In light of the current alarm about dredging and dumping in the Reef, it is worth recalling how it was saved by union action which is now illegal under Fair Work Australia.
Coral battleground 1970
After tenders to drill for oil on the Great Barrier Reef went out during 1969, the Queensland branch levied its members to bring a US expert to testify about the threat to the Reef. In speaking for the proposal, secretary Delaney pointed out that the Queensland Trades and Labour Council (T&LC) and the ALP were the ‘only working-class organisations to interest themselves in the [Royal] Commission’ into the Reef. In July, the T&LC placed a total ban on drilling. Until then, poet and activist Judith Wright had feared that the conservationists had lost. She declared the union action ‘spectacular and unprecedented’. That ban remains spectacular. It also set a precedent. Henceforth, environmentalists hoped that unions would win their battles for them.
Fraser Island – 1975
In 1975, the Bjelke-Petersen regime allowed mining on the world’s largest sand island. The damage was inflicted by the US construction giant, Dillinghams, the foe of BLs around the world. When Federal Council debated how to save this natural wonder, Queensland secretary Dobinson feared the loss of its perched lakes. Victorian assistant secretary Norm Wallace recalled enjoying the ‘crystal clear lakes above sea level which had outlets but no inlets. There is pure water, clean white sand, good rain forests and beautiful timber. Fraser Island must be preserved’. From Tasmania, Morgan pictured Fraser as the southern anchor of the Reef. All delegates opposed Dillingham’s vandalism. Gallagher urged them to gather support from other unions. The Federation joined the BWIU in banning all Dillingham projects until an official assessment had reported. After visiting the island late in May, Gallagher observed: ‘Experience has taught us that when the pressure is off, companies usually go for maximum profit’.
Extracted from Humphrey McQueen, We Built This Country, builders’ labourers and their unions, Ginninderra Press, 2011, pp. 290-1 and 293.