Labor History Daywalk – Blue Mountains

Damian O’Connor

The national parks to the west of Sydney – together Blue Mountains, Wollemi and Kanangra-Boyd – are collectively larger than the entire Sydney Basin, and envelop the greatest area of wilderness close to a major city anywhere in the world.

While many activists built up movements to protect the environment, it has almost always fallen to Labor governments to enact the necessary legislation.

It has often struck me that Labor has a wonderful story to tell on the environmental protection front. I recently attended a Labor Environment Action Network celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Hawke Labor government saving the Gordon River from being destroyed by a hydroelectric dam sponsored by the then Liberal government in Tasmania. Labor lost every seat in Tasmania in the 1983 federal election, but won office, and was good to its word to protect the river.

Labor supporters on Darwin's Walk, Wentworth Falls July 2013
Labor supporters on Darwin’s Walk, Wentworth Falls July 2013

Of course, Labor also has much to celebrate about environmental protection here in New South Wales. We have a proud lineage, in particular the deeds of Premiers Wran and Carr. As Premier, Neville Wran had walked in the Wollemi with conservationist Milo Dunphy, as did Bob Carr. NSW Labor’s two longest-serving Premiers both declared major new national parks. But the legacy goes back further than that, and is a story worth telling.  This article focuses on the Blue Mountains.

Most of the activists in this story weren’t members of political parties. They acted to apply pressure to the governments of the day. There are a couple of Liberals worthy of mention – just a couple! But the political heft to preserve NSW wilderness all came from Labor. Almost all the big protection decisions had been made before the Greens existed as a political party. It took experience and conviction, and leadership from the very top.

Creation of National Parks north and south of the Blue Mountains

But first to acknowledge – the land comprising the Blue Mountains is Daruk and Gundungurra land. There is evidence at Wentworth Falls of Aboriginal occupation of the Mountains dating back at least 22,000 years. There remains an indigenous presence in the Mountains today.

The campaign to preserve the Blue Mountains region has been documented by organisations such as the Colong Foundation in books such as “Battle for the Bush” by Geoff Mosley (Envirobook, 1999) or in the coffee table gracing “Blue Mountains World Heritage” by Alex Colley and Henry Gold (Colong Foundation, 2004). Both document the emergence of the Mountains as an escape from the expanding Sydney and as a pass to the west on the State, and relate the pivotal role of early pioneers such as Myles Dunphy.

In 1922, the idea of a national park was being discussed by members of bushwalking clubs associated with Dunphy. These were not Labor activists. It would take until the 1960s for modern-style, political campaigning around environmental protection to emerge, driven in part by internal tensions within the Askin Liberal government.

The story is told of a bushwalking party meeting two Bilpin farmers who had acquired logging rights around Bluegum Forest in the Grose Valley in Easter 1931, during the Depression. The bushwalkers, led by Alan Rigby of the Sydney Bushwalking Club (SBW), by year’s end had raised the considerable sum of 130 pounds to meet terms they’d struck in the bush with the farmers to save the lease from felling. The land was handed to the state, under Labor Premier Jack Lang, and bushwalker trustees were appointed.

In June 1932, the first proposal for a National Park was presented to the Blue Mountains Shire Council and the State government, but the Depression and war slowed things down. In the meantime, Dunphy, Alan Rigby and others continued to organise and campaign.

In 1946, Premier McKell, who earlier had created the Snowy Mountains National Park (1944) in the region in which he grew up, established a National Parks Committee to consider six proposals for national parks around New South Wales, including the Blue Mountains. Of course, McKell is a much-lauded Labor Premier, having been the first of a string of five Premiers that would govern NSW from 1941 to 1965.

The first section of the Blue Mountains National Park was gazetted in 1959. The Labor Premier at this time was JJ Cahill, who travelled up the Mountain the weekend before the 1959 State Conference to open a lookout in his name. It is still there in Katoomba. Joe Cahill died later in 1959, days after the National Park was gazetted. At this stage, the Park was only 64000 hectares. Today it is four times that size.

The 1960s saw the NSW environment movement become more political, as it focused on working in electorates and seeking to influence the NSW Parliament. This parallelled the international rise of protest movements in the late 1960s. This coincided with the Askin Liberal Government in NSW, and pressure led to its creation of the smaller Kanangra-Boyd National Park in 1969. Two years earlier, Tom  Lewis, later to be Liberal Premier for a short period before being shafted, had legislated the National Parks Act. He was one of a handful of Liberals (Tim Moore possibly another) worthy of honourable mention. Public pressure also defeated an AGL proposal for a gas line through the canyon and pagoda-rich Wollangambe wilderness to the north of the Bells Line of Road. This saw the first public inquiry into a development proposal in Australia. Also fought at this time was an Electricity Commission plan to dam the Colo, building a power station on the Newnes Plateau. This was eventually shelved and Mt Piper Power Station, near Lithgow, was built instead. In 1974, the Colong was added to the Kanangra-Boyd.

Logging on the Boyd Plateau to the south remained highly contentious, with the NSW Forestry Commission fighting to keep the plateau open to logging. It took Wran’s win in 1976 to save the Plateau. Over its twelve years, the Wran-Unsworth Government gradually added iconic valleys and ridges south of the Great Western Highway, from Wentworth Falls to Katoomba, including Narrowneck, to the Blue Mountains National Park. Abercrombie Caves was added to the Kanangra-Boyd.

Dwarfing and adjacent to the Blue Mountains National Park is the Wollemi National Park. It is the largest declared wilderness area in NSW, at about half a million hectares – equivalent to  a square piece of land with 70km sides. Wollemi was established by the Wran Government in 1979, two days before the centenary of the first officially declared “national park” in the world, now called the Royal National Park.

Under the Liberals’ Tim Moore, mining was banned in national parks. This issue could become topical again under Liberal/National governments in NSW and other States.

With its election in March 1995, the Carr Government cancelled a planned raising of the Warragamba Dam wall, a proposal that would have cost far more than better dam level management.  It avoided massively increasing the size of Lake Burragorang, impacting wilderness in three National Parks, placing 7500 hectares of protected land under water.

The culmination of almost a century of preservation occurred in the year 2000, when Bob Carr and his Environment Minister Bob Debus witnessed the Greater Blue Mountains being declared as World Heritage protected. Ultimately, this also was supported by the federal Liberal government, with the support of Environment Minister Senator Robert Hill from South Australia.

As our population grows at a fast pace, and our major cities are seeking ways to cope, future Labor administrations will be increasingly challenged over choices between development and preservation – between satisfying today’s needs and society’s future wants. It is important that we understand our history and record as we decide our next steps. The battles are not over yet.