Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett stops the proposed Traveston Crossing Dam at a press conference in Brisbane, 11 November 2009. Craig Warhurst / Gympie Times
Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett stops the proposed Traveston Crossing Dam at a press conference in Brisbane, 11 November 2009. Craig Warhurst / Gympie Times

Valley saviour Peter Garrett was a ‘decent, honest’ minister

PETER Garrett’s commonwealth driver obligingly turned up the music as he drove the then federal Environment Minister back to Brisbane airport on November 11, 2009.

The minister had just made what a Melbourne newspaper called “the biggest decision by an environment minister in ten years of national environment law.”

He had just stopped the Traveston Crossing dam and saved the Mary Valley.

It was a momentous achievement and one which Mr Garrett himself rates as probably his most significant, giving a bullying state government and its arrogant bureaucracies a taste of power as it is generally experienced by the rest of us.

STRATEGIC MEETING: Conservation groups meet to assess the coordinator general report on Traveston Crossing dam in Nambour. Glenda Pickersgill, Narelle McCarthy and Tanzi Smith (front) with Gaby Luft, David White, Steve Burgess and Annie Nolan (Rear).
STRATEGIC MEETING: Conservation groups meet to assess the coordinator general report on Traveston Crossing dam in Nambour. Glenda Pickersgill, Narelle McCarthy and Tanzi Smith (front) with Gaby Luft, David White, Steve Burgess and Annie Nolan (Rear).

His decision, using powers under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, was a significant test of integrity and backbone for a minister who showed himself to be a friend to regional Australians, describing the dam as “yet another example of a government and a powerful bureaucracy steamrolling small-town people in order to fulfil a political imperative, regardless of the consequences.”

The anti-dam campaign involved a lot of good people and a lot of good luck, but it would all have been for nothing if Mr Garrett had not been given grounds to fear for the survival of the Mary River turtle and lungfish.

Now suddenly, after three-and-a-half years, it was over. The announcement had been made and the minister was heading home.

Site of the proposed dam wall for the Traveston crossing dam.
Site of the proposed dam wall for the Traveston crossing dam.

The song playing on the driver’s iPod was Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees.

The minister was soon singing along, backed by his political advisers Jack Smith and Ben Pratt.

They were letting off steam.

It had been an intense 48 hours, part of an astounding three or four years as Environment Minister, during which Mr Garrett made more decisions to protect the environment than any other person in that role ever.

The Gympie Times photographer Craig Warhurst, now Sunshine Coast Daily editor, made a unilateral decision, which I enthusiastically endorsed, after we learned the decision was to be announced in Brisbane that day.

“Let’s just go,” he said. “If we ask anyone they might say no.”

We jumped in the office Suzuki and were there for Mr Garrett’s momentous announcement at a crowded press conference in the Australian Government Centre in Brisbane.

The metropolitan media were outraged and one television reporter in particular showed what I felt was the ignorance of those who retype government press releases for a living and call it journalism. Hardly anyone seemed to realise that the dam was a dud, it would not work, it would not even be built in time to stop Brisbane running out of water. It was rubbish. It showed what honest politicians are up against when one television reporter asked Mr Garrett how he slept at night.

Bob Fredman with all the paper work down on the Traveston Crossing Dam.
Bob Fredman with all the paper work down on the Traveston Crossing Dam.

“I sleep pretty well,” Mr Garrett said, staring him down.

The cheers from the public bar of the Kandanga Hotel, where patrons watched the press conference live, may have been audible in parts of Brisbane around about then.

But Cold Chisel ruled in Mr Garrett’s limo, on that journey back to Brisbane airport.

“We share some history, this town and I… ”

The country-town melancholy of the lyrics, on that special Remembrance Day 10 years ago, matched perfectly the history and the love of place that Mr Garrett will always now share with Kandanga.

Today he comes back to help celebrate the survival of a community that could not be beaten, led by a band of campaigners for whom defeat was never an option.

It is a community which would now be under water if not for the fact that, briefly enough, there was someone honest and decent, up there somewhere.