Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 4) The Franklin: A Federal Government Wedding Team from the SMH


The call came to Bob Brown’s office at the Davey St head office of the Wilderness Society (TWS). Or at least what purported to be the head office, since no part of the organisation’s far flung empire or its alleged acolytes recognised any such concept as a head office.

Davey St Head office of TWS
The phone call came to Bob Brown’s office in the rear right hand room, upstairs.

Bob and I were sitting chatting, about God knows what malevolent plot to undermine the Global World Order, while the socialists (such as Gareth Evans) in the Federal Government did our bidding on the Franklin.

It was mid-April 1983. Only a week earlier on April 8 and 9, Gareth “Biggles” Evans, the Federal Attorney-General, had become embroiled in controversy over the use of RAAF surveillance planes to “spy” on the Tasmanian works on the Franklin River. The Tasmanians were incensed.

According to Evans, in this speech three things went wrong with his plan (A) No one remembered to tell the pilot he was supposed to get the images from 6000 metres so he did several low level passes at a few hundred feet. (B) He joked to journalists that they “shouldn’t call him Biggles” guaranteeing that he was ever after known as Biggles Evans. (C) he defended his action to journalist Laurie Oakes by saying that “(he) guessed I had to rely on what was known in the legal profession as the “streaker’s defence”, viz. “It seemed, your worship, like a good idea at the time”.

To compound Evans discomfort not only were the pictures useless but he recollects that: “Bob Hawke was not amused, and I am still in awe at the vocabulary he deployed to tell me that.”

Tower to biggles
A cartoon referring to Evans as “Biggles” – my memory was that Evans wanted to switch to the lower house seat of Jaga Jaga when it was created in 1984

Bob Hawke had won the Federal election, on March 5, 1983, and had announced that the Franklin Dam would not be built. The scene was set for a confrontation with the Tasmanian Government.

On March 16 Federal Cabinet had decided that if the Tasmanian government refused to stop the project it would invoke the External Affairs power and make regulations under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act. If these were ignored the Commonwealth would seek a High Court injunction to stop the dam and also seek to pass the World Heritage Properties Protection Bill.

The Tasmanian government refused to stop work on the dam and the issue went to the High Court on May 31. The court ruled 4-3 in favour of the Commonwealth on July 1.

Bob answered the phone. “G’day, Wilderness Society”

It was an Inspector of the Australian Federal Police: “May I speak to Bob Brown”,

“G’day it’s Bob Brown, here”

From here the conversation just got weirder. The Inspector was with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and wanted to speak face to face with Dr Brown as soon as possible, urgently, in the Commonwealth offices on Collins St.

“Can I ask what it’s about?” Bob asked. No, Bob couldn’t ask.

“Can I get your name and phone number, please, Inspector?” No, Bob could have neither his name nor his phone number. Nor his exact office address. But he should come as soon as possible. And he should make certain to tell no-one about the meeting. He could bring one other person, if he wished. There would be instructions at the Front Desk.

Bob responded that he would come down in half an hour. He invited me to come with him.

We wandered down from TWS to Murray St. A less than ten minute walk. We approached the desk. The person on the desk looked up. Dr Brown? He handed us a piece of paper. Level 8. I don’t remember the room number. I remember Bob and I looking at each other and wondering what was going on.

Now we often talk about paranoia in activist groups. Are we being spied on and by whom? Are the phones tapped? Who is the mystery person in the car outside? Which, of course, would all be funny, if it wasn’t all true. The man from the Special Branch who attended every TWS protest. We all knew who he was.

He disappeared, never to be seen again, the day a couple of people approached him and said “Hello, you’re the man from the Tasmanian Special Branch, aren’t you. Nice to meet you.”

The Inspector was a biggish man. Around Bob’s height but heavier. If I ever knew his name I no longer remember it. But let’s call him Clouseau. Introductions were made but only in a manner of speaking. I don’t remember most of the conversation, except that, it was bizarre.To paraphrase, it went something like this…

“Dr. Brown, Mr Harris. I’m Inspector Clouseau but you may not call me that. Please refer to me as Mr. Jones. I’m here with my team, which you may not acknowledge exists, under any circumstances. We are not the Federal Police under any circumstances. We are not in Tasmania, we do not exist. We have not met with you and you do not know who we are. We are gathering evidence for the High Court case in May and we are seeking your assistance.

The good Inspector and his team

“We’d like you and your colleagues to gather as much documentary evidence, such as photographs, videos and written notes, as you can of the Tasmanian Government’s breach of the Commonwealth regulations through it’s continuing construction activities in the gazetted world heritage area,”

“When you have such evidence please contact me and we will arrange a further meeting.”

Bob agreed to assist. “I’ll call you Inspector, when we have information for you.”

“Do not call me from your office, only from public phones. Your phones are definitely tapped. And do not refer to me as Inspector. Please ask for Mr Jones from the Sydney Morning Herald.”

Phone box
Bob Brown spent many happy hours in this box (or one like it)

“I beg your pardon, Inspector.”

It was at this point that Inspector Clouseau, revealed the entire story. Having been detailed to collect evidence they had been told that under no circumstances were the Tasmanian Government to find out. Hence they had travelled south on the plane, posing as a team from the Sydney Morning Herald.

They were fortunate it was 1983 since, today, with the decline in media fortunes, it would be a team of one. On arrival in Tasmania they were to check into their hotel as photographers. Why was never explained.

The only problem for them was that no one had told the Tasmanians that the Tasmanians were not supposed to know that the Federal Government team was arriving to spy on the Tasmanians. Hence when they disembarked they had a reception team from the Tasmanian Police waiting for them. There had clearly been a leaker in the AFP.

Being good coppers they were able to spot other coppers immediately, of course. Cleverly, the Tasmanians had disguised themselves in police uniforms and, in order to remain unobserved were discreetly following the AFP at a distance of about five metres. This cunning plan ensured that they were hiding in plain sight and guaranteed the desired secrecy and discretion.

The Tasmanian Police discreetly wait for the Feds to get their hire car (left) and, making a quick getaway in pursuit (right)

On seeing the Keystone Cops, the Feds made a run for it. Quite how this took place was never revealed. One imagines the Feds at the car hire counter while the Tasmanians stand in the corner, coughing and smoking, pretending to examine the walls for blood stains….”Yep, definitely been a couple of murders here, I’d say, Brian.”

“Hmm, yes, definitely Wayne. Better ring John Howard and see if he will introduce gun controls when he gets into office in 13 years time.”

According to the script and Inspector Clouseau, a Tasmanian version of the Blues Brothers then eventuated where, driving recklessly, and at high speed as well, some 70 kms per hour, the Feds carefully stopped at each traffic light. At each light the Tasmanians would pull up directly behind the Feds, studiously looking out of the window of their patrol car.

Apparently, they must have done about 7 circuits of Hobart until such time as, eventually, the Feds managed to get through an amber light at the correct moment at which point, the Tasmanians politely stopped for the red light. Game over.

Nevertheless this was not the end of the problems for the Feds because, it turned out, they had managed to book into a hotel where the gardens were regularly used by couples to pose for wedding photos and, so, many couples actually stayed there.

Given that our erstwhile crack detective team had transmogrified into wedding photographers the hotel management were keen to offer their services to each and every couple, according to the story.

It does seem to me that Inspector Clouseau might have embroidered his story a tad since I have never heard of wedding couples belatedly utilising random photographers who just happen to be staying at their hotel.

That was the last I saw of Inspector Clouseau. I don’t even remember what happened about the information gathering although I do remember Bob having to go to the phone box down the road to call. Truth can be stranger than fiction sometimes.

Previous Episodes in this series:

Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 1) :The Coronation Hill Campaign (Kakadu) Beating BHP with Bravado and Blue Tarps

Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 2): The Franklin The Law of the Land and other Legends in their own Lunchtimes

Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 3): The Franklin Campaign: The Leaker – they came in the Dead of Night.

Images from these campaigns: Campaigns and Direct Actions


One thought on “Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 4) The Franklin: A Federal Government Wedding Team from the SMH

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  1. Very amusing, Chris. I remember that period, around March-April 1983. I was told to go to a certain address in West Hobart and to give my evidence concerning bulldozer activity in the rainforests of the lower Gordon to the AFP officers there who took copious notes. It was all very hush hush and I was not to tell a soul.

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