Greens leader Bob Brown leads a canoe protest at Traveston Crossing against the proposed Mary River Dam.
Greens leader Bob Brown leads a canoe protest at Traveston Crossing against the proposed Mary River Dam. Renee Pilcher

Saving the Mary River

THIS week, The Gympie Times senior journalist Arthur Gorrie addressed the 12th International Riversymposium at the Brisbane Convention Centre.

Accompanied by Save the Mary River Group President Glenda Pickersgill, he was among about 170 delegates to the four-day conference which, with Queensland Government and Brisbane City Council support, is a joint venture of the University of Queensland, Griffith University, the International Riverfoundation and the International WaterCentre.

In an address described by the session chair as “one of the symposium's most topical and contentious presentations,” they spoke of how “hidden reserves of strategy, talent and determination” among Mary Valley residents had shocked and unbalanced a government which appeared to have previously dismissed them as “hillbillies.”

This is an edited version of the presentation...

“We're here to talk about community engagement and, in the case of the Traveston Crossing dam proposal there wasn't any.

What happened since the dam announcement, has been a rare example of a highly effective public relations and lobbying campaign generated and energised entirely from within a community of what I like to call not ordinary but extra-ordinary people.

When then-Premier Peter Beattie flew in to announce the dam, his advisers were unable even to produce accurate contour maps of the inundation area, which led many of us to suspect that it was a political decision rather than an engineering one.

Then Cooloola Shire Mayor, Mick Venardos, initially welcomed the announcement, insisting we quote him as saying: “Gympie, the town that saved Queensland with gold and will now save Queensland with liquid gold.”

Within 24 hours, he was accusing us of taking him out of context and, from that point on, became by far the most effective elected champion of the anti-dam cause.

He called a meeting of mayors from the Mary's source in Caloundra City to the sea at Hervey Bay and united all those councils in what became the Council of Mary River Mayors.

It, and Cooloola Shire Council, sent him to Canberra to lobby then Environment Minister Ian Campbell and he also met with Malcolm Turnbull, with a question being asked in the Senate that afternoon and soon enough, a Senate Inquiry which forced the state government to release previously secret information.

The Council of Mayors also commissioned Professor Stuart White's highly critical report on the dam, prepared for the Institute for Sustainable Futures, which operates out of the Sydney University of Technology.

Within days of the dam announcement, then The Gympie Times Editor, Michael Roser, committed the paper to an anti-dam campaign on behalf of the vast majority of its readers.

In line with the paper's Readers First policies, which encourage us to advocate for our readers as well as inform them, the campaign has continued under current Editor Nev McHarg.

Immediately after the announcement, a public meeting at Rick and Carol Elliott's Kandanga property was attended by people like Kevin Ingersole, who later took over from Rick as President of the Save the Mary River Group (as he now has been replaced by Ms Glenda Pickersgill).

Also present was then Tiaro Shire Deputy Mayor Darryl Stewart, who chairs the downstream body, the Greater Mary Association and Ian Mackay, President of the Conondale Range Committee, at the source of the river.

Mr Stewart said his group did not have the land loss issues of near-Gympie residents, but was concerned about environmental effects on Hervey Bay's fishing and tourist industries, the effect on World Heritage Fraser Island, the Ramsar wetlands of the Great Sandy Straits and the loss of water for irrigation farms and towns downstream from the dam.” 

Ms Pickersgill told the session that, while the community had previously been involved in water resource planning on the Mary River, the government's Community Reference Panel was never informed of any proposal to build a dam across the Mary Valley at Traveston Crossing and from that point all consultation ceased.

Her organisation remained concerned about the poor compliance and enforcement history of the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, with the Wide Bay Burnett Conservation Council having to take Sunwater to court in the current Paradise Dam case.

Unproved and still secret environmental “mitigation” measures were also of concern.

She called for Minister Peter Garrett's decision on Traveston Crossing dam to include consideration of the Paradise Dam case and for a 10-day window for public comment on the State Government's ultimate report to Mr Garrett.

She said the untruth that the dam had passed State consideration and was now in the hands of Mr Garrett, remained popularly believed in the community, but in truth the proposal had not yet been approved by the State Co-ordinator General.”

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