Image for Beware the ‘eco-terrorism’ dirty tricks brigade

As the last week of 2010 election campaign gets dirty, its a good time to reflect on the saga of the Black River ‘bomb’ that was mysteriously found on railway tracks adjoining a log yard in north west Tasmania two days before the March 1993 federal election.

At the time forestry issues were hot in the news and opinion polling indicated the likelihood that the Tasmanian Greens would win their first ever Senate seat and with it, potentially hold the balance of power.

Just two days out from polling day the election campaign took a dramatic twist. Early on the Thursday morning before polling day, a cheap explosive mix of fertiliser and diesel, along with a length of wire, was found underneath the railway track abutting the bridge over the Black River in North West Tasmania. The bridge adjoined a yard where logs were loaded onto railway trucks for transport to the woodchip mills further east.

Hanging on the bridge that morning was a banner, which stated ‘Save the Tarkine: Earth First’, referring to Australia’s largest area of rainforest wilderness. (Earth First!, is a U.S. group which emerged in the early 1980’s; one faction of which promoted ‘monkeywrenching’ of equipment used in environmentally damaging projects while the other faction emphasised traditional non-violent civil disobedience protests).

The media went into a feeding frenzy, fuelled in part by Premier Ray Groom pointing a finger at ‘extreme’ environmentalists. In a media statement Groom stated that “it is most regrettable that some more extreme elements of the conservation movement may be willing to use the threat of violence to pursue their cause”.

Mark Addis, the Executive Director of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, chimed in too, stating on ABC TV News that the incident was “entirely consistent with what the Earth First people have indicated they are prepared to do”.

While the materials were made to look like it was a bomb, there was no way it could have exploded, as it didn’t have a detonator. If it wasn’t meant to explode, what exactly was the point?

There were other tell-tale indicators that it was a hoax. If it was someone from Earth First!, why had the trademark exclamation mark been omitted from the banner? And how was it that an anonymous tip-off to one television station about the ‘bomb’ was to an unlisted number that was the dedicated ‘police line’? Were the phantom Earth Firster’s really that well connected and media-savvy?

But smears work in the absence of evidence, largely because too many journalists defer to authority figures, suspend reasonable scepticism and lack the time or inclination to investigate further.

The next day, the front-page headline of the north-west Tasmanian newspaper, The Advocate, screamed ‘Railway bomb: environment group linked’, with the article confidently predicted that the “international eco-terrorist group Earth First! has been linked with the potentially dangerous device on the TasRail line”. The Mercury, ran with the headline “Explosives under rail line in green protest”, though the following day it had to concede, after objections, that it had no evidence that the unexplodable ‘bomb’ was associated with a “green protest”.

Once the ballots were cast and counted, the Tasmanian Greens narrowly missed out on winning the last Senate seat. Whether the ‘bomb’ hoax tipped the scales, no one will ever know.

Six months later, Tasmania Police released a briefing note stating that “although a banner located the scene implicated the Earth First movement no evidence has been forthcoming to support this view”. Police gave a more qualified exoneration to supporters of the timber industry. “Innuendo in the Smithton community espoused the view that the incident was the work of the pro-logging community, the aim of which was to discredit the conservation movement’s program during the summer months. Available direct evidence does not support this argument”

Years later, a more emphatic memo from Victoria Police’s Counter Terrorist Intelligence Section (CTIS) was obtained through a Freedom of Information request by Friends of the Earth. Written in July 1993, just four months after the ‘bomb’, CTIS noted that “the device is considered [by Tasmania Police] to be an elaborate hoax and they have not ruled out the possibility that it may have been placed there by loggers in an attempt to discredit the Green movement.”

Behind the ‘eco-terrorism’ facade

There have been a number of other instances where the shadowy forces behind the ‘eco-terrorism’ bogey have been revealed.

Early in 1995, Victoria Police Superintendent Haldane from the Victorian town of Bairnsdale, acting on information that he received, warned CIB officers about the need to keep an open mind when investigating incidents of damage to machinery in forest areas.

In an internal memo obtained from a Freedom of Information request, Haldane wrote that “information has been received that with the fluctuating politics of the woodchipping debate, instances of damage to logging equipment might become more prevalent. This relates in particular to damage being done by pro-logging interests in an attempt to discredit the anti-woodchipping and conservation movements. Any member attending an incident of this type should notify the relevant CIB and ensure that all investigation options are explored - DO NOT assume that any act of damage to logging equipment or logging infrastructure is done by conservationists or members of anti-logging groups”. (See document HERE).

In southern NSW, there have also been many claims over the years of the forests debate claiming damage to logging equipment was attributable to environmentalists. In a remarkable statement on ABC Radio National’s Background Briefing program in March 1995 the then NSW State Secretary of the forestry Division of the Construction, Forestry Mining Energy Employees Union, Gavin Hillier, explained how union officials had damaged logging contractors equipment which had been blamed on environmentalists.

Hillier said: “…We know how to sugar trucks and use mercuric…. I’m talking about these scabby contractors and using mercuric acid and all those sort of things.  .We actually probably learnt it …because we had trucks running over us in picket lines, and we used to follow them home, mate, and find out where they live.  And when they’re .. like most truckies, because they’re big and boisterous and want to make love with their wife before they go to Melbourne, that was the time we slipped in and you broke windscreens too, because windscreen and tyres you don’t get insurance for, but everything else you get insurance for. Every tyre is worth $2,000 to them.  We’ve had to hit ‘em and hit ‘em hard, and yes you [environmentalists] probably got the blame for it, too, along the track. I’m telling you now, I’m telling you now they knew who it was because we’d say to those contractors you behave your fuckin’ self or the same thing will happen”.

If in the dying days of the 2010 election campaign, a story breaks that some logging equipment has been damaged or a ‘bomb’ found at some forestry plant, it is worth remembering some of the other instances where major media outlets have lent legitimacy to a PR-driven hoax.

If an ‘eco-terrorist’ incident is reported, will the Tasmanian media be up to the job of investigating the possibility that it could just be the dirty tricks brigade at work again? Or will they repeat the same mistakes as when some of the major media outlets fell for the 1993 Black River ‘bomb’ hoax?