“When the Greens decide to speak meaningfully to electorates outside of the inner city, then they do have a message that people would like to hear and they can get over those prejudices,”
“I do see the future for the Greens as being a party of government, not just a protest party.”
Drew Hutton, a giant of the Australian environmental movement, has announced his retirement as a leading activist in his 70th year.
Hutton, described by Australian Greens co-founder Bob Brown as the “driving force” for the party’s formation in 1992, cited health issues for his decision to quit last week as president of the anti-mining group Lock the Gate.
Public office eluded Hutton who, as a trailblazer for Greens candidates that now occupy roles across all levels of government in Australia, was “the finest parliamentarian Queensland never had”, Brown said.
“Just a towering figure in Australian environmental and social politics for the last four decades,” Brown said. “In some ways maybe it was a good thing Drew wasn’t in parliament because he was out there galvanising, empowering people who were let down by the big parties, the so-called bipartisan system.
“Drew will be in the Queensland history books long after most politicians are forgotten.”
Hutton was instrumental in establishing Lock the Gate in 2011, an unprecedented alliance between environmentalists and traditionally conservative rural communities dismayed at the encroachment of the coal and coal seam gas industries.
Uniting these groups, rather than being trapped in an “inner city ghetto” of speaking only to its cosmopolitan base, could be the key to the Greens becoming “a party of government, not just a protest party”, Hutton said.
“That’s one of my bugbears. We tend to mobilise the usual suspects: inner-city, metropolitan, tertiary educated people.
“My view is you mobilise the people, first of all, who are most directly affected.
“The people who really felt strongly about this were landholders out west.”
Brown said Hutton’s work with Lock the Gate came from “an extraordinary social insight”.
“He came from the bush, of course. He knew farmers loved the land, that environmentalists did, but it was always in the interests of miners to keep the two apart,” he said.
“What the mining industry, largely foreign owned, didn’t understand was that Drew could beat them at their own game by bringing those two groups together.”
Hutton said the spread of the CSG industry in Queensland was “almost done and dusted” when he began going from “farmhouse to farmhouse” helping establish protest networks that led to Lock the Gate. “So I really got started too late.”
But the movement soon spread interstate and was key to organising community resistance particularly in New South Wales, where Hutton anticipated the expansion of CSG and coalmining into farming areas such as in the Hunter Valley and Gloucester.
“I see Lock the Gate as important because, for the first time, serious environmental issues are being taken up in a really strong way by people in the country,” Hutton said. “To the point where you’ve got farmers locking on to machinery and getting arrested in rural parts of NSW.”
It was also a return to mass grassroots actions that Hutton said had become largely absent from the environmental movement over previous decades, after key wins in wilderness protection with the Franklin River, the Daintree and Kakadu.
“In the late 2000s it had become obvious to me that the environment movement had become quiescent and basically settled into a fairly comfortable routine where it lobbied ministers and bureaucrats and that’s about it,” Hutton said.
Hutton, a former political science and history lecturer, found he had “taught half the Labor cabinet” in the state government when he began lobbying it in relation to coal seam gas in 2010.
“[But] it became obvious I wasn’t going to get anywhere with the government because they were completely convinced that CSG had to go ahead and they weren’t going to take any stands against coalmines, and if anything the LNP was worse,” he said. “If you’re cut off from influence on government, you have to go out there and mobilise your support base, or develop a new support base.”
The son of a butcher in Chinchilla, on the Darling Downs, Hutton was the first in five generations of his family not to have worked as a cattle stockman or drover.
He was school captain of Brisbane Grammar School, where as a boarder his interest in “democracy and free speech” was spurred on by the school’s “very authoritarian” culture.
Hutton, who went on to become Queensland 800m running champion at university, was coached in tennis and athletics at Grammar by the future firebrand broadcaster Alan Jones.
Jones would, decades later, become an unlikely ally of Lock the Gate, after seeking out a briefing from Hutton on mining after learning his hometown of Acland was threatened by a new coal proposal.
Hutton cut his teeth as an activist in civil liberties and social justice protests in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland. He was violently threatened by police “a couple of times but I was a little bit too high-profile and always scrupulously non-violent so I never was bashed”.
“Other people were, especially if you were black or in a minority group.”
In the 1990s, Hutton came before a magistrate who he had first encountered in the back of a police van a decade earlier.
Hutton had been arrested for speaking at a protest rally in Brisbane’s centre, while the magistrate was arrested after inadvertently walking into the rally on his way to dinner.
“He found me not guilty,” Hutton said.
Most of Hutton’s 20-plus arrests came early in the Bjelke-Petersen era but his civil disobedience has continued well into his 60s.
The NSW Greens MP Justin Field recalled Hutton being “dragged away by police arrested for peacefully protesting Metgasco’s gas exploration plans” in 2013.
“I’ll never forget Drew Hutton’s [earlier] speech to the blockade at Doubtful Creek,” Field said. “Drew said, ‘When governments fail, ordinary people have to become heroes – and you are heroes’.”
Brown said Hutton’s early social activism left him well poised for his later environmental advocacy, which was “cutting edge globally as well as in Australia”.
“He could see that malfeasance at the high level with Bjelke-Petersen, he could see it with the mining industry,” Brown said. “He’s a pioneer with trying to get the mining industry to do the right thing by the public by fixing up its messes and stopping its polluting.
“Drew almost singlehandedly for a decade was the outspoken figure, well studied, sticking with the facts, who was putting the alternative point of view.”
The recent land court decision on Acland, which recommended the first rejection of a coalmining licence in Queensland history, as well as court victories against coalmining in NSW, provided “a good note for me to go out on”, Hutton said.
“I’ve known cases that are just as bad as Acland but they’ve been allowed through by the courts, simply because there wasn’t the same level of public outcry.
“I think it demonstrates why it’s necessary to have a mass movement and a lot of the public behind you, because there’s no doubt the courts are influenced by public opinion – in fact they’re supposed to be influenced by it, public expectations.”
Radio host Jones had been a “huge help” to Lock the Gate, “especially in NSW”, Hutton said.
Jones, a “very good coach”, and Hutton had gone their separate ways after Grammar until years later Jones’s producer rang him out of the blue to see if he would speak about mining.
“We always liked each other but there was that political gap – Alan and I would be at either end of the political spectrum – but I thought [for] about two nanoseconds and said yes,” Hutton said. “The one thing about Alan is once he gets his teeth into something he just doesn’t let go. Before too long, he just knew it backwards.”
Hutton said he resisted the idea “that we should just simply be talking to people that agree with us”.
“We should be talking to everybody because everybody is interested in the environment, especially if it affects them.
“By talking to farmers and people who were quite often politically conservative, that made it far easier for Alan and I to discuss these issues.”
Lock the Gate campaign coordinator Carmel Flint said Hutton had shown “extraordinary leadership” and “worked tirelessly to support farmers and communities who are dealing with all the stress and pressure of a mining invasion”.
“Everything Drew has done, he has done with integrity, intelligence, humour and kindness. We can’t thank him enough.”
Hutton said it was gratifying to see the likes of Brisbane Greens councillor Jonathan Sri – who last year won a ward that Hutton himself achieved his own highest vote in eight years before – winning office and retaining the “that element of militancy I always favoured for the Greens”.
“Inner city electorates are ripe for Green victories with that cosmopolitan vote but there also is a danger in my view for the Greens to be trapped into that sort of inner city ghetto.
“I think the Greens need to craft their messages so people who live in outer suburbs and in the country also see it applies to them.”
With the National party “representing mining and wealthier farmers who do well out of globalisation, not ordinary farmers”, Pauline Hanson had made inroads into an electorate where the Greens could also, Hutton said.
“When the Greens decide to speak meaningfully to electorates outside of the inner city, then they do have a message that people would like to hear and they can get over those prejudices,” he said.
The aim of a 20% following in Australia would be then be “quite achievable”.
“I do see the future for the Greens as being a party of government, not just a protest party.”
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