The Boy Behind the Curtain

by

Tim Winton

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The Boy Behind the Curtain: The Battle for Ningaloo Reef Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In 2003, Dr Geoff Gallop, the Premier of Western Australia, announces that the government has rejected the proposal for a resort at Maud’s Landing and that he’ll be working towards acquiring a World Heritage listing for the area. The announcement promises hope for a group of conservation activists including Tim, who’s shocked by the strength of the announcement. Winton and the other campaigners have spent a few years working toward this moment, and, having become used to facing wealth and influence on the opposing side, he can’t quite internalize the decision.
Winton’s shock at the Premier’s strong announcement demonstrates that he’s jaded towards politics and is used to politicians making halfhearted statements or presenting compromised plans. Though he devoted years of his life to this cause, he’s surprised to see his work pay off, which suggests that he was devoted to the cause not for pragmatic reasons but because he felt emotionally drawn to it. 
Themes
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In 1987, the government invited proposals for a tourist development in this part of Western Australia, but for many years, nothing really happened. In 2000, though, a proposal was made to build a vast resort and marina there which would have had severe implications on Ningaloo Reef, Australia’s longest fringing coral reef. Ningaloo, a particularly vulnerable reef due to its proximity to the shore, had been protected by its isolation, and is home to a vast number of different species. However, in 2000, it wasn’t widely known across Australia like the Great Barrier Reef was. But researchers were beginning to understand its importance and could see that the resort proposal would cause severe destruction to it.
The government’s invitation for, and subsequent neglect of, proposals for a development on the reef demonstrate that, at least during the late 20th century, the Australian government neither felt driven to protect the natural environment, nor particularly desperate for economic progress. The process of planning on Ningaloo Reef went unnoticed by most Australians for many years, perhaps partly because of this general lack of enthusiasm to defend areas of natural beauty.
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The fight for Ningaloo is a fight between two different worldviews: one being that nature exists to be exploited and has no inherent value, and the other being that nature is finite and precious and deserves to be cared for. Gallop’s government exists on the promise that they’ll end old-growth logging, signaling a change from the former worldview to the latter, but Western Australia’s politics are deeply conservative and difficult to challenge. 
The current government in Western Australia seems to signal a hopeful change where the environment is concerned, but Winton’s description suggests that any effort to protect wildlife at the expense of economic progress will be a difficult battle to fight.
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In 2000, Winton meets with five other fledgling campaigners from vastly different backgrounds to discuss the marina proposal. Winton has been involved in marine conservation for around six years at this point and tends to feel like a “redneck” among campaigners, but in this diverse group, he’s emboldened to help to spread the movement to even more people. Still, fighting for nature conservation in the Ningaloo battle looks like a tough process—it seems highly unlikely that anything will stop the resort’s development.
Despite being a writer who has risen to the middle class from the working class, Winton’s description of himself as a “redneck” suggests he prioritizes isolation and a rural life over any attempt at being a part of the suburban elite. This is another scenario, like surfing or group worship, in which community emboldens Winton and he feels buoyed by the presence of others.
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With other campaigns focusing their energy on woodchipping, the campaign for Ningaloo has to start from nothing and find its own funding. Campaign workers borrow an office and start working from the ground up, writing letters and forming alliances with larger wildlife groups. As an author whose focus is on his novel, Winton feels out of place at planning meetings. And Western Australia, especially the rural parts, are incredibly distant from the major Australian news outlets, meaning it’s difficult to raise any awareness about Ningaloo in other parts of Australia.
Winton’s upbringing among extended family members who lacked the education that would allow them to read and write, as he explains in “Using the C-word,” draws strong parallels to this campaign’s narrative of beginning from very few resources. Winton’s love for connection and being part of a community means it’s a little surprising to find he feels so out of place in the meetings.
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Another struggle the campaign faces is the “low moral ebb” affecting Australians’ faith in the government and other leaders, meaning that any effort to make a difference is met with resignation and cynicism. Still, Winton finds there’s optimism and kindness everywhere—people offer their cars, their time, their houses, and their money to the cause.
Winton realizes that the issue of material resources, or lack of them, is easier to overcome than the widespread public apathy and wariness of change. This suggests that emotions and personal connections will be the key to a successful campaign.
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In September 2001, the campaign holds their first public meeting. Winton is the headline act, but he feels like an imposter. He’s the campaign’s hope of media attention, but only one journalist turns up, and even he leaves before the actual substance of the meeting gets underway. However, when the scientists begin to speak about the issues, the public attendees become passionate. After the meeting, many people offer help and start spreading the message.
Winton feels out of place even when he’s the star of the show, which suggests he lives quite an isolated life and is hesitant to be in the spotlight. Meanwhile, it becomes evident that the campaign will be fueled more by grassroots action by everyday people than by any meteoric rise in the mainstream media.
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The campaign receives a small amount of money and uses it to print bumper stickers and other materials. Public awareness begins to grow. In the local towns of Coral Bay and Exmouth, there’s a 90 percent opposition rate to the resort, and people of diverse politics and occupations unite to speak out. The story reaches the media, and many people begin to agree that there should be a thorough process of evaluation before the natural treasure can be used for commercial tourism. Eventually, the campaigners arrange meetings with cabinet ministers—though Winton does his best to avoid any meeting he can.
Winton is transparent about his reluctance to meet with cabinet ministers and other higher-ups, which shows he doesn’t have any romantic notion of his own heroism in the campaign. His focus throughout the essay is on the strength of a united group, and not on any individual action of his own.
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At first, the campaign is treated kindly by the media, but as soon as they begin to gain momentum, they find it harder to get coverage. They learn to get media attention on slow news days and to strategize based on journalists’ careers and the editors who decide which stories to run. The media is a food chain in itself: “Smaller fish are afraid to upset the big swimmers.”
The media’s declining interest demonstrates that the rough outline of an underdog story holds more narrative clout than a story about the complex effects of building a resort on a precious reef. Winton gains insight into the fact that the media doesn’t necessarily exist to tell true stories, but to ensure its own survival.
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Over the course of the campaign, Winton figures out the motivations and behavior of parliamentarians, lobbyists, and journalists. It’s a cynical world which can be navigated by working out who is working for who. On the other hand, even the unlikeliest people can be your allies, no matter how rich or seemingly conservative they are. He learns to overlook his own prejudices in order to make unexpected and helpful connections.
Winton draws a distinction between the cruel, transactional spheres of politics and the media, and the welcoming, unexpectedly generous general public. Though those with more social status might seem to offer more power to make change, it’s his connections with other ordinary citizens that make Winton hopeful for progress.
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Over a thousand people come to the campaign’s second public meeting. The event is covered in national print, TV, and radio news. Because the local media coverage has cooled off by this point, the activists take the campaign to the internet—a relatively new strategy in pre-social media days. The resort’s public relations team fights back, casting the campaign into doubt, but when Tim’s book wins several major prizes, he attracts more attention to the campaign. However, the campaign is running out of money and relying at this point on stunts to gain attention. The campaign runs on frenzied, desperate energy in lieu of real resources. 
The campaign is obviously and dramatically growing, but its members aren’t satisfied by coverage by the regular media outlets. Their use of the internet is quite a new tactic and demonstrates their hunger for success and their willingness to think outside the box. Despite Winton feeling out of place in the campaign, the results of his creative efforts bring them more media attention, proving his value as a campaigner.
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After sending dozens of letters to Australian celebrities, the campaign receives a buoying response. Sports stars and actors join the cause, gaining more media attention. Though media outlets brand the campaigners as “environmental elite,” they are now such a diverse group that the insult isn’t believable, and the response to the media attacks is strongly indignant. In December 2002, a group of 15,000 protestors march through Fremantle, a demonstration the mayor describes as the largest in living memory. By mid-2003, sensing the high stakes of the situation, the premier takes on responsibility to decide what will happen to Ningaloo Reef.
The fact that the media has begun to spin rumors and make up false stories about the campaign suggests two things—first, that reporters are puppets of the rich members of society who want the resort built, and second, that they’re desperately worried the campaign against the resort will succeed. But despite the media's desire to control the narrative, the public voice is louder.
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On the day that the premier announces his decision to protect the reef, the campaign is greeted with happy chaos. Winton knows that the battle to save the reef isn’t over, but he acknowledges the victory of the campaign. He credits this to the campaigners’ passion, the power of the internet, the personal courage and progressiveness of the new premier, and the Australian love and nostalgia for the ocean: “the only sacred site” for most citizens. The diversity of the campaign, the generosity of the activists involved, and the unpredictable luck they stumbled into were key to their success.
Rather than reflecting on his individual part in the campaign, Winton acknowledges the complex and wide net of relationships and effort that led to the campaign’s success. He knows that they couldn’t have succeeded without harnessing the emotional attachment of the Australian public to the ocean—their almost religious attitude towards it seems to have had an almost miraculous effect.
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Quotes