OBI OBI CREEK meanders through the rolling hills of the Sunshine Coast hinterland. On its journey it encounters the small town of Maleny, one hundred kilometres north of Brisbane, nestled on a plateau in the Blackall Range. The creek winds through dairy farms and a macadamia nut plantation, and passes the old butter factory, cattle saleyards (since demolished to make way for a Woolworths supermarket), hotel and primary school. Leaving the town behind, it is impounded by the Baroon Pocket Dam before regaining momentum and putting on a nice display at The Narrows, then cutting west to join the Mary River.
In the valley that became the Baroon Pocket Dam, the Jinibara peoples* – the traditional owners of the land – hosted large gatherings of tribes from far and wide for bunya feasting, trade and exchange. The bunya is still the signature tree of the region – a dark, triangular giant with huge edible nuts that fruit only every two or three years after the tree reaches maturity.
In 1990, when this story begins, no one identifying as Aboriginal lived in Maleny. Some did in the nearby towns of Woodford and Kilcoy, but the inhabitants of the little town on the plateau were exclusively European: settler descendants on dairy farms, and newcomers from cities around Australia and the world who sought to connect with the natural environment and to explore alternative forms of wellbeing – from artistic self-expression to organic foods and community-building. The dam, seven kilometres to Maleny’s north, was just beginning to fill. The two European camps had quite different attitudes towards it: those with generational connections to farming applauded it as a feat of inevitable economic progress; alternative newcomers were appalled that such a historically significant Aboriginal meeting place had been treated so summarily. Anthropologists were barely given time to survey the area, and the traditional owners had little opportunity to object to its flooding. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the Baroon Pocket Dam raised issues in Maleny of how custodianship should be exercised for the benefit of future generations.
In 1986, a new high school was built on the outskirts of town on Bunya Street, and I was transferred from Brisbane to teach there when it opened the following year. Adjacent to the school, a concrete batching plant sat on its hilltop site. Two years later, the state government decided that concrete manufacturing wasn’t compatible with high school learning and took the block by proclamation, publishing the fact in the Government Gazette. The owners, Sellars Holdings, needed to relocate and decided on Coral Street in the centre of town. No one opposed the company’s right to continue to trade, but its intended location was metres from the Obi Obi Creek and close to the iconic old-world shops of Maleny. A concrete plant would have caused a large number of problems, most notably the pollution of the creek, as well as replacing silence and birdsong with the sounds of manufacturing and heavy vehicles, the introduction of a dust problem, the increased likelihood of traffic accidents, and generally altering the charming atmosphere of the town.
What ensued was a three-year campaign (1990–93) by the Maleny community to resist a company that had no vision other than to please its shareholders. I was the publicist, secretary and archivist for the campaign, one of a core group of seven activists. The company did not succeed. Against the odds, the town stopped it. The tips that follow are the essence of what we learnt while fighting to keep the old dairy town of Maleny beautiful.
IT TAKES ONLY one alert citizen to start a movement. Francesca Ennis (Cesca), wife of the local plumber and mother of teenagers, was the first to understand the implications of the sign posted by the council in July 1990: Public Notice Local Government Act 1936–1987 Application for Amendment of Town Planning Scheme. She owned the Maleny laundrette at 28 Coral Street opposite Queensco (the local dairy co-operative) and the old butter factory. Queensco no longer made butter, but it still owned the paddock behind the old butter factory that sloped down to the creek. Its business had changed to rural supplies and it traded from a new supersized shed next to the redbrick ex-factory. Queensco, at 31 Coral Street, sold the paddock that ran down to the creek to Sellars, subject to rezoning approval.
Ah, there was the rub. Approval. A concrete batching plant is defined as a heavy industry. Queensco, like the other businesses in the street such as Cesca’s laundrette, was a light industry. Small weatherboard houses were still the dominant feature of the street. Sellars Holdings, therefore, had to apply to Caloundra City Council to exempt Lot 3, 23 Coral Street from its light industry zoning and grant it a unique status: special zoning – concrete batching plant. By law, ratepayers were entitled to know about the application and to raise objections.
After recognising the council’s notice for the threat it posed to the amenity of the town, Cesca encouraged Maleny residents to write to the council. Nearly five hundred did so, a quarter of the two thousand-strong population at the time. Cesca and I also sent an open letter to the independently owned local paper, the Range News, urging the council to reject the application, and furthermore to ‘buy the land for the people to enjoy, tourists and locals alike… Ask the community for ideas for such a park. A permaculture orchard or a riverside walkway (to view the platypus!) are just two possibilities.’
The stretch of the Obi Obi Creek behind the old butter factory was not in robust health at the time. It was a no-go zone, without a track or footbridge linking the town to the ovals of the showgrounds on the southern side of the creek. One old-timer from Coral Street claimed that a colony of platypus lived in a deep reach, which perhaps proved it wasn’t too bad; but no one else professed to have seen them. The creek wasn’t all that accessible: its banks were clogged with lantana and privet and its trees were mostly invasive camphor laurels. However, the wellbeing of the (perhaps mythical) platypus and the charms of the old-fashioned dairy town were not concerns for either Queensco or Sellars Holdings.
In October, objectors were thrilled to hear from the Caloundra City Council. It had refused the rezoning application, citing traffic issues and the concerns of objectors. Problem fixed, we thought.
Not so. The company had a strategy ready – the right to appeal to a higher authority, which it exercised within the fortnight. Objectors received letters written in dense legal jargon – Pursuant to the provisions…entitled to become a Respondent…be heard as a party – from Sellars Holdings. The company, anticipating the growth of the town and district, was determined to build a bigger plant in a central location, and would appeal to the Local Government Court in Brisbane.
What next? Cesca Ennis and I called a public meeting.
Twenty people came – a reasonable turnout considering the short notice. From the chair, I made a quick assessment of the attendees. Councillor Winston Johnston, who ran an insurance business at the bottom end of Coral Street, would try to manage conflict on behalf of the council, I thought. Retiree and Yorkshireman Timothy Hobbs would try to interfere. He was a known crank and obstructionist who hadn’t even written an objection to the Caloundra City Council (now an amalgamated Sunshine Coast Council) about the unsuitability of the proposal, but here he was at the first meeting of concerned citizens in the Maleny community centre, dressed in his grey cardigan, sitting on a plastic chair, rearing to go. As the antithesis of teamwork he unwittingly highlighted its importance.
Most attendees initially voiced bewilderment: why would Sellars Holdings persevere? Did it have no sense of honour or responsibility? Did it not want to get on with the town that supported its business? Timothy, with his ‘points of clarification’, looked set to dominate the discussion. I’d anticipated that Sellars would send their own men to observe and report back – which they did – but now I feared the greater threat was the enemy within, so to speak.
‘Thank you Timothy,’ I responded from the chair. ‘Let’s hear from Greg Williams, our local solicitor. Like many of us here tonight, he’s volunteering his time after a day’s work and has a young family to return to.’
Greg rose to his feet. Like my geologist husband, Alan McClure, and me, he was a tree-changer who lived on acreage – part of the town’s new professional demographic. In contrast to the casual attire favoured by most of us on this warm, late-spring night, Greg wore a dark blazer over a long-sleeved shirt fastened with shiny gold cufflinks. ‘It’s too late for moral outrage,’ he said bluntly. ‘It’s all going to be decided in the Local Government Court.
‘If council doesn’t throw its hat into the ring and defend its decision, the concrete batching plant will go ahead. The only place to stop it now is at the appeal hearing. With this sort of thing the objectors don’t know what’s going on unless they’re involved. But hearings are expensive,’ the young solicitor warned. ‘There’ll be fees and costs every step of the way.’
Resistance surged through the room: why involve lawyers?
‘A specialist knowledge of local government law is essential,’ he stressed.
Peter Oliver, a high school teacher, raised his hand to speak. ‘What’s the council’s plan?’ he asked, swinging attention to Winston Johnston. ‘Will it defend its position?’
The councillor admitted that Caloundra City Council hadn’t yet decided.
‘The community needs a voice in the appeal process,’ Greg repeated. ‘Somebody should file a Notice of Election. Then if council decides not to defend its decision, Malenyites can press their case through a nominal respondent.’
‘And the cost?’ asked Peter.
‘Possibly $20,000.’ Greg waited for the collective gasp to subside, then added, ‘I’ll donate as much of my time as I can, but Sellars will commission reports – their experts will minimise the disruptions a concrete plant in the centre of town will cause – and Maleny must counter with independent reports. All the report writers will appear as “expert witnesses” before the court, which will then decide which arguments have the greatest merit. It will be necessary to commission a town planner, a traffic engineer and a barrister. That’s why we’ll need about $20,000.’
As attendees continued to question Greg, I reflected on how, until very recently, environmental activists had been viewed by the state government as ‘communistic’ elements – a term coined by the former National Party state premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen – and were pursued through the courts to teach them a lesson: don’t you forget that here in Queensland, Anything Goes. Financial ruin was inevitable. Although the Nationals had lost power a year ago, as a political force they were far from spent, especially in the National Party heartland of Maleny. I suspected that a council with a National Party ethos could well play a double game and refuse an unpopular rezoning application on flimsy grounds as a deliberate strategy that would ultimately favour the applicant business during its appeal. Greg’s urging to get ‘involved’ was good in theory, but most of us had homes to pay off and couldn’t risk losing everything we had.
My husband had anticipated this dilemma. Our friend, musician Danny Ross, was an objector with no assets and Alan had been around to his share house to tee him up. Danny, a slightly built father of two daughters, now sprang to his feet. ‘I’d be honoured to help. All I have is my guitar,’ he stated candidly. ‘If I’m sued, that’s all they’ll get.’
‘Don’t worry, if it comes to that,’ someone joked, ‘we’ll pass the hat around and buy you a new one.’ It all seemed easy enough.
In the week that followed, the Caloundra City Council did decide to defend its decision and was thereby deemed the First Respondent. Danny was called the Respondent by Election – this didn’t mean he was elected by the community (although he was), but rather that he elected, or chose, to be a party. The legal teams were appointed. Sellars Holdings chose a company on the twenty-second floor of a tower in Eagle Street in Brisbane; Caloundra City Council chose a local firm from their beach town; and Danny Ross chose the blazer-wearing Malenyite, Greg Williams.
The job of the second public meeting was to elect a committee. Lindsay Kruger, a horseman and saddler who rented a farmhouse on Bald Knob on the eastern approach to town with views to the magnificent Caloundra coastline, wanted to become involved. A man with a nose for scuttlebutt, he soon discovered that Sellars Holdings was a subsidiary of Colonial Sugar Refinery, or CSR, a company that had diversified from sugar into building products. (It was at this time in Western Australia that another of its holding companies was failing to safeguard its workers and their communities from deadly asbestos contaminants, not that we knew that.) Lindsay’s skills in event management and organisational manoeuvring would prove invaluable, and he’d become the chief negotiator.
I announced that I had nominations from Lindsay Kruger, Cesca Ennis, Alan McClure and me.
‘So?’ I pressed. ‘Those in favour? Carried.’
‘We need a name,’ Danny Ross declared. ‘How about FABS: Find Another Batching Site.’
Everyone, except for the cantankerous Timothy, loved it, and on 3 December 1990, FABS was born.
A team who can work together is crucial for the success of any campaign. We were fortunate to have Peter Oliver join us – he had a science degree in land-use management and ecology. The Olivers lived in Bunya Street, down from the concrete plant, and Peter’s wife, Ann, was an artist who taught pottery in the shed behind their house. Ann kept a low profile during the campaign, but we all knew her role was crucial: not only did she release Peter from family duties (they had two young girls) to attend endless meetings, events and appointments, she also created the logo and made our merchandise.
The members of the FABS executive barely knew each other, but recognised a collective balance of zeal, intelligence and sanity. Over the next three years, we’d get to know each other a lot more.
ON 10 DECEMBER, the matter – it would always be called the matter – came before His Honour Justice Quirk in the Local Government Court in Brisbane. Caloundra City Council identified its traffic issue; we, through the Respondent by Election, presented ten ‘issues in dispute’, including the obvious ones of noise and dust. Justice Quirk ordered that the parties ready their documents for mutual sniffing – a process he called discovery – by the end of January 1991. Expert witnesses’ reports would be exchanged in April and the hearing would begin in May.
FABS was now enmeshed in a town planning conflict and at the mercy of local and state legislation. No one on the newly elected committee had the remotest connection with town planning, but we were all in our thirties with energy to burn.
With the soporific Christmas holidays almost upon us, we galvanised.
Peter Oliver canoed down the Obi, gathering water samples and checking for platypus. The dairying community was curiously uninterested in the plateau’s unique platypus population, and we soon found the Local Government Court was too. Its sole focus was disputes ‘pertinent to human beings’ – only the Supreme Court would consider ‘wider environmental problems’. In the case of ‘Sellars vs Caloundra City Council and Daniel Ross,’ the platypus would be entirely irrelevant. All the same, Ann Oliver drew one wearing boxing gloves, and her Fighting Platypus became our rallying symbol.
At the end of each year, the Queensland Folk Federation hired the showgrounds for a week to run the Maleny Folk Festival (it later evolved into the Woodford Folk Festival in the nearby town of Woodford), and our first fundraising activity was a stall selling Ann’s merchandise.
I wrote a call-to-arms. Our mass mail-out informed objectors of the decision to oppose Sellars/CSR in the Local Government Court and asked for contributions to the fighting fund that Cesca and Alan had opened. And Danny Ross composed the ‘FABS Song’, whose chorus went:
All this activity was terrific, but our campaign had no substance without reports by experts. Alan McClure shot a roll of film of the paddock, the town and its environs, and the traffic flow. Home computers weren’t then capable of emailing images, so Alan hand-delivered his photographs to town planning consultants Brannock Humphreys in Brisbane. Danny Ross and Greg Williams went too. Faced with geologist-photographer, hippy-muso and family solicitor, John Brannock generously agreed to report on the matter for less than his usual fee.
Initially, our main strategy was to hold the Caloundra City Council to a defence of its own town plan. FABS met with the mayor, a man we believed to be a National Party stalwart. ‘If you can find an alternative site that has community support,’ Mayor Aldous enthused, ‘we’ll support you.’
We were still babes-in-the-woods, but the mayor must have known that action groups aren’t responsible for providing planning solutions for business. Perhaps he thought, That’ll keep ’em busy!
Peter Oliver tried to prod him into being more proactive about the waterways. ‘We should see the Obi as an asset to the town instead of a glorified gutter. I’ve tested it for bacteria and it’s clear that, even without prospective spills from a batching plant, it’s already stressed. It needs a massive tree-plant along its banks to restore it to health.’
The idea of protecting the creek was a popular one in Maleny’s alternative circles, but in the context of local government and business interests circa 1990, Peter’s suggestion was a radical one.
IN THE EARLY days of the community’s honeymoon with FABS, the money flowed easily. Many donations came with touching additions: artwork on how the lantana-ridden creek might look with regeneration; poems; advice for dealing with the legal system; notes of appreciation. Cesca, now the campaign treasurer, paid our first legal bill with ease from the proceeds from our festival stall and an influx of donations. But we soon realised that the seven of us were running a small community business and, to keep afloat, we’d have to fundraise continuously. Maleny wasn’t a town with a lot of money circulating; many residents were on unemployment or sole parenting benefits, or were aged pensioners. And the business community tended to help with prizes for raffles rather than cash.
Fortunately, the town’s alternative co-operative societies were more generous. Jill Jordan, founder of many of the co-ops – the credit union (or ‘hippie bank’); the food co-op; and Wastebusters, the recycling co-op, among others – rallied support.
It’s puzzling that no one thought to pressure Queensco to withdraw its parcel of land from sale. Queensco originated, after all, as a dairy co-operative. Yet there was no wink-wink, nudge-nudge – one co-op to another. There may have been a reluctance to antagonise the dairymen in Maleny who sat on its board; after all, our kids knew their kids. And from its giant whizz-bang shed, Queensco ran a great business with everything a farmer or tree-changer might need. We did wonder, however, if Queensco and Sellars/CSR had some sort of additional commercial arrangement that tied their interests together. Sellars had, literally, poured a lot of concrete into Queensco’s sturdy new building. It was confidentially suggested by a Queensco insider that a clandestine deal involving complex accounting was in place, but we didn’t find anything to prove such an assertion.
Campaign business was done around the McClure kitchen table at Treehaven Way, two kilometres from town, while our teenager minded the one-year-old. Our bull terrier, ET Lee, greeted and farewelled each FABSie, as if to let us know that the animal kingdom was on our side. We enjoyed each other’s company, and found that our skills meshed and that we could thrash out ideas with complete frankness. It was with the same candour that we dealt with the community. Through the Range News, FABS told the town that donations to the tune of $1,000 a week were needed to pay for the hearing.
The first public meeting of 1991 was tense. Thirty people were present, and not all of them were happy. Timothy Hobbs grumbled about everything; less predictably someone else disliked the ‘confrontational’ tone of the word ‘fight’ and therefore the Fighting Platypus logo. Many folk couldn’t grasp the fact that the town’s only hope was to present evidence, not emotions, to the judge who would preside over the appeal in April. It was a relief when the meeting closed with, ‘We endorse the actions taken by the committee and empower them to take action on events arising in this matter between meetings.’
We confidently commissioned Max Winders and Associates, a traffic engineering firm in Brisbane, to report on the noise and dust implications of a concrete batching plant in the heart of Maleny.
THE SUCCESS OF the stall at the Maleny Folk Festival seemed evidence that Queensland was changing, that we could dance and sing our way to early resolution.
But even there, a shadow fell – the guys manning our stall noticed they were being photographed. Geologist: click. Saddler: click. Teacher: click. This act of intimidation was the first; many more would follow. Peter Oliver recognised the man as a local. Four months later, we learnt from a report in the Courier-Mail that the man with the camera had legal woes too. He was a Sunshine Coast policeman who’d been stood down from his duties, and charged with having (between 1987 and 1989) corruptly received sums of money from a former brothel madam on the Sunshine Coast; keeping a house for prostitution; and failing to proceed with charging a woman with a prostitution offence. The new state Labor government had begun to address the corruption that had flourished in the final phase of the National Party’s thirty-two years of power, and its Fitzgerald Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct 1987–1989 meant that wrongdoers were now being held to account. Just who employed or encouraged such a man to photograph FABS personnel, we never discovered.
More intrusive were the nuisance calls. The phones in our houses rang at all hours of the night. To suggest our phones were tapped would be too paranoid for words, but frequent clicking noises during conversations did invite such strange thoughts.
Then the company’s law firm arrived from Brisbane one weekend and door-knocked the homes and businesses of objectors to ask: Can you verify that this is your signature? When you signed, were you pressured? Many objectors found it intimidating. If the firm’s aim was to discredit the campaign by proving the objections were fake, it backfired because their enquiries firmly established the signatories were genuine. A quarter of the town had told the council that they didn’t want a concrete batching plant in Coral Street. And opposition was growing.
Goliath had a very tricky David on his hands. Daniel, actually. Daniel Ross, Respondent by Election.
IN MARCH 1991, a stunning local government election swept Winston Johnston and the other male councillors from office. Installed in their place were two women who came, not from dairy farms or businesses in town, but from two of the many secluded properties that abounded on the plateau’s numerous ridges and valleys: Jill Jordan (dubbed the ‘co-op queen’ and ‘mother of the co-op movement’ by the press) lived in a converted cow bail in an intentional community known as Frog’s Hollow, and Vivienne Coleman lived in a converted railway carriage. Both had genuine track records of protecting the environment. In a broad wave of voter discontent, Mayor Don Aldous from Caloundra was also swept from office (although only temporarily; he later returned to serve until retirement in 2008).
Before the election, the concrete batching plant story aired on the Queensland edition of ABC’s The 7.30 Report. It was the week of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, and their ‘balancing’ segment featured Danny the hippie guy singing about platypuses as he forded the gurgling waters of the Obi Obi. After the election, and thanks to television, Danny became quite a celebrity and more people than ever joined him in the main street to sing:
During the election campaign, FABS had played tough. We’d taken out a full-page advertisement in the Range News to reveal how little the council had done to stop the batching plant relocating to the centre of town, and had been vocal at meet-the-candidate meetings. We’d helped swing the electorate’s voting pattern from knee-jerk support for the National Party to open-mindedness.
BUNYA NUTS ARE spikey, can weigh up to ten kilograms, and are best broken open with an axe. The smaller nuts within are roasted and eaten. Locals know not to tempt fate by standing under them in fruiting season – the unfortunate can happen.
At the second public meeting of 1991, oppositional voices were raised in earnest for the first time. Sellars’ intention to relocate its plant somewhere on the plateau, if it couldn’t get the one it wanted in Coral Street, made people jittery. A ‘not in my back yard’ mentality was taking hold. (Later, FABS wondered why we hadn’t seen it before – there was no need for anyone, including the council or the state government, to find another batching site in Maleny – there were plenty of zones for heavy industry, off the plateau.)
As it often does in public meetings, the compass point of discussion swung wildly. The ever-volatile Timothy Hobbs, now in support of FABS’s every move, likened the company’s behaviour to a terrorist attack and demanded the Governor-General of Australia intervene.
Our solicitor brought the focus back to reality. ‘The engineering report, Potential Noise and Dust Pollution from Proposed Concrete Batching Plant Maleny, came today. I can’t divulge the contents but,’ he smiled broadly, ‘it’s convincing.’
Jill Jordan and Vivienne Coleman, councillors of only two weeks’ standing, reported that they’d already managed to get Caloundra City Council to strengthen the grounds on which it would defend its position by going beyond the traffic issue. Council had also asked Sellars/CSR for an adjournment to give it more time to find a solution. The company had agreed.
Once the court approved the adjournment it had the immediate effect of making the issue less urgent and fundraising more difficult. In the months that followed, our activities were often PR exercises rather than profitable: a Platypus Family Fun Day, a morning tea, a piano recital, donation jars on shop counters. In June, when our solicitor sent an updated Memorandum of Fees, the amount FABS owed had grown as fast as kikuyu grass in summer. Our engineer’s fee was more than $6,000. The barrister we had to engage to oversee the adjournment (which FABS had not wanted) charged $2,000. Courier fees, phone calls, faxes, photocopying – it was all adding up, while donations had slowed to a trickle. My publicity efforts in the Range News seem, in retrospect, hysterically hopeful about the rallying power of the exclamation mark: FABS IS ALIVE AND WELL! But sobered by legal bills!
The Anything Goes forces regrouped to make Councillor Jill Jordan their prime target. Their level of vitriol had never been experienced before in our mountain paradise, with the catchcries of: Motorists, not trees! Reckless ‘greenie’ councillors are wasting ratepayers’ money! Chop it, burn it, get rid of it! All this was in response to her request that council re-align a road during road sealing works on Bald Knob to save a mature blue gum. Her intervention inspired the region’s first decent discussion about the need to preserve nesting sites for native and migratory birds – at least until the Anything Goes crowd went ballistic. Then, on 3 July under the cover of darkness, someone drilled five holes into the blue gum’s trunk, and filled them with poison. Come local government elections in 1994, Jill would be subjected to a vicious whispering campaign. After only one term, she lost office.
It was impossible to live a normal life in 1991 – the legal situation we were embroiled in was always pouncing on us with new concepts to understand, new jargon to learn, new actions to take, new bills to honour. Our solicitor took to sending reminders to each of us, individually. Could we be personally liable for thousands of dollars after all?
Six days after the poisoning, the matter of the appeal came before Judge Row in Brisbane for mention. By this time, the Labor government had changed the name of the Local Government Court to the ‘Planning and Environment Court’. The judge set the hearing for November.
Gloom settled on the next kitchen-table meeting. ET Lee, alert to the tension, pretended to snooze but lay with her ears pricked.
‘The last court thingy has stuffed us,’ said Cesca, distributing copies of our solicitor’s latest reminders. ‘We’re on our knees.’
‘Then we’ll act on our own behalf,’ Peter Oliver said. ‘We told Sellars to Find Another Batching Site – and we meant it.’
‘We can do it,’ Lindsay Kruger affirmed. ‘I’ll tell Greg we’ve decided to go it alone.’
FABS filed the necessary notices to direct correspondence to the laundrette. We knew we couldn’t hold out much longer.
IN SEPTEMBER, DONALD Greenfield, an artist whose cartoons had been published in Rolling Stone and the Bulletin, offered us a drawing of a whimsical platypus playing a guitar. Rockstar Plat was used to advertise our next major fundraiser, a dance with Brisbane rock group Hoi Polloi. Ann and Peter had added a son to their family, but even with a tiny babe in the house Ann somehow kept making badges and Peter kept coming to meetings. Danny and Cesca kept running street stalls with donated home-baked goodies, and we knocked another $1,000 off what we owed.
Approaching the Queensland Legal Aid Office for help was Lindsay’s idea. On 18 October, with a two-year-old playing around my knees, I explained on Danny’s behalf that legal representation was proving to be too much for the community to bear, and evidence from our expert witnesses might not be heard in court because we hadn’t the money to pay for legal representation.
An intense exchange of phone calls and faxes followed and – a miracle! – Legal Aid took over the case. (The Environmental Defenders Offices, a nationwide network, would soon become the more usual method for communities in similar predicaments.) We partied around the kitchen table at Treehaven Way and sang our theme song into the night:
The day of the appeal hearing – Monday, 11 November 1991 – dawned. Danny Ross borrowed a business shirt from Alan and smoothed down his Hendrix hair. He arrived at the Planning and Environment Court with Lindsay to find his legal team waiting for him: the solicitor from Legal Aid; the barrister; and expert witnesses John Brannock and Max Winders (all with their various attendants). As Danny greeted them, the law firm from Eagle Street made a beeline for him; Sellars Holdings/CSR now wanted an adjournment.
A certain etiquette prevails in legal circles. To crow – you’ve read the reports of our experts and those of the Not-Anything Goes council and know you can’t win, so now you’re stalling – would not be acceptable. Inside the court, the company’s legal team laid out a trail of correspondence for Her Honour Judge O’Sullivan to consider. How very hard the concrete business had worked on finding an alternative site: meetings with Council, meetings and letters back and forth to the Minister for Lands and the Minister for Education and the local member. They wanted more time, for the state (Labor) government to solve the problem. Both Danny and the legal team for the Caloundra City Council felt pressured to agree to a further delay, and Judge O’Sullivan ruled for a second adjournment. Fortunately for the Legal Aid Office, which would have otherwise footed the bill, she ordered the company to pay the Respondent by Election’s costs for the day.
To a non-legal mind, it didn’t look like victory, but our legal team assured FABS that the end was near.
Ann, with her babe of three months, made badges and silk-screened Rockstar Plat onto T-shirts for our second Maleny Folk Festival stall. Lindsay got into the swing of it and designed a legionnaire-style cap he called the Platy Hat. The batching site threat was tangible, being on the other side of the Obi Obi Creek from the festival, and FABS merchandise again sold well. What remained was packed up ready for the next festival.
Throughout 1992, something like ordinary life resumed. Still, we kept up the pressure so that no matter where you looked, FABS seemed to be there. We were like a cult, a movement. Or perhaps our opposition may have likened us to the leeches or ticks of the plateau’s rainforest remnants – tenacious nuisances that don’t let go. Artists continued donating their works and musicians kept on performing benefits. When the heavens opened and the flood plain at 23 Coral Street was – surprise! – flooded at the end of 1992, Alan the FABS photographer was there.
To be a FABSie was like being committed to a group marriage or an inherited second family: Ann and Peter, me and Alan, Cesca and Lindsay and Danny. No one could leave town. Our solicitor kept sending us reminders; Cesca kept paying off the bills in increments; Ann kept making art; Peter kept sampling water from the Obi; Lindsay kept organising; Danny sang every Saturday morning in the main street; and I kept writing to the local paper, which, despite a narrow cohort of advertisers who withdrew their business, never shirked from covering the issue.
But let’s cut to the chase: on 4 March 1993, the case came before the Planning and Environment Court. Judge Row again presided. The cement company formally announced it would drop its appeal. The council decision to reject the application by Sellars Holdings/CSR in 1990, to rezone 23 Coral Street for the purposes of a concrete batching plant, stood.
The artists, cooks, gardeners, letter writers, musicians, poets, small business folk and volunteers – even the Oliver girls, who coloured in platypus badges – could bask in the warmth of victory and the glow of the selfless service. We’d saved the town.
THE COMPANY MOVED on the issue of legal costs with sudden speed, once again catching us off guard. Within weeks, Judge Row ordered that each party bear their own costs. FABS was outraged and wanted to appeal, but the Legal Aid Office firmly advised that success would be unlikely and that their contribution was complete.
The official celebration was at La Picardie in Maple Street. Councillors Jill Jordan and Vivienne Coleman congratulated us for our grit, and Danny received a standing ovation – for being prepared to risk everything and for the ‘FABS Song’, which he’d performed almost daily for two and a half years.
A year later, Cesca wrote a final cheque to our long-suffering solicitor, and closed the FABS fighting fund. For the core group of seven, it was finally over.
Between 1993 and 1998, the National Party returned to govern the state of Queensland. On the Saturday morning of the 1998 state elections, while Queenslanders voted – yes, on the last morning of the National Party’s four-year return to power – the Cabinet granted CSR $700,000 compensation for the loss of its site on the Bunya Street hill.
Now in 2016, there are only four FABSies left. Alan McClure was the first to go, followed by the Olivers, all taken by cancer. Only Danny Ross (he’s called Danny Rose now) and Lindsay Kruger still reside in Maleny. It was at the co-operative café, naturally, that in late December 2015 we celebrated twenty-five years since the founding of FABS. (With maddening irony, it was the same week that earthworks commenced on the paddock behind the old butter factory which is finally being developed for light industrial use.)
That weekend, I spent some time walking along the Obi Obi Creek boardwalk off Coral Street. Thanks to volunteer tree planters who started work in the early 1990s, walkers can enjoy passing under a canopy of black beans, black wattle and other native species on the way through the riverine strip to the lush green ovals of the showgrounds. This stretch of the Obi Obi Creek and its banks are dynamic, and blessedly free from concrete dust, traffic and noise. Platypus sightings are frequent, especially from the community-built footbridge that leads to the showgrounds. Maleny has embraced the boardwalk concept so completely that boardwalks now extend for many kilometres downstream as well.
I mused that the ‘riverside walkway to view the platypus’, which Cesca and I called for in 1990, is a reality.
Winning ‘hearts and minds’ is a cliche, but what FABS did was just that. We took the community on a journey from mindless allegiance to what business and government claimed was economic progress, to open-mindedness, and then to a mindful claiming of community assets for the benefit of future generations. Vision vanquished Anything Goes. Small business beat big business. Art trounced money. Beauty banished ugliness. Amen.
*This piece was amended on 12 April 2016, to reflect that in 2012, the Jinibara peoples were identified as the traditional owners of the Baroon Pocket area, whereas in the 1990s it was believed to be the Gubbi Gubbi.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the John Oxley Library of the State Library of Queensland for images from the Maleny-FABS Archive 1990–93. Non-archival and non-accredited images attained from creative commons sources.
Lesley Synge’s most recent work is an illustrated e-novel, Cry Ma Ma to the Moon (2014), on Amazon. Her book Mountains Belong to the People who Love Them (Post Pressed, 2011) is, in part, a work in praise of the Gold Coast Hinterland Great Walk. During the FABS campaign she was mostly known as Lesley McClure.