Spencer Watling and Ted Stevens in 1979.
Spencer Watling and Ted Stevens in 1979.

RAZORBACK BLOCKADE: We remember 40 years on

IT WAS the greatest act of civil disobedience since the Eureka Stockade.

Once again the little bloke against an unjust system. Road tax was only one of the issues.

It became a huge protest that stretched right across the country. The states were in turmoil. Songs were written and legends were born. Razorback should be etched in Australian history.

Unfortunately, most don't know the story of how it started and what happened to the men who kicked it off.

The introduction to the book Razorback the Real Story, by blockade hero Ted Stevens says, "In 1979 Ted 'Greendog' Stevens and four of his mates blocked the Hume Highway at Razorback Mountain, near Camden, New South Wales. Ted, Spencer Watling, Colin Bird, Barry Grimson and Jack Hibburt were frustrated by the challenges facing truck drivers. So they parked their trucks across the Hume. They knew blocking the highway would bring the nation to a standstill and make the governments listen."

The blockade didn't come out of nowhere. There had been rumblings for some time. Most don't understand, the roots of the blockade go back in time to the 50s when road tax was instituted.

Men were being arrested and gaoled for fines over road tax. They were usually sent to a low security prison but at times some ended up in the real thing. Ted did time at Pentridge while Spencer had seen the inside of Boggo Road.

Meetings were being held in places like the Liverpool RSL. Originally the men that started the blockade had wanted the TWU to be part of negotiations with government to make improvements to the industry. They wanted to go down the arbitration path and they knew they needed support from the TWU to make that happen.

There had been meetings with many politicians and the major freight companies. They'd protested outside the TWU offices and all to no avail.

Finally, the Sunday before the nine-day protest began, about 20 men met at Ted Stevens' home. They discussed the next steps. At the end of that meeting five committed men remained.

They decided to block the road at Razorback.

The TWU were asked to help several times before the blockade started. The ring leaders believed it would be better if they were involved.

One union organiser wanted to help but he was shut down. When the blockade started the union wanted to be part of the negotiations however their involvement was limited. A spirited discussion held in a private room resulted in an agreement that the union wouldn't be permitted to participate.

The union wanted its members to abandon the blockade and go home or back to work. Ivan Hodgson the TWU federal secretary, said members should drive through the blockades.

"We shall be asking for police protection and we shall expect it to let our members go through," he said.

"If the police cannot get them out then we will. There are 105,000 of us in Australia". This stance didn't endear him to the men on Razorback. The Long Distance Road Transport Association also distanced themselves from the blockade.

Well-known radio host John Laws was a supporter of the truckies and their claims. Although some truckies were not too sure about him contributing he lent his voice to the protest and it was suggested that he tried to make Ted Stevens a folk hero. Dick Smith provided one of the helicopters used to ferry the leaders to and from meetings. He was also the man who imported CB radios to Australia which allowed the truckies to communicate with one another. Frank Galbally QC offered his services for free.

 

Razorback legend Spencer Watling at the memorial site he still watches over today.
Razorback legend Spencer Watling at the memorial site he still watches over today.

The aftermath

For the most part truckies were happy with the outcome of the blockade. They'd won some significant concessions. The hated road tax was abolished. Gross weights were going from 36 to 39 tonnes. The speed limit was going to be raised. Finance companies had agreed to practical changes that meant a moratorium on repossessions in the short term. A lot of the freight forwarders had agreed to review their rates. It all looked like it had been worth it.

Mr Wran and the government of NSW were anything but happy. He was critical of both Queensland and Victoria for caving in to the truckies on road tax. He claimed they'd undercut the NSW position.

He was critical of the federal transport minister, Mr Nixon, he stated that he had "aided and abetted" the decisions making it necessary for NSW to "fall into line".

Mr Wran was also critical of the media. "I have never seen so much nonsense portrayed and written about, in any major dispute, in all my years both as a barrister and a politician," he said.

Mr Frank Galbally, QC, sought to register The Australian Transport Industry Association with the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission.

"With this association drivers would not be forced into the same position as the sincere pioneers who started the blockade." Ted Stevens had agreed to be the association's president.

So what happened to the men who started it all?

Ted never became president of the Australian Transport Industry Association. His truck didn't get repossessed and he kept on trucking. Ultimately he wrote his story for us to share. He passed away last year.

Spencer kept on trucking. He subcontracted for many and got into tippers for a bit. He's now retired and lives on the south side of Sydney. With the help of his wife Gloria, he's promoted the memorial at the Razorback rest area.

 

Frustrated by an unjust tax, drivers parked their trucks across the Hume in protest.
Frustrated by an unjust tax, drivers parked their trucks across the Hume in protest.

Colin kept on trucking. He was taken from us on the Hume on September 18, 1985 in a truck accident.

Jack kept on trucking and last anyone heard he was up in North Queensland.

Barry has also kept on trucking. "Brother Sleepy" is still poking about towing tankers up and down the east coast. He's still passionate and still good for a yarn and a cuppa on the side of the road.

These legends took a stand when they blocked the highway in April 1979. A stand that is unlikely to ever be seen again. This is not because there aren't strong men in our industry willing to take a stand, rather because we live in a different world with different laws and different attitudes that would not allow it.

Big Rigs

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