Mick Daley makes no apologies for joining the Bob Brown Convoy to northern Queensland to stop the Adani coal mine ahead of the last federal election. It was entirely in the same spirit as the Freedom Rides and the Civil Rights movements, he says. There are also precedents for what he did next. We’ve encouraged Mick to start a Go Fund Me campaign to help pay the fines.
His essay on his experience published here was shortlisted for the Horne Prize.
There was some momentary confusion after the drop-off car had pulled away and we were scrambling to get our gear off the road in the darkness. As the southern horizon flashed with the lights of an oncoming truck, myself and Old Mates 1 and 2 scurried into cover in the long grass on the side of the highway. Two of us were hampered by our heavy, customised steel lock-on boxes and I snagged my jeans on the barbed wire in my hurry.
I tore my way through and fell into the grass, realising I’d left my bag on the roadside. We watched as the highway was lit up for five long minutes by a fleet of trucks, one after another, exposing the bag forlornly on the gravel.
After the last behemoth had vanished towards Townsville, Old Mate 1, our guide, dashed out and retrieved the bag. I strapped this precious cargo onto my back; it held a water bladder and package of food, adult nappy and gastro tablets to prevent unwanted bowel movements during a potentially long lock-on. We started trudging through the long grasses, lit by the nearly full moon, headed towards the coast and the distant glare and hum of Adani’s Point Abbott coal loading port.
It was fairly easy going, though we had to hunker down occasionally as more trucks bellowed past, then we were out of range of their lights, accustoming ourselves to the weight of the lock-ons nestling into our neck and shoulders, against the taped up towels we used as padding. Old Mate 1 and Old Mate 2 took the lead while I adjusted my load – the box alone weighed close to 10 kilos.
A lock-on box, incidentally, is a device composed of two opened ended steel pipes welded together at roughly 30 degree angles, with steel rods inside to which shackles on your wrists, inserted into the pipes, can be “locked on” around a component of inert machinery in order to effectively disable it. It’s a time-honoured device for enabling effective non-violent protest actions, now endangered by the Palaszczuk government’s intention to outlaw the tactic, based on the patently false contention that such lock-ons are loaded up with dangerous booby traps to harm police.
We were walking through open cattle grazing country – the generous moon showed stark silhouettes of low trees on a flat plain, stretching to a big hill against the unseen coast that was our lodestone. To our right the glare and white noise of the port. We crunched through sand and the dried out, desiccated soil of the longest drought in recorded history.
During that march I had time for introspection. We were embarked on a hazardous undertaking, certain to be arrested and become subject to punitive legal and financial consequences. That’s a certainty you face when you become a front-line activist: you’re seen as a criminal in the eyes of the law, many Australians, and certainly the unbridled propagandists of the right-wing media that dominates this country.
I’m a journalist and musician by vocation, a house painter by necessity. I’ve been involved in various environmental causes since I attended a forestry convergence on the lawns of Parliament House, Canberra in the early 90s and discovered the extraordinary world of the “ferals”, the political and environmental activists who still inhabit the north coast of NSW and selected pockets of the country, wherever they cohere to stop the worst of the corporations and politicians plundering our natural resources.
This mission, an attempt to lock-on and stop work at the coal loaders in Adani’s international port, was my third stint at Stop Adani actions on the current front line of coal activism, centred around Bowen in northern Queensland.
Previously I’ve stayed out of arrestable actions, operating in my capacity as a freelance journalist. This time I had determined that the urgency of the world’s climate emergency has made such passive involvement redundant. It’s high time I made a very public and real sacrifice, as I did at forestry actions throughout the 90s. In the nebulous world of social and mainstream media, arrests are currency, buying awareness and hopefully inflaming emotion and solidarity in a jaded public.
By this time our party had marched well into the flatlands approaching the coast. I whispered to our guide that we were confident about proceeding alone. This fearless, peerless veteran nodded, gave us last words of advice and encouragement and scarpered back towards the highway and a pick-up.
Old Mate 2 and I took a squint at the GPS on our “burner” phone. It showed our blue dot steady on the target. Bearing just to the right of the big hill, we kept up a cracking pace, passing a relay tower, crossing several dirt roads and dams till finally we came up against the Callie Valley Wetlands. It was high tide, so we’d have to skirt them to the north-west. The raucous chatter of disturbed birds and the rank smell of the swamp flats accompanied us as we trudged through thick, sucking mud, leaving a clear trail, should any security be intrepid enough to patrol this entrance to their coal loading port.
We dashed across the road – a rocky goat track that looked like it was probably patrolled by 4WDs. Tracking close to it, we crept through the grassy shadows of the nearby tree- line, in case any vehicles should appear.
Startled by the occasional roo or wallaby thudding away through the trees, we stumbled on hidden rocks as vines and thorns plucked at our clothing, but made good time before pausing at a point where the restless road curved away toward the port.
Backing deep into the bushes, we drank water laced with berry-flavoured hydrolytes, ate bananas and nuts and texted Old Mates 3 and 4, who were somewhere on the southeastern side of the port, en route to their target, the first section of the coal loader. Our objective was the third conveyer, which stretched up a two kilometre long wharf, loading two massive coal ships with cargoes of black poison.
Critics of the Stop Adani campaign and protest actions at the Abbot Point facility point out that its other companies’ coal, not Adani’s that is loaded here. I consider that irrelevant. Metallurgical coal may be necessary to the heavy industry that runs a modern nation’s infrastructure, but thermal coal is also loaded here, and our beef is with a product that directly and irrevocably threatens not only human life, but the extinction of our natural world.
Earlier that year (2019) I had joined the Bob Brown Convoy (BBC) at Mullumbimby. In that cavalcade I saw a beacon of non-violent resistance to the corporate/political hijacking of Australia’s conscience. A small band of brave people travelled into coal country to demonstrate their commitment to defending the natural world. Science was on our side. The IPCC report on climate change and the testimony of the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists demonstrate that the continued extraction and burning of coal poses an existential threat to the world.
The convoy was up against a loud, aggressive majority who mostly, it seemed, got their news from Murdoch’s Courier Mail. That perception was borne out in the crude, abrasive sentiments of those pro-coal people I spoke to – and there were many, who told me to my face that I was a paid activist in a cult bankrolled by some anonymous billionaire. They also, to a man and woman, believed that climate change is a myth – sentiments implied, if not always brazenly stated, in that illustrious publication.
Critics attacked the convoy as a naive, ill-conceived expedition that back-fired, mobilising the anger of job-hungry Queenslanders into a political force that won the federal election for the LNP. I believe that notion to be arrant nonsense, a fallacy that excuses the rank inadequacy and hubris of Labor. By that reductionist logic, every social justice movement ever should be disqualified from legitimacy.
I defy anyone to prove that the convoy departed in motivation and execution from the Freedom Rides, the Civil Rights or No War movements. It achieved exactly what it set out to do – to demonstrate that the Stop Adani campaign is indeed a local issue, local to a continent and a planet that will be directly affected by the carbon consequences of opening up the Galilee Basin to coal mining.
Getting no reply to our texts, Old Mate 2 and I crossed the road again to stay in cover. Our trajectory was taking us up Expletive Hill, a coastal bluff that climbed to a summit above the port. While planning this mission over satellite maps, we’d named the hill after our guide had warned it was expletively rough terrain. We were now coming up against an apparently impenetrable wall of boulders, rubber vines and thorn trees. Detouring south towards the road, we saw it was lit up by the equally impassable blaze of four high powered spotlights, dominating the plain and foothills south of our hill.
So we plunged into the nightmare of Expletive Hill, forced to carry our ponderous lock-on boxes in front of us as we staggered under a waning moon, over treacherous rocks lurking in long grass, between vicious thorn trees and the strangling rubber vines that clung to ankles, necks and lock-ons, crowding our route till at one point, the moon long gone, we stopped, despairing, drenched in sweat, hemmed in by invisible obstacles, unable to go forward or back.
Consulting our GPS we saw on the satellite image an almost imperceptible gap in the labyrinth to the north east. We crawled onwards, stabbed and lashed, dropping our heavy boxes, clocking each other on the head as we stumbled through clinging spiderwebs, stinging ants and the ever-present, unvoiced fear of some remorseless Queensland killer snake having at us on its home turf.
What seemed hours later, bleeding, cramped and oddly jubilant, we finally staggered out onto a section of tarred road that was shielded from the unblinking eyes of the searchlights. Morale rejuvenated, we forced our exhausted legs up to the top of Expletive Hill.
Texts from Old Mates 3 and 4 revealed they were having a picnic close to their target and were almost ready to make a run to lock on. Old Mate 2 and I quickened our pace up the hill and nearly blundered into the line of sight of a stout man, seen in silhouette on the deck on a structure on the southern slope of the summit of Expletive Hill. He seemed to be staring straight at us, but as Old Mate 2 and I reeled away into cover there was no alarm or torchlight stabbing at us. Some security.
We circled around the crest of the hill, past a Bureau of Meteorology radar installation, water tanks and concrete bunkers and into the long grass above the port itself, where we could see the loaders and hoppers of the conveyer infrastructure. The constant roar of all that machinery covered our racket as we clattered through the thick scrub, down the steep slope into the glare of the port.
Old Mate 2 called a rest stop as he was suffering excruciating leg cramps and if it wasn’t for the adrenalin roaring through my body I would have collapsed into coma in the welcoming grass. We lay there, sweating and plotting, till 10 minutes later Old Mates 3 and 4 texted to say they were going in.
We hauled ourselves up and de-trousered to put on our adult nappies, in anticipation of in-pant urination during a police siege after locking on to the conveyer belts. Then we committed to the precipitous jungle madness of the last stretch.
Halfway down, the roar of the conveyers stopped and we knew that our Old Mates had locked on and hit the emergency stop buttons. That galvanised us to make a desperate plunge through the unyielding scrub. Twice in my haste I tripped and fell over deadly rock clusters, my hands full of lock-on and my head vulnerable. But it wasn’t my time yet and I made it to the fence encircling the port infrastructure.
Once through the fence, we gathered ourselves for the final dash to the conveyer, or potentially down the wharf, to whatever target we could lock on to, to stop coal going to the ships and out into the world. But at that moment car headlights swung around a road ahead and caught us in full glare. We dropped to the dirt cursing. As I steeled myself to escape back into the jungle, a police wagon appeared and the game was up.
Dragged to our feet, we were arrested, briefly interrogated and deposited in the back of a paddy wagon. Pointed enquiries were made about our route to the port and whether any potential accomplices were still on the loose, but we gave no comment.
We waited about an hour in the paddy wagon, exhausted and glad of a rest, watching the sun come up, before our driver, a harassed looking sergeant, told us Old Mates 3 and 4 had been cut out of their lock-ons and were being bundled into their own limousines. After which he drove us into Bowen lock-up, where we were processed, filthy, barefoot and belt-less, by unsmiling police, shaking their heads at our lock-on paraphernalia. We glimpsed Old Mates 3 and 4 from our cells and they signalled that they had indeed managed to lock-on.
That began a 48 hour ordeal, enduring the unfriendly attentions of stony faced police, legal procedures and the boredom of incarceration. One senior policeman tried to browbeat me with a lecture on the inadequacies of our cultural knowledge as pertaining to the sacred protocols of Traditional Owners (TO’s) the Juru people.
Addressing me as “you people”, he informed me that our actions had transgressed their every sacred prerogative and taboo. When I respectfully attempted to point out that Adani has ridden roughshod over all First Nations land in their path and that the TOs he was referring to were those paid by Adani to parrot their selective views, he shouted over me, daring me, a barefoot, shabby prisoner, to take him on in his own jail, equipped as he was with pistol, taser and the commandments of the Courier Mail.
Finally we were taken to Airlie Beach lock-up and put in individual cells where we stayed the night, enduring half hourly visits from the night-duty coppers banging on our cells, purportedly to check we weren’t self-harming, but in actuality as part of the time- honoured custom of keeping prisoners psychologically vulnerable, sleepless and intimidated.
Having refused bail, we expected our cases to be heard that morning. But the local magistrate, an avowed supporter of “local jobs”, with a notorious lack of sympathy for out-of-town protestors, had already informed the duty lawyer wouldn’t be seeing us that day and that if we took the option of refusing bail we could wait out the month before our court date in a remand cell.
Under that passive aggressive coercion we all signed bail and were eventually released. We now await a court appearance in October and the ghastly prospect of Adani concocting an astronomically punitive bill for damages incurred during the time their coal loaders were idle.
Outside the courtrooms waited a crew of Old Mates with food and vehicles to take us to safe-houses, showers and beds. All veterans of similar actions, they hugged and congratulated us, exuberant that we’d been able to stop work, if only for a few hours. I opted to go with an Old Mate to a remote beach for some R&R before, as my bail conditions decreed, I’d have to leave this part of Queensland for a spell.
Leaving town that evening, I saw the moon almost obscured by the choking haze of the bushfires engulfing the east coast. It’s September, 2019.
Within a few months this campaign to stop Adani and other new coal mines in the Galilee Basin will be won or lost.
If won, it’ll be an incremental victory on a sliding scale against the persistent malfeasance of corporate polluters and the dogged resistance of corrupt politicians. A small step towards the banning of coal mining and some mitigation of the climate changing carbon energy already loose in the atmosphere.
If lost, Adani will complete the construction of their mine and consequently the entire Galilee basin will be opened up to the tender mercies of Gina Rinehart, Clive Palmer and the other speculative billionaires jostling to unleash their own carbon bombs. It’s estimated the Adani mine alone will contribute 4.7 million tonnes a year to the world’s overstretched carbon budget.
The Great Artesian Basin will become a trough for their indulgence, in exchange for a paltry influx of temporary jobs, quickly to be superseded by an automated mine supervised by fly-in, fly out workers.
I’m confident that I speak for Old Mates 1, 2, 3 and 4 when I categorically state that my obligation to protect the natural world and preserve some kind of future for incoming generations vastly outweighs the alleged financial losses of a bullying foreign entity, intent on opening up a deadly carbon bomb on our soil.
That the wholesale gift of an unlimited water licence from a corrupt government in order to wash Adani’s coal, while farms go thirsty and the country slides into apocalyptic drought, is an infamy unparalleled in human history. And that yeah, I’d do it all again.