The movement has so many strengths and skills: together it is strong enough to overcome. How do we overcome our own barriers to add our skills to the movement? I was intimidated by Lisa after the first day on camp. She knew her way around IT, was fast, always talked-to-the-point and never, ever engaged in waffle. She seemed to know what the task was, how to start it, finish it and achieve the goal. And she managed to convey all these characteristics without irritating anyone else, or diminishing anyone else’s opinions or ideas. “My personality has always been the, you know, injustice sucks and then you have to do something about it.” And that minimal messing around, the efficiency, the professionalism, is what made Lisa the compelling but mysterious person that she is.
“Well, I can’t be anything else. That is my personality. Even if I try not to be, people say that I’m yeah, straight up and down.” I certainly can concur. In the short time I had in Lisa’s presence I saw her establish a satellite link for real time streaming from a location hour’s away from any town – even a one street, one shop, one thing to do just do it over and over again town – as well as observe and treat a woman attacked and bitten by a dog 5 metres from where we were half way through an interview. She juggled calls and tasks from work with being point person on an isolated and unpredictable blockade. I started off being intimidated and I finished up still being intimidated. But at least on the way from that point A to point A I got to hear some of her story in between.
“I grew up in Lakes Entrance, I was born in Orbost. Orbost was a redneck town and we would go out into the bush, and my mother had an encyclopaedic knowledge of plants. And we’d always say oh that’s a latin name, latin name and another latin name. But my parents in Orbost they didn’t fit in at all. My father refused to manage the footy team. But then he became the school principal and we were there for years.
For me personally, the thing I used to really enjoy most of all was, we’d always have ponds and I’d always look at the skidders and things going across ponds, all of that sort of stuff. And also, very interested in all of the native animals around. And as I got older, I became more and more annoyed by the constant reference to humans versus animals, and I’ve never really got over that annoyance to be honest. Because all animals are sentient beings, and they all have intelligence and they are finding now, that they really do use tools.
All of this sort of stuff I knew as a teenager. Even then I knew the world was going to hell in a hand basket. When I was in Year 12 we did E F Schumacher’s ‘Small is Beautiful’ and ‘Confronting Future’ by Charles Birch. And I’d been brought up with parents – my mother in particular – who were always environmentally aware. So it sort of just fell into place.
When I was at high school it was environmental issues but it was also about being anti-nuke. The anti-nuke was really, really big and then also later became anti-war. My oldest brother turned 18 at the time when conscription for the Vietnam war was going on. My brother and older sister were at Monash Uni at the time of the really big protests. John was really involved with the radio station and he refused to have a shower for four months until my parents put him in the shower. We all thought he stank.
I did a bit of activism at Uni. I just fell into it. We did sit-ins and stuff – I don’t really remember all of them. All throughout my later teenage years we would go to the rallies. Particularly the Palm Sunday rallies were enormous: over 100,000 people would march down Swanston Street. It was an extraordinary thing. We all felt that, that was effective, with the masses of people, because there were honestly 100,000 people. These days you only get 10,000 max, and they call those big rallies. But those were really enormous rallies. And I felt though we did get somewhere. Because we did become against some nuclear power – not the way NZ did – but we could have had nuclear power generation by now if we hadn’t had that impact.
Yeah, oh I hope it did have an impact. But then maybe it didn’t when we were doing the similar rallies and call to action for Afghanistan for example. And the thing that made me sick to my stomach was what happened on Tampa and knowing even then, that the politicians were lying about so many things. It was obvious before we even went into Afghanistan that there were no weapons of mass destruction, we all knew that. They lied about it. It was really obvious by what they actually said to the UN. If you look at the actual words that are spoken there, they at no time provide the evidence of weapons of mass destructions. And with the Tampa, it was just disgusting. Children overboard and things like that. Yeah, we did the rally type protests about the war and the Tampa, we were vocal, sending letters and emails and things. And that didn’t do anything, didn’t do a thing.”
Maybe that’s part of the attraction of doing frontline activism. In the bigger scheme of things you could still fall into the abyss of believing that nothing will work, nothing is effective. But when you’re right there, with somebody getting the way, holding things up, stopping work, then… something is being done. Stop a coal train for 1 hour – it might be symbolism at a global scale but it feels good when you’re right there, and that’s one more hour that’s being bought for the future. And there’s angry people. There’s big men in their fluro jackets telling you to fuck off. There’s office workers unable to get in and fire off more emails to arrange the ongoing death of the planet, milling around uncertainly and peering at you uneasily. Worried you might suddenly jump up and shout ‘boo’! There is a little bit of power, returned into your hands, when everything else is completely out of your control. So maybe when we measure effectiveness that kind of flow of power needs to be factored in as well.
Of course, people don’t search for that or do that kind of activity to make new friends. There’s usually a deep, underlying value set driving a person forward. Separately out those who sit back from those who surge forward. For Lisa, most of this developed around the sense of injustice about how we treat animals.
“I was always originally going to be an ethologist: an animal behaviourist. So I did science as my thing, with a triple major in genetics, psychology and zoology. And then I did honours in zoology. I was really very passionate about what’s happening to all of the marsupials and things like that, so becoming an advocate was just a natural reaction to annoyance at animals being treated badly. I became vegetarian. Actually I became vegan at uni because I was also doing some of the biomed science and I found it excruciating that we would live blender frog’s brains while they were still in the living frog. I just couldn’t bear it. And also I’d done biology in year 11 and 12 and it was similar – dissecting rats. In psychology we were doing behavioural studies with rats.
Straight out of uni, I couldn’t get a job as an Ethologist, so was picked up by some companies and became a business, systems and data analysist. I was an analyst for 15 years, technically. Again I just fell into it. It was my day job. I had to become a little bit more conservative when I had to hold down a job and raise a child. I had to. Right now this is actually a bad financial time but unexpectedly, I had major back surgery and I was told, and I was working 14 hours days. And I was told I had to slow down. I had to learn 2 years ago to prioritise activities, to drop some off. I balance things worse now!
But over these last 2 years I was told that I have to dramatically change my lifestyle and so that gave me the time to be able to then engage more with the activism.
But I’ve always been very vocal, like you know. Probably people would say overly vocal about my views. It’s not about, like with me it’s not about me doing it instead of other people. I think that everyone has to weight up what sits with them, but I, with me, it’s definitely that I yeah, I would not be able to live with myself.
Culpability [is what I feel motivated me to come here/get involved]. If I, yeah, I could not possibly live with myself if I didn’t do it. And that’s how I do everything. I have to be able to live with myself, and I have to do what I think is right and just and that’s the basis of everything, most of the things I try to do.”
In my mind I have a memory of Lisa hunched down by the car tyre, a few meters away from the gate to the farm where 5 or 6 people were lined up. One person was fiddling with the lock around another person’s neck, a U Lock tethering the two gates to the woman’s neck. Another one was holding an umbrella to provide some relief as the sun steadily rose above the dry and dusty landscape, miles and miles inland from the coast and towns. I turned and saw Lisa rip out a massive antenna, plug it into the laptop, grip a large camera and start fiddling with memory sticks and USBs. If she hadn’t been busy we would have just been three sets of people randomly stopping by at some gates with locks. There was no cell phone coverage. No one to call. No media to upload. No live interview to relay events as they occurred. Instead, a few hours of waiting until the contractors arrived and things got juicy. So Lisa was playing a pivotal role. It all needed to be recorded. There’d been hundreds of people coming up north to the blockade camp, and many tens of actions, and all of them had a purpose, a value, a meaning. Not only for those of us also there copping the crap and enduring the abuse, but because the records are what told the story to the rest of the country. To supporters far and wide, most of whom had neither the time nor the capacity to come up and stand in front of those gates themselves. Lisa’s communication channels were the only way for these images and messages of resistance to be heard in the moment. Media, PR, communications, whatever you want to call it. It shapes the narrative and has its own power beyond the gates and the locks.
“When I look at non-violent direct action, I’m not so taken by the symbolism of it. I’m after the real physical stopping them doing it. Really stopping them doing it. The symbolic bits that we do are fun. They’re just plain old ordinary fun and they get the message out, and they annoy the politicians and I believe it is more annoying when we are cheeky and respectful to them at the same time. And I think that by doing that, they are forced to listen to us because they don’t get to spend time doing the other things. So, the publicity is powerful too. Like when we occupied Bill Shorten’s office and locked on, that was, we had all of Victorian TV cameras there and we got written up in The Australian which is no big feat and that was because we were doing Bill Shorten’s office. And so, the word gets out that way.
I think that what I am really interested in is actually physically stopping them, because there’s nothing else we can now do. I don’t think there are any options left. We can’t talk about it.”
Most people that I know don’t find being in groups, particularly activist groups very easy. There’s a lot of stuff that flows beneath the surface – relationships, silent conflict, disagreements, grief about the never ending river of bad news, species extinction, habitat destructions, burning, burning, burning. It’s a tricky mix getting groups together and keeping them together. And so most of the women I talked to had a similarity of experience. Lisa’s one evolved out of work, but also encompassed other topics of her activism. Sometimes it was the fault of the women, but sometimes just her own need to get stuff done.
“Yeah the mums…there are lots of little cliques. I experienced this through my non-activist things at my son’s school, where there is a lot of politicking, like serious politics. I was president of the school pipes and drums and president of other groups. Hockey captain and all that. And that politicking is something that I can’t abide, I can’t stand it. It’s just so disgusting and I just hate it, you know. No, I never do things with all females. Usually females and I don’t get along. The males tend to be less cunning, more straight forward in their ambition. And activist groups have generally imploded because of these issues.
I have to get stuff done, because that is my job, I am a Project Manager. But I am not the boss, I am the collaborator. I collaborate and everyone brings their own skills to the table. . But I’ve always been in IT, where I was the only 1 in 15. I was the only female in a room of 15 men and in meetings it was like Bronwyn Bishop, not ever listened to. My ideas have been always pilfered, always.
These days I try to assist women in activist groups. I’m not sure that I did in my 20s, I think that I might have probably been unkind, you know. Without meaning to be and things. I was more ruthless I guess. I mean, I was working on enormous projects with time constraints and that, so you have to cut through the bull shit. But these days I’m finding that in the last couple of years, since the back surgery, it’s all changed. This is when I’m getting a lot of female support.
The benefit of right now, is that I’ve been a contractor in the IT industry for 26 years, 27 years. And an independent contractor, which means at the end of each project I have to find my own gig. Completely start over again. Yeah, so it’s a pretty horrible way to earn a crust. But the current gig I am with is fantastic, because it’s part-time and it’s working from home, because my project team are in Serbia and so, and we’re doing in Canberra. So, it means I can do remote stuff. And I have softened a lot. And now, probably in the last 10 years, I’ve always tried to remember that work is not as important as real life. And that is a mantra I say all the time, you know, this is real life, do it. This is just work. I’m not sure if my bosses like that!
But I really like the thought that I’ve got the theoretical flexibility, without these technology issues of being able to do what I need to do, which is this. This is actually what I need to do, versus trying to keep my son and I financially secure.”
How do you juggle that need with the reality of activism? Why do people keep on doing this, when the rewards are low and the costs seem so high? It’s a big sacrifice, to travel one or two thousand kilometres to wait for hours and hours, sit in endless group discussions, finally decide on actions and then have them shifted or changed at the last minute. To go to road houses and be told that you won’t be served because they don’t like ‘your kind’. Being on camp is like a participating in a great camping holiday with all the great stuff taken out. And people keep doing it over and over again. And behind them, is many thousands of people who manage the challenges of groups and activism in their own communities, with all the joys and challenges these bring. How do people do it, particularly when they’ve had bad experiences with other activists and know how hard it will be to continue onwards?
“How have I managed it? Well, I came off Facebook. I was a Facebook admin, I had a several Facebook pages on environmental issues. Every day I would post at least a couple of actions. A community that I had started. Originally I thought that it was a good way for the information that was on lots of different Facebook pages, for it all to be consolidated and available on the one page. So, that everyone who wanted to be able to do something every day, they could. But then I got the bullying. I absolutely hate it now. Haven’t been on Facebook for two years.
I was also involved with the some animal groups, which is completely different. I was also being an activist against the collars that have inward facing spikes on them and things like that. I’ve always been engaged in some sort of activism. Well, I’d say I’ve always been annoying. I can’t help it, it’s part of my nature.
In actual fact, I’m already slated for another particular action soon with a particular office in the next couple of weeks. But it has to be strategic, because the things is, the more we do the less the media are interested. So, we all realise that we need to escalate and we’ve already decided. We decided a while ago that it needed to be strategic.
So I hoped our group would be getting us straight up here, that’s what I was wanting to do really.
Because I’ve always felt guilty and really regretted that I didn’t go to Gordon below Franklin. I was in my late teens then, and I’ve always felt very guilty that I haven’t done the tree activities in Far East Gippsland. So instead, I’ve been trying to find a way I can purchase some of the land that is actually under direct threat there. Doing this, I feel like it’s part of my being.
I need to work because I need to support myself. But I need to also make sure there is a future for, we are custodians. That’s all we are. We are custodians and we need to be able to forward it on to a better world.
I don’t think that it’s, we’ve had this level of need to take this action for a while. I’m probably wrong, but I’ve been thinking about it, I think it’s as pivotal as the Gordon below Franklin. I think it’s the same feel. It feels like the stupidity of it and the resistance to us stopping it is of the same order and magnitude as stupidity about the Gordon below Franklin. See, some of the others haven’t seen just so, extraordinary stupid and corrupt.
But it’s also impacting two things that are just completely pivotal, if they’re gone: The Great Artesian Basin and the Great Barrier Reef. If either of those are gone, then that’s just, that’s just so…. so mind boggling. It’s just defies logic”