When Graeme Dunstan was enroute to Stawell to care for his aging father, Graham Stanley Dunstan, he heard that Big Hill, the hill that overlooks the rural town of Stawell and serves as a look out and lovers lane, was to be open pit mined.
Stawell was his mother's home town and when she would return there as she did regularly during Graeme's childhood, he remembered that she would take her children to the hill and while they played about, she would stand in silence, wistfully taking in the view over the town and across the plains to the Grampian Mountains where she had spent happy times in her adolesence.
Out of respect for his mother's memory, Graeme resolved to do what he could to prevent the destruction of the Hill. He attended the first meeting of the Big Hill Action Group and offered to organise a mass lantern event in which Big Hill lovers would light up the Hill.
With assistance from the Big Hill Action Group (Barb and Graeme Bennett were the central activist organisers) he set up a Lantern making Workshop in Main Street, about 400 meters from the Hill and began lantern making.
The project took six weeks in which time he was able to make a lot of lanterns with the help of volunteers and attract a lot of publicity and community support.
The event took place on Satrurday 11 December. On the weekend the first lantern lit Eureka Dawn Walk which took place in Ballarat and Graeme had been its lantern maker.Thus his diamond shaped lanterns had a double resonance.
Over 500 people attended the Big Hill Light Up and it was the biggest protest rally that sleepy Stawell had ever seen and a clear indicator of the deep citizen opposition to the miners.
The campaign to save Big Hill went on for two years with many up and downs, twist and turns during which time Graeme was elsewhere. The Big Hill Action Group lined up scores of objectors in the Environmental Impact Assessment process. But they were much villified by the business interests in the town and by the elected councillors who lined up with the miners. The efforts of BHAG all seemed so hopeless at the time.
The miner, Stawell Gold Mines, was three quarters owned by Pittson Minerals, a coal mining corporate criminal from West Virginia, USA, and the Big Hill open pit development was backed all the way by the pro corporate, pro "market forces" Victorian state government led by Jeff Kennett. At the time Kennett was privatising public assets as fast as he could, ruthlessly stomping on citizen opposition as he went. He had the police baton charge a group of parents protesting closure of their suburban public school for example.
The Big Hill Action Group was the only anti government voice raised in all of Western Victoria. But time revealed it to be the voice of the people when the super confident Kennett, despite full support of the corporate media, got rolled at the 2000 state elections in an unpredicted back lash by rural voters.
The Bracks Labor government decided there was more future listening to citzen action groups than mining industry lobbyists and so Big Hill was saved.
Here are some photos of the event:
Here is a response written on 4 November 2000 to the announcement by the Victorian Minister for Planning, John Thwaites, that the open cut on Big Hill would not go ahead.
Gold Miner's Knock Back an s11 Victory
The decision by Victorian Minister for Planning, John Thwaites, last Monday to knock back the open pit mine proposed by Stawell Gold Mines got only a one sentence mention buried in BackPage of The Melbourne Age of Cup Day 7 November.
But it deserves to be hailed as a small but significant blow against globalisation and a post S11 wising up of the Bracks Labor Government, for it is not everyday an Australian government says no to a multinational mining company.
The majority shareholder of Stawell Gold Mines is Pittson Minerals, which owns 50% directly owned and 22.5% indirectly. The minority share holder is Mineral Projects Investment a Melbourne based company of hot shot gold mining experts and investors of the kind that Victoria has been breeding since the1860s.
Pittston is a US based mining giant and corporate criminal infamous for its "mountain top" coal mining (entire mountain tops dumped into river valleys to access coal seams a mere 2 meters thick) in West Virginia and for its negligence and corruption in the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster. Pittson denied any responsibility for the 118 killed, the 1,000 injured and the 4000 homes destroyed when one of its mine refuse dams broke and bribed the West Virginia governor to avoid a major compensation pay out.
MPI teamed up with Pittston Minerals to form Stawell Gold Mines in 1992 and take over Western Mining's then ailing underground gold mine in Stawell. Because pit mining is cheaper and the ore near the surface is richer, SGM proposed making a relatively easy profit by digging a pit 800 meters long, 150 metres wide and 200 metres deep on the old gold workings at Big Hill.
Big Hill is a major landmark, tourist look out and heritage site almost adjacent to the town CBD with residences butting against it. Stawell Gold Mines is the major employer in the otherwise economically depressed country town. The miners promised that, if they could blast a huge hole and leave it for all eternity, they would extend the life of the underground mine for another 6 years and generate up to 16 more jobs.
Mining companies are notorious liars and savvy Stawell residents feared that once started the pit would keep going following the ore body for another 5 km or so and destroying the Ironbark forests to the west of the town.
Here was a classic scenario of a small town resident action group fighting to protect the quality of life in their town by taking on a global Goliath. Gold miners in Victoria are exempted from paying rates and fuel taxes and get bulk discounts on water and power use and, in the case of SGM, send 60% of their profits to US shareholders.
When the Big Hill Action Group began their opposition two years ago, they were up against rural conservatism, the rural recession, the money power of the mine and the radically economically rational Kennett government, which was giving every support and encouragement to furthering gold mining in rural Victoria.
The conflict divided the town but BHAG persevered with the environmental impact assessment process delivering up more opponents and more solid arguments than the miners could muster despite their buying power and their supporters in retail business, the Chamber of Commerce, the local newspaper and the local government.
No one predicted the rural revolt against Kennett but back then BHAG, a small but determined bunch of oldie residents (Stawell in a retirement centre), was the only voice in western Victoria speaking out against Kennett and the economically rational, corporate override of community interests.
The fall of the Kennett government caused BHAG's hopes to rise but they were dashed again when the new Minister for Mines, the Hon. Candy Broad MLC, introduced amendments to the Mining Act which would make pit mining even easier in Victoria than it had been under Kennett. Under the amendments, which are still before the Victorian Parliament, miners will be allowed to dig pits up to property boundaries (no longer is a 100 meter buffer zone to be required) and compensation for amenity loss is to be capped at $10K per affected residence.
The amending Act had its first reading in the week after the s11 World Economic Forum protests and it is probable that it had been in bureaucratic process from Kennett times and was carried forward as part of the Bracks Government's commitment to being business friendly.
The Big Hill Action Group was devastated for it appeared that the Bracks government had sold out to the mining lobby. A 'donation to ALP coffers' figure of $3 mill was being bandied about.
The s11 WEF protests illustrated the deep and far reaching distrust of globalisation in Victoria and it appears that the Hon John Thwaites got the message. He came to Stawell last week, visited Big Hill and made a personal assessment.
Last Monday it seems he decided that there was more future for the Victorian Labor Government listening to grass roots citizen action groups than toadying to fast buck, multinational mining companies. He announced that the open pit was too near to houses, that it would leave a permanent safety hazard in the town, create major social upheaval and have negative impacts on heritage and bio-diversity issues including loss of Box-Ironbark Forest habitats.
It is the way of the world that the positive impacts of popular protest and rebellions are never acknowledged, and protesters never thanked, at the time. Cries of outrage are heard and then quietly and subtly the status quo shifts and the new reality prevails in a succession of small but significant decisions. For example the Eureka Stockade rebellion of 1854 ended imperial tyranny in Victoria and made the colony a world leader in democratic reforms. But stories in praise of the courage and blood sacrifice of the diggers were suppressed for 50 years.
So this is a message from one who was on the receiving end of a police baton on the evening of s12, to all the others. Take heart. Our protest was not ignored. Just as Stawell residents will have the long time joys of a native flora and fauna park on a Big Hill rather than a big hole, the fruits of our deeds will be enjoyed by many, many future generations. Bravo John Thwaites.
Freedom Rider and Lantern Maker
Here is the text of a letter written 9 November 2000 and published in the Stawell Times.
Letter to the Editor
Mr Ian Petersen
May I use your columns to tell your readers about a sunset picnic and lantern lit thanks giving which will take place on Big Hill 7 pm to 8.30 pm next Friday 17 November.
At this time two years ago the Big Hill Action Group was making lanterns to light up Big Hill. On Friday 11 December 1998 some 500 people assembled in Gold Reef Mall and paraded lanterns up Big Hill to signal their opposition to the pit mine proposal. It was a magical and memorable evening, with the Pioneers memorial serving as a lantern lit stage for performances from the Stawell Brass Band, the Stawell Performing Arts Group and others.
The lantern gathering was the opening of a campaign which took two years of hard slog by the volunteers of the Big Hill Action Group who persevered in the face of despair, reading and responding to mountains of expert reports, and weathering the storms of small town politics. Last week their efforts were rewarded when the Planning Minister John Thwaites announced he was denying approval for the pit.
Under Jeff Kennett economic rationalism was in power and his gung-ho Planning Minister, Rod McLellan, made it clear on public radio which way his approval would go: all the way with the gold miners. Kennett just loved over riding and squashing citizen protest.
My how the mighty have fallen! It is not every day an Australian government says NO to a gold miner. What an amazing turn around! What an extraordinary victory for citizen action! What an inspiration to other citizen action groups in the goldfields towns of Victoria!
With the Big Hill decision the Bracks Labor government has decided to back grass roots citizen action rather than corporate greed. Thus the grey heads who made up BHAG (the average age of the group I conservatively estimated as 55) have achieved what the 10,000 young s11 protesters who blockaded the World Economic Forum were volubly demanding. Viz that our governments rein in globalisation and start using their authority to protect the quality of life of local people from exploitation by transnational corporations.
For as much as Stawell Gold Mines manager Richard Carlton might wish to portray his mine as a good corporate citizen, the facts are that the Mine does not pay rates or fuel taxes, gets bulk discounts on water and power, shifts over 60% of its profits before Australian taxes to the US shareholders of the Virginian mining giant and corporate criminal, Pittston, and leaves their heavy metals and other poisons behind.
Stawell residents were not only expected to live with the loss of amenity resulting from open pit mining close to the town centre and the legacy of the proposed Southern Void so that the shareholders in Pittston could get richer, they were also expected to subsidise the operations.
But against all odds quality and the interests of future generations have prevailed. Next Friday evening, we want to celebrate that with a sunset family picnic and a lantern-lit thanks giving to all those who helped with the campaign. Please bring food and beverage to share. Also songs, poetry and music. And lanterns of course.
A mini lantern-making workshop will be operating at the rear 56 Patrick Street and people who have an hour or two to help are invited to drop by. Ring 0412 609 373 or 5358 1579 for further information.
As mentioned in the letter above, to confirm the success of the Big Hill Action Group and to affirm the decision of the Bracks Labor government, Graeme organised a lantern lit thanks giving on Big Hill on Friday 17 November. Below is the letter written 19 November and subsequently published in the Stawell Times reporting the event.
Big Hill Thanks Giving
Champagne flowed and smiles abounded at the Thanks Giving on Big Hill last Friday night. A splendid sunset turned clouds to flame and affirmed our blessings. Amazing Grace on piano accordion, God in His heaven, and all was right with the world.
As the night came on the lanterns glowed and the Pioneer Memorial, proudly bearing an Australian flag, was transformed into a temple of light and a band stand for the "Athena Rock Gods", a scratch band of local lads put together for the night by singer Rob Vale.
About one hundred Big Hill lovers turned out, lots of grey-haired elders and lots of young people too.
Fulsome gratitude was expressed for the fortitude and determination of Barbara and Graham Bennett and the other stalwarts of the Big Hill Action Group. Messages of support from absent friends were read including one from Cr Graeme Mann whose name was received with warm and appreciative applause.
In reply Barbara Bennett said that the best thing about the campaign had been the good people she had met and the enduring friendships made. That is the building of social capital. Graham said he was looking for the anonymous caller who had offered to pay his fare out of town. He was seeking to accept the offer. After thirty years of good and generous community service to Stawell, Bribie Island beckons the Bennetts.
Thus there was a sense of a changing of the guard on Big Hill that evening.
Stawell Gold Mines is still talking in the media about "appeals" and "reviewing options", but this is the bravado of a boxer who has been king hit and doesn't know how to fall over. The fact is that last Wednesday in the Victoria Parliament, Premier Steve Bracks affirmed the decision of his Planning Ministers, the Hon John Thwaites, to knock back the pit proposal.
Thus the umpire's decision has been made and upheld and the Big Hill Action Group had won its campaign and done its job. Big Hill has been saved from pit mining for at least the duration of the Bracks government.
Which is not the same as forever, of course. The gold in that there Hill is now thoroughly assayed and assessed and appears as dollar figures on some asset list somewhere. For so long as Big Hill holds that gold it will be coveted and it is only a matter of time before miners come up with another get rich scheme for exploiting it.
Hence the significance of the young Big Hill lovers present. This seasons' Big Hill Action Group, their job done, was retiring in the witness and celebration of young people who were there making vigorous music and dance.
Like their elders they treasure Big Hill for values more enduring than greed and I am in no doubt, that when the time comes they too will take up to the challenge of protecting the Hill and local community values for future generations.
All strength to their arms. Hats off for the past, coats off for the future.