Ranger uranium mine is dead: a victory for the Mirarr people, and for activism

22 January 2021
Jerome Small

“The Mirarr Traditional Owners welcome the conclusion today of uranium mining on their country with the end of processing at the Ranger Uranium Mine adjacent to Kakadu National Park. The ending of active operations comes some 40 years after the Commonwealth government, which originally owned 50% of the mine, imposed uranium mining on traditional owners.”

—Statement by Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, 8 January

“Although Ranger went ahead, massive protests prevented Jabiluka, a sacred site for the local Mirarr people, from being mined.”

Australian Financial Review, 8 January

I think it was early 1998 when I first met Jerome Fitzgerald. I’d set up a stall near the corner of Bourke and Swanston streets in Melbourne with a petition, info and leaflets for one of the first rallies of the Jabiluka Action Group.

“Good on you son, but you’re never going to stop it”, he told me. Jerome Fitzgerald was a retired metalworker—friendly enough, but unimpressed by my one-person-with-rickety-card-table operation. “I led 10,000 metalworkers down Bourke Street protesting against uranium mining back in the 1970s, and we never stopped it then”, he said. “And I don’t see 10,000 metalworkers marching down Bourke Street now.”

Over the next couple of years, Jerome would stop for a chat every once in a while, when I was on a Friday night stall in town. Each time, we’d have a version of the same conversation, with me trying but never quite succeeding in enticing him out of his “good on you but you’ll never win” frame of mind.

Probably the closest I came was after one of our regular blockades of the St Kilda Road headquarters of North Limited, the company developing the mine. By this stage, the Mirarr Aboriginal people had invited people onto their land for a mass blockade of the Jabiluka site. During the six months that followed, more than 5,000 activists travelled to the blockade. More than 500 were arrested. Also arrested was Mirarr senior traditional owner Yvonne Margarula, literally arrested and prosecuted for “trespass” on her own land for protesting against the mine. Blockaders travelled back to the cities and got involved in the campaign, especially in Melbourne.

Unlike those early days of leafleting in Bourke Street, we could hand out a leaflet saying “Jabiluka” and people knew what it was about. We never duplicated Jerome Fitzgerald’s feat of 10,000 metalworkers in Bourke Street, but John Cummins from the construction union set up a series of meetings for us on St Kilda Road building sites, and small groups of construction workers provided an important boost to our blockades of North Limited.

The campaign was gaining traction in other ways: someone noticed that every time there was a major protest, the share price of North Limited tanked—and even more so the share price of its subsidiary, Energy Resources Australia, which was digging at Jabiluka while operating the nearby Ranger uranium mine. Slowly but surely, the campaign was nailing the company’s precious share price to the floor.

Another sign of progress was that, after one of the protests at North Limited, the Age had dedicated an editorial to the campaign. The Jabiluka mine was problematic, the Age intoned. On Aboriginal land, opposed by the Mirarr people and within the borders of Australia’s most famous national park. The cause of the protesters was just, according to the Age, but we had done ourselves no favours by our methods, including stopping people going about their lawful work.

The next time I saw Jerome Fitzgerald, I told him about the editorial. He laughed and recounted a story from his time as a shop steward at Johns & Waygood, one of the biggest and most important heavy engineering firms in the country. He paraphrased an Age editorial about a strike: “Oh, the workers have a legitimate complaint, they’ve been treated terribly, the employer is totally at fault, they should really listen, the workers have a good cause—but they’ve done themselves and their cause terrible harm by taking strike action”. He added his own editorial comment on this, looking me straight in the eyes: “Listen. You’re never going to get anywhere till you’ve been condemned by the Melbourne Age”.

I’ve always remembered that line. At the time, I took it as a backhanded compliment, that we were actually getting somewhere. And we were.

The complicated alliance—of the Mirarr Aboriginal people fighting for their country, of conservation groups, socialists, unionists and all sorts with our rickety card tables, campaigning and protesting and blockading—was still building. Eventually, we had such an impact on the share price of North and Energy Resources Australia that ERA was declared by the business pages of the Age to be the “dog stock” of 1999, and Rio Tinto bought out North Limited at a bargain basement price.

Rio is as large and vicious as companies come, but it decided that the practical and political obstacles in front of Jabiluka were insurmountable. It shelved the project, backfilled the mine and started revegetation. The Mirarr and their allies had won an extraordinary victory.

And now, a further important milestone. From midnight on 8 January, operations have finally ceased at the Ranger uranium mine, opened up by ERA in the late 1970s against the wishes of the Mirarr people. The world’s third biggest uranium mine is now history. The massive milling operation on the site, which would have been processing ore from Jabiluka if not for the opposition of the Mirarr, is now shut.

There are still many battles to fight. The Mirarr want the land rehabilitated and the Jabiluka mining lease terminated. Plenty of local people still live in poverty and get cancer at twice the Northern Territory average. The nuclear industry continues its trail of toxic destruction around the world. But if it weren’t for the incredible campaign that the Mirarr spearheaded, they would be dealing, not with the toxic legacy of a toxic industry, but with a continuing, profitable plunder of their country, spreading poison around the world.

All of which has got me thinking about Jerome Fitzgerald a bit over the past week. Despite his firm scepticism about our prospects, Jerome and many thousands like him were instrumental in the win at Jabiluka. The anti-uranium movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s was strong enough to ensure that the Labor government elected in 1983 had a policy of banning uranium mining.

Bob Hawke sold out on that policy, along with so much else, initiating the notorious “three mines policy” that allowed Ranger to continue and Roxby Downs/Olympic Dam, the world’s second largest uranium mine, to open up and start spewing out its poison for Western Mining Corporation. That particular sell-out was felt all the more keenly because WMC was headed by Hugh Morgan, a notorious union-buster, opponent of land rights and, more recently, one of Australia’s most prominent climate change deniers. It summed up perfectly which side Labor was on—and still is today. (WMC was eventually bought by BHP, which still operates Olympic Dam.)

Demoralisation followed for many after Hawke’s sell-out, understandably. In my opinion, Jerome Fitzgerald’s cynicism about the prospects of ordinary people changing the world was a direct result of Labor’s betrayals of the 1980s. Nevertheless, the movement had put limits on the spread of uranium mining and established a baseline suspicion of the nuclear industry that we were able to draw on twenty years later when organising against Jabiluka. Without Jerome Fitzgerald and his 10,000 metalworkers in the 1970s and 1980s, we would never have been able to fight and win twenty years later.

So a salute to Yvonne Margarula and the Mirarr people, who fought for 40 years against incredible odds, and to the kids of the time of the blockade who are now the next generation to fight. To Jacqui Katona who played a crucial role at the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, the Mirarr people’s organisation. To Gary Foley, Gundjeihmi’s link person here in Melbourne. To Dave Sweeney at the Australian Conservation Foundation. To Saro, Bruce, Albert Araya and the whole crew at Friends of the Earth. To Loretta Jane, Hillel Freedman, Fleur Taylor and the many, many people who passed through the Jabiluka Action Group here in Melbourne. We stood on a platform constructed by Jerome Fitzgerald, Sandra Bloodworth, tens of thousands of unionists and so many others.

We made a bit of history, and still have a world to win.

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