“Could you vote for a party that will destroy this?” asked the bold headline in white above the photo in 1983. The party in question has been in power in Australia since 1975, led by patrician Malcolm Fraser. Fraser was a transformative prime minister, who gave the aborigines of Australia more control over their traditional lands, encouraged immigration from Asia, welcoming the Vietnamese boat people, and led the pressure against apartheid in Rhodesia and South Africa.
But by early 1983, the economy was in a rut, Fraser’s parliamentary majority had been reduced and the future of his government rested on an attempt to dam a river in Tasmania. For years, this dam had been festering on the public consciousness: a fledgling Green movement was trying to save the river through concerts, candle-lit vigils and a write-in campaign, which reached its feverpitch in late 1982 when 42% of voters wrote in “NO DAMS” at a by-election in the state of Victoria.
Central to these campaigns were photographs of Tasmania by Peter Dombrovskis, who photographed the state for widely-subscribed annual wilderness calendars. Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River showed a section of the Franklin River which would be submerged by the proposed dam; environmental groups took out full-page color advertisements featuring the photo in Sydney and Melbourne papers a few days before the election.
The photo was often cited as the reason behind Fraser’s Liberal Party’s unexpected defeat — there was a swing of 24-seats, the largest defeat of a sitting government in Australia since 1949. Ironically, in Tasmania, the Liberals held all five seats, revealing the stark dichotomy between locals who preferred economic development and outsiders who wanted to preserve a national patrimony — a divide that is still present in many a conservation debate today.
A court case followed, pitting the local government against the incoming Labor government which promised to cancel the dam. In the seminal Commonwealth vs. Tasmania, the High Court of Australia stopped the dam’s construction, but Tasmania was given a hefty subsidy as compensation. The high profile campaign to save the Franklin and the ensuing fracas ended further dam proposals in Tasmania, and in wider Australia too, there had been no major dam constructions ever since.