on blockade actions, involving scores of activists over the campaign. During winter (when work stopped), and after blockades lost their initial momentum, many of these activists returned to work in Hobart, organising a full-time occupation of Parliament House lawns that ended in arrests and several strong protest rallies.

The "official" groups, largely TWS and the Tasmanian Greens, organised several actions as well. They attached more importance to gaining a favourable portrayal in the media.

Unfortunately, the high media profile of many of these events was ultimately ineffectual. Public education is important, but watching telly is not very empowering, and there was no easy avenue for the watchers to translate support into meaningful action. The actions were merely a backup to a lobbying campaign (which has returned no real results).

The Tarkine Tigers were not focused on lobbying. They didn't restrict participation in their actions to what looked good to the media. In this sense, they rejected TWS's exclusiveness (although blockades in remote locations are still hard to draw supporters into).

A bigger problem was that the Tigers did not construct a consistent strategy of their own. This was reflected in the nature of the group -- it had no formal structures, goals or decision-making processes. The only thing holding the group together for large parts of its existence was blockade actions on the road.

While the government had a broader agenda (to defeat environmentalists), the campaigners did not. When the road was finished, the group faded away.

Successor groups, such as the short-lived Tasmanian Forest Alliance of 1996, have suffered from similar strategic confusions. Everyone is familiar with a few tactical actions, but it is harder to fit them into a strategy.

In spite of this, some very good actions were carried out. The occupation of Parliament House gardens for several weeks by protesters in tents and tree-sits received a lot of public profile and support. TWS's Hobart rally of 5000 people against woodchipping (part of a national series) was a good indication of the huge support waiting to be utilised. TWS's lobbying strategy, however, meant that this rally was a once-only occurrence.

The Tarkine Tigers deserve a lot of credit for the degree of public support they were able to gather in a few smallish actions. They were looked to as the leaders of the campaign. With more consistency, good tactics like those mentioned above could have won large numbers of active supporters.

The Tarkine road may be finished, but there is still a lot of forest likely to be logged, and activists are still doing public education around the issues involved.

The government has not stopped for blockades, nor listened to persistent lobbying. A better understood strategy will facilitate a better organised group, and such an entity could turn the public education into the public mobilisation necessary to win the Tarkine campaign -- and others.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly issue 260 29 January 1997.

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