Some reflections on Friends of the Earth: 1974−76

Neil Barrett

It was sometime late in 1974. 

"God Alan, what happened?" said the young FOE person outside the office in MacArthur Place in Carlton.

A bloody-nosed, somewhat shaken-up Alan: "I was innocently riding down St Kilda Rd and stopped in traffic at the Flinders St intersection. A driver behind started yelling at me to get out of his way. I told him where to get off and before long we had a fair dinkum argument going on. He kicked my wheel, I pulled his windscreen wipers off and got a punch or two in the head for my trouble."

That was a conversation I overheard on my first day at Friends of the Earth (FoE) in November 1974. I'd only recently left Nimbin where I'd been for almost a year and although violence wasn't unheard of in the land of the hippies, it was quite a shock to see a 50-something cyclist so affected.

Alan was of course Alan Parker, who had started the Bicycle Institute of Victoria in the early 1970s and wrote many letters to The Age about how we could virtually eliminate car traffic in Melbourne if everyone rode a bike to the nearest train station. He was a wonderful bike advocate and an inspiration to the younger FoE activists of the day.

MacArthur Place was a small single terrace house in Carlton and a very busy place. It was generously loaned rent-free by the next door neighbours, two recently graduated doctors, Brett Forge and Wendy Hayes. Wendy was the sister of Peter Hayes who was the FoE coordinator.

Having shared an old weatherboard house with 50 or so hippies on Nimbin's Tuntable Falls cooperative for 12 months, I was used to rough living. The two bedroom MacArthur Place house was certainly another challenge. Some people worked, ate and slept there, some just worked and had a home to go to. But almost everyone frequently worked into the early hours of the morning. As you might expect, cleaning and tidying weren't high on anyone's agenda.

These were heady days. Environmental activism was in its infancy and the issue of uranium mining had become the issue of the day. Universities had active environment groups and academics, unions and churches were very interested in what we were doing and offering assistance in various ways. Before long the left of the ALP was also convinced that this was an issue worth fighting for.

I'd only been around for a month or two when Peter Hayes announced that he was going to the US and a new coordinator was needed. Whether I put up my hand or was anointed I don't recall, but quite quickly I assumed the leadership mantle.

Peter had been an incredibly hard working and effective leader. He was able to represent the group at all levels of media and politics and would work day and night to write and design publications or organise a demonstration. He famously argued with the Minister for Minerals and Energy Rex Connor when in his Parliament House office and had to be thrown out ... by big Rex himself.

So, a hard act to follow. But, though I didn't have Peter's media savvy or his ability to work day and night, I had more than my share of energy, a passion for the issue and a very strong desire to make sure I made myself useful.

Bicycle Ride Against Uranium

The first major activity for me was the location search for the inaugural Bicycle Ride Against Uranium to Canberra in May 1975. With another FoE member I drove up the Hume and Newell highways, seeking 10 places for a bunch of long-haired bike riders to hold a meeting for the local citizenry and to stay overnight. So every 50-70 kilometres the 50 people who made the trip had a place to stop over. Most often it was a church hall generously donated to us for the night.

The ride a few weeks later was a great experience. Singer song-writer Glen Tomasetti rode in a support vehicle and, with her beautiful voice, sang for her supper each night; wherever there was a piano I was called upon to play a bit of stirring ragtime; two Japanese people had come from an anti nuclear power group in Japan and, though pretty unfit, managed to ride all the way; and many people came along to hear the speeches and music we were able to turn on.

On day 10, a pretty tired bunch of cyclists reached Canberra. On the way to the lawns we decided to have a sit down with bikes on a Canberra main road. The police reacted with some force and, after a few arrests were made, the road was soon cleared. The event was one of the features of the film Ride Against Uranium which made by a film crew from Rusden CAE in Melbourne. Some people have argued that I can clearly be seen darting about helping to orchestrate the sit-down but I reckon it was an activist hippie outsider who just happened to infiltrate our ranks on that day. (Videos of the 1977 'Ride Against Uranium' are posted at

These days I ride a sleek carbon fibre road bike. In 1975 I borrowed an old rattler from Brett Forge, did some light training for one or two days and I was off on the 40km to Kilmore for the first stage. Arriving rather late and exhausted at Kilmore I forgot that I had to get out of the stirrups and promptly, and unceremoniously, fell off in front of the welcoming crowd. Not a good start.

When we arrived in Canberra we camped out on the lawns of old parliament House as a delegation went into the House to meet with deputy PM, Dr Jim Cairns. Cairns made his first anti-uranium statement to that group and this was quoted widely in the media.

Ranger Uranium Inquiry

Soon after our return to Melbourne we were advised that our application for federal funding to prepare a case against uranium mining for the Ranger Uranium Inquiry (often called the Fox Inquiry) had been successful. We received $30,000 and divided it up between the six or so people who needed it to live on while they worked on different parts of the submission over the next few months.

We did a huge amount of research in that time. One of the most interesting sources of information was the library of Western Mining Corporation, one of the leading companies involved in uranium exploration. I'd somehow got to know one of the staff members and he agreed to let me into the library. There I avidly read Nucleonics Week −  a very revealing publication which, though it supported the nuclear industry, reported very frankly on its misadventures, failures, accidents and incidents. We helped turn a lot of these events into news items for our many readers of Uranium Deadline which started around that time.

Partly because we'd got the funding, FoE Victoria did most of the heavy intellectual lifting at the Inquiry for the FoE Australia network. We presented papers on all important aspects of the industry over a few days.

My contribution was on the Japanese nuclear industry. The supposed need for uranium by the energy-starved Japanese was used by the Liberal government − led by Gorton and then McMahon – as a major reason why we needed to dig up and sell uranium. My work showed that there was growing opposition to the industry in Japan and for good reason: there were too few suitable sites and the country had had quite a problematic history with nuclear matters. Already, by the time the Fox inquiry came around, even the Japanese government had quietly cut back its nuclear target and therefore its need for our uranium. This news had not then reached Australia.

Soon after completing the paper, I nervously went on late night radio 3AR as it was known then. With no help at all from the sleepy guy who showed me into the studio, I attempted to put this point about Japan across to a national audience. In the middle of a sentence my mind went blank, panic took over and my initially strong voice ended in a confused whimper and never recovered. It was a depressing ride home to the Carlton laundry outbuilding I shared with my partner at the time. It took me quite a few days to get over it.

It wasn't panic which got me on the first day of the Ranger Inquiry hearings in Melbourne. It was total exhaustion. I rose to speak but found that no sound passed my lips, only a bare whisper. Justice Fox made a flippant remark, I asked one of my colleagues to read my paper , listened to it somewhat painfully and, once finished, immediately decamped for a cycling holiday around the Great Ocean Road. After only two days around the beaches I heard a radio report that the Atomic Energy Commission folk at the Inquiry were arguing that Japan still had a desperate need for our uranium. I immediately got back on the bike and headed back to the FoE office to put out a press release arguing the contrary. Whether that did any good or not I don't recall, but in true Don Quixote style I couldn't let them get away with it, could I?

Public resistance and direct action

The rest of 1975 was dominated by our effort to help build a strong public resistance to uranium mining. Aware that we represented the activist, alternative section of the movement we supported the establishment of the Movement Against Uranium Mining (MAUM) which could represent all sections of society and became the umbrella group for the many organisations involved in the issue.

In September FoE (or maybe it was just me!) decided to take on the uranium companies more directly. 

The idea was to peacefully break into a meeting of the Uranium Producers Forum which was made up of the companies involved in uranium mining and exploration. As the leading company was EZ Ltd I decided to do a reconnoitre at its head office building in Collins St. Security was non-existent as was very common in those days; one could go almost anywhere in the Melbourne CBD without being challenged by security guards. I looked at the location board on the ground floor and headed towards the meeting room on the fourth floor. Oops. As I walked from the lift I came face to face with a guy I'd been introduced to at a meeting only a few weeks before, a very urbane bloke who just happened to be EZ's director of public relations.

To go back a step. Peter Hayes had been very open in his dealings with opponents and allowed them to come to FoE meetings and to even be members. One of these opponents was Ian Hore-Lacy who was CRA's environment manager. As part of his work, he was a well-known supporter of lead in petrol at a time when virtually all governments here and overseas had recognised it as a health hazard. Hore-Lacy was also believed a member of both FoE and the ACF in those days as he attempted to straddle the whole environment scene. He even occasionally attended our monthly general meetings and had his say on our work. It was he who introduced me to his highly-placed mate from EZ.

This mate was the last person I wanted to see during my reconnoitre. To his credit, he merely said 'Hello Neil, what brings you here?' Feeling like a kid caught with a pocketful of unpaid-for lollies, I think I mumbled something about being interested in modern city buildings and got out of that particular modern building as fast as I could.

Red Light for Yellowcake

Towards the end of 1975, Jim Falk and I discussed the need for a book on the issue. The result was the cleverly-titled Red Light for Yellowcake: the Case Against Uranium Mining, a 95-page publication written by Jim and I and Denis Hayes, an energy expert with the American organisation, The Worldwatch Institute. Over 30,000 copies of Red Light were sold at a dollar each. Low printing and other publication costs meant that it returned a handsome profit to FoE over the next few years.

A few years ago I googled the title. To my amazement Amazon had it for sale as a 'rare book' for around $20.

This was a time when unions were very supportive with cash donations. Simon Crean of the Storemen and Packers was a good supporter as was John Halfpenny of the AMWU, who paid me a handy sum to write his submission to the Ranger Inquiry. Also helpful were the officers of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union, which was rather famous for murder and mayhem. I was a nodding acquaintance of one of its leaders, Jack 'Putty Nose' Nicholls who'd attended meetings we'd organised with union officials. In 1981, Nicholls was found dead in his car while on his way to give evidence at a Royal Commission on the activities of the Federated Ship Painters and Dockers Union.

Concord aircraft

Apart from uranium mining, the issue we worked on intensively for a short period was the arrival of the Concord aircraft in Melbourne. David Hughes was the guy who got us interested and who led the campaign. Somehow David got on Channel Seven's current affairs flagship of the day and was interviewed by Greg Shackleton, later to be one of the journalists killed at Balibo in East Timor. Shackleton gave our inexperienced David quite a grilling and in the end had him on the ropes, struggling for words. Next day I rang Shackleton to complain about what I saw as his aggressive treatment of an innocent protestor. He let me know in no uncertain words that if FoE wanted to be a major player in issues like this we needed to realise that our representatives would not receive kid-glove treatment. Years later that I found myself largely agreeing with Shackleton.

On the day of the Concord's arrival,  we'd arranged for a couple of CSIRO audio experts to bring their equipment to a hill under the plane's flight-path so that we could prove that it was so loud that it should be banned. Somehow we'd found out from which direction it would fly in. We arrived in plenty of time and the gear was set up. When the plane came over it actually flew much closer to us than we imagined it would. The noise was terrifyingly loud. We panicked and ran around vainly trying to cover up our ears. It was probably all over in 10−15 seconds but it seemed like a lot longer. Some time later I realised that I suffered from tinnitus as I still do today. It could have come from that incident (but it also could have come from a few other loud noise events I'd experienced such as a teacher who delighted in slapping me over the head at almost every year 8 maths lesson).

 The year or so at FoE was the hardest I've ever worked and as a fairly driven, ambitious person who has since run an educational video business with 25 or so people employed for several decades, I don't say that lightly. At least once a month after working a 10−12 hour day we would hold a general meeting. Around 30 people would turn up to have their say. Although decisions taken were meant to be binding, we had few if any written protocols for meeting procedure. So debates would rage for hours, difficult (if not impossible) people were allowed to rant until they and everyone else were exhausted, and sometimes, next day, there would be disagreement on the actual wording of the decision arrived at. Despite that, we managed to be a pretty effective group, often on the national media, able to put out two regular magazines and multiple newsletters, capable of organising large demonstrations and using our impressive connections with leading politicians.

I have fond memories of the people I worked with, especially Peter Hayes (for a brief period), Emma Young, Alison Parks, Dick Borton (dec.) and Richard Nankin. Would I do it again? Oh yes, but a little less frenetically I would hope.

Reprinted (with light editing) from the Friends of the Earth Australia History blog

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, edition #124, September 2015,