Philosopher and friend stuck by his moral compass


Born: May 10, 1980

Funeral: Saturday, May 7

AFTER flinging his shoes harmlessly past John Howard, Peter Gray deadpanned that his aim was affected by the ‘‘very stressful situation’’ of being in the Q&A TV audience.

The 30-year-old, who died last month, pilloried his twin lobs at the former prime minister after what he called a ‘‘crap answer’’ about Australia’s role in the war in Iraq, but never regretted the gesture.

Following the nationally televised incident last October, the Novocastrian was himself the target of barbs hurled with more ferocity than his wayward loafers.

South Australian Liberal Senator Mary Jo Fisher demanded to know, ‘‘was the ABC aware that Peter Gray is a serial activist? If not, why not?’’

Newcastle Herald columnist Jeff Corbett wrote that Peter’s actions were a juvenile attack on a former leader who graciously made himself available to a potentially hostile audience.

‘‘There is barely room for satisfaction that Mr Gray has established himself as a coward,’’ he wrote.

‘‘We can only hope that one or more of those who celebrate Mr Gray’s cowardice do not see his statement as a challenge and opportunity for their own claim to infamy.’’

Peter certainly had form.

He and his future wife Naomi Hodgson confronted then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Sydney during the Iraq War.

And in the heat of a climate-change protest at Kooragang in 2007, he climbed on then premier Morris Iemma’s car.

But Peter’s friends don’t recall a fiery anarchist, or Senator Fisher’s ‘‘serial activist’’.

They speak of a warm philosopher and friend who reached first for humour in the face of social and environmental disasters.

Maitland-born Peter Gray was an influential member of Rising Tide Newcastle, and an activist and supporter of both the North East Forest Alliance and the Wilderness Society.

He championed the push to protect vanishing old-growth forest and woodlands across eastern Australia, and cheerfully joined action at the Otways, Badja, Stroud Mountain, Copeland Tops, Jilliby, Myall River, Moira and Millewa.

Most of those places are now protected from logging.

Those who stood with Peter on those front lines observed an activist not content to merely throw himself in front of bulldozers.

He became known for his understanding of the legal, biological and strategic background of the problems and threats he confronted.

Rising Tide colleagues feel the group will never be the same without him.

Peter conceived the Newcastle Harbour flotilla blockades that have made headlines in the past five years, down to the pirate rafts that hampered police as the world’s biggest coal port ground to a halt.

Friends cherish memories of his gleeful arrests for the climate, grinning with hands cuffed behind his back in the coal-line shut down during Climate Camp in Newcastle in 2008.

Two years earlier, Peter won a Land and Environment Court challenge of the state government’s assessment for the Anvil Hill coalmine, renamed Mangoola, in the Upper Hunter.

The decision meant all Scope Three greenhouse emissions from coal mines now have to be assessed in NSW.

It was his magnum opus, and the media adored the David and Goliath story.

He and Naomi are listed as applicants in another legal challenge to force the government to regulate the greenhouse pollution of the Bayswater Power Station, near Muswellbrook.

Peter Gray died in his Newcastle East home on April 30 with Naomi by his side, two years after being diagnosed with bowel cancer.

The couple had married after his diagnosis, and friends arranged a trip down Tasmania’s Franklin River as a wedding present.

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