Not 20 feet from where we’re standing, a young woman sits rugged up against the rain with her arm buried deep in a steel drum full of concrete. It’s a hell of a way to block an access track: she will be staying right where she is until a police team carefully dismantles the casing with an angle grinder and hammers. There are at least two others dug in not far from her position, close enough to the barrier fences to be able to hear the cheers and encouragement of hundreds of other residents, supporters and organisers making their way through the wetlands. While they are here, the earthmoving equipment is silent, and the clock runs down three more hours until the 2017 State election.
This, perhaps, is the perfect epitaph for the empty Premiership of Colin Barnett. It seems appropriate that the legacy of his forgettable eight years would be mass civil disobedience right in the teeth of the election. This is his parting gift to the state: the pointless diversion of police resources to guard a five kilometre stretch of smashed banksia and paperbark woodland, the wreckage heaped into piles for a two billion dollar freight highway to nowhere.
There are seasoned campaigners here to be sure, but the vast majority of people standing up against this bitter destruction are long-term residents, students, doctors, architects, parents, retirees. When you show up to protect your back yard, they call you a NIMBY. When you travel further afield to protect someone else’s, they call you rent-a-crowd. There are tears as red-tailed cockatoos screech overhead; once you’ve seen what heavy machinery can do to these layered, complex ecosystems, being called names ceases to matter.
You can feel the peculiar undercurrent of tension and understanding between contractors, police and the wetlands defenders. Everyone plays their part. One of the officers has perched an umbrella over the girl locked into the cement barrel. He didn’t have to do that, and a little bit of goodwill goes a long way. Of course it was only a few weeks ago that mounted police trampled some of these same people on the day the fence came down, and although the mood this morning is cordial, everyone knows how volatile these situations can be. It didn't last.
People here are tired, but determined. Some have been campaigning to get this useless stretch of freeway deleted from the planning scheme for more than 30 years. I first came to this place in my early 20s when we lived a few streets over, finding myself fascinated with how the city had threaded its way around this functioning, breathing place. I knew nothing about the 40,000 year history of occupation and custodianship, nothing about wetlands ecology or the old names of the frogs that chorus through the changing seasons. All I knew was, this place was special. It got under my skin. I got to know it better than any other place on earth; the large patterns of weather and landscape, the tiny symmetries of life at the shoreline, and still I barely know it at all. For the Premier, for the big contracting firms, for the infrastructure bureaucrats on the other side of the country, this place lives or dies according to lines drawn on maps sixty years ago. For the rest of us, this is home, and we’re not giving it up.
So we’re here today to draw a different kind of line. The destruction has begun, but it can be stopped. An hour at a time, a day at a time, as we keep running the clock down on an election that can see the architects of this costly vandalism thrown out of office. You don’t have to put your arm into a lock-on pipe if that’s not your thing. We also need people to be observers, document what’s happening, write stories, play music, make art, bring food, bring friends and family and give the old-hands a lift.
Here’s one idea: this Thursday is World Wetlands Day: a moment to acknowledge that the bulldozers we’re holding up on our watch are being challenged everywhere in the world.
The theme for World Wetlands Day in 2017 is Wetlands for Disaster Risk Reduction. Healthy wetlands play a hugely important role in reducing the impacts of extreme events such as floods, droughts and cyclones on communities, and in helping to build resilience for those communities, to say nothing of the myriad species that inhabit them. As the effects of climate change take hold, these events will become more potent, more frequent. So of course the Barnett government would sacrifice that resilience and exacerbate the risks by ploughing a highway through this place. Intergenerational responsibility is not something these folks engage with much.
Fortunately, many others do. And many more than that are willing. Thursday is as good a time as any to get your feet wet, as it were.
We’ll be there. The community will be there. Tomorrow, and Wednesday, and Thursday and every day until election day, when the decisive action of voters will bring the Barnett government madness to an end. See you at the fenceline.