About the system which guarantees passively acquiescent voters

... Another indication is that Tasmanians in the 2007 federal election voted overwhelmingly for politicians who have no concern about any of the impacts of the pulp mill on them or future generations.  They voted for politicians who have ignored all independent expertise and advice, from economists to scientists, from doctors to former members of the sidelined state RPDC, and of course they voted for politicians who have ignored hundreds of public submissions. Except for Bob Brown, not one of the other five elected senators and not one of the five MHRs has demonstrated any concern about the full range of issues, including resource sustainability, water usage, MIS schemes and plantations, affects on river catchments, agriculture, tourism, marine environment, health of people and other species, assessment process, subsidies to the proponent, increased logging and transport hazards, air and water pollution, climate change and competition with mills coming on line in Malaysia, South America and Russia...

By Peter Henning


“No creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold.”

Tasmanian academic and public intellectual Pete Hay (author, most recently, in collaboration with photographer Matthew Newton, of The Forests), had this to say in December 2006:

“The first duty of the democratic citizen is to defend her place.  To defend it, for example, against the life- and place-destructive technologies ordered without your leave into your home valleys and foothills by men with maps and computer simulations, and claiming the fake authority of democratic ritual, as opposed to the real authority of democratically-lived citizenship, and membership of place and its living communities.”

The “democratic ritual” that Hay refers to is “the regular elections between two bland and homogenized political parties”, which allows, for example in Tasmania, “that the forests that cradle the island’s very soul continue to be trashed even though survey after survey confirms that 70-80% of voters want to see an end to the destruction of the clearfells, though lacking the requisite courage of their convictions, most of them, to vote accordingly.”

It is a system which guarantees passively acquiescent voters, “timid, easily-spooked, but well-meaning folk”, and they vote in droves for policies they say they don’t support.

Other voices have been raised against this passivity, the “relaxed and comfortable” retreat from political engagement, which John Howard promoted to consolidate his narrow and banal vision through a decade of lost opportunities in all areas of public policy, and which like-minded state politicians on both sides of the phony party-divide, such as Tasmania’s Paul Lennon, have rushed to emulate, if not surpass. 

One such voice, journalist and cartoonist Michael Leunig, also writing in 2006, is scathing.  He reminds readers of the behaviour of Australians during the Vietnam War, and asks specifically in relation to the large anti-war marches in 1970, “Where were you all five years ago when it really mattered?”, in other words before the massive loss of life and destruction.  And so, to 2006.  “Now it happens again – the all-powerful Australian swinger-people have changed their minds and are rejecting the war in Iraq.  After having endorsed it at the ballot box they are now disowning it in the opinion polls…  What has taken the swinging people so long?”.

In the aftermath of the 2007 federal election we can see it all again.  Tasmania is an exemplary microcosm because it had a dominant local issue.  In the weeks and months leading up to the election it was clear in poll after poll that a majority of Tasmanians were opposed to Gunns’ proposed pulp mill being built in the Tamar Valley.  But even though there was a surge of support for anti-mill candidates, particularly in most booths in Bass and Lyons close to the mill site, but also throughout Tasmania, the basic shape of the vote for the major parties, which were back-slappingly unified as a single party in support of the mill, was much the same as usual. 

In other words, quite a large number of people who said they were opposed to the pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, and lived in Launceston and the Tamar Valley itself, voted for a party which ardently and vociferously endorsed it.  They gave their imprimatur to the new Rudd government to claim an electoral mandate for the mill to be built.

This can be clearly demonstrated by the example of the Georgetown municipality on the East Tamar, dominated by Georgetown itself, a town which will be directly affected in many ways if the mill is built.  In the federal election, the combined vote of the pro-mill ALP and Liberal Parties in the municipality (booths at Georgetown, Georgetown South, Hillwood, Pipers River and Weymouth) was 81%, and the vote for the anti-mill Greens and Independent Sven Wiener was just over 16%.  In the recent elector poll in the municipality, 48% of those who voted thought the mill would have an adverse impact on the social, environmental and economic well-being of the residents of the Tamar Valley, and 52% thought it wouldn’t.  But more than 30% of eligible voters didn’t bother to cast a ballot, either because they didn’t have an opinion, could not care either way, or decided that the issue was not important enough to them.  So what we can really know from all this is that about a third of all eligible voters in the municipality are opposed to the mill and about 36% support it.  About half of the 33% who indicated opposition to the mill in the elector poll clearly did not vote that way in the federal election.  They did the opposite. They voted for a party whose views about the pulp mill they disagreed with. 
The retreat from democracy is not just about people deserting their convictions or their consciences when they enter the polling booth.  An associated aspect of the malaise is that the mutual responsibility of both electors and elected to be informed, to understand that “representation” is a two-way street, has broken down.  Those Georgetown voters, more than 30% of the total, who scrapped their ballots rather than participate in the elector poll on the pulp mill, give some indication of the dimension of the problem.

Another indication is that Tasmanians in the 2007 federal election voted overwhelmingly for politicians who have no concern about any of the impacts of the pulp mill on them or future generations.  They voted for politicians who have ignored all independent expertise and advice, from economists to scientists, from doctors to former members of the sidelined state RPDC, and of course they voted for politicians who have ignored hundreds of public submissions. Except for Bob Brown, not one of the other five elected senators and not one of the five MHRs has demonstrated any concern about the full range of issues, including resource sustainability, water usage, MIS schemes and plantations, affects on river catchments, agriculture, tourism, marine environment, health of people and other species, assessment process, subsidies to the proponent, increased logging and transport hazards, air and water pollution, climate change and competition with mills coming on line in Malaysia, South America and Russia.

A further example illustrates the nature of the problem.  At about the time of the 2007 election, a recently retired senior teacher, who had held high leadership positions in Launceston secondary schools, a long-time resident of Launceston, well-respected, well-read and reputedly well informed, surprised several of his former colleagues by informing them that he had a “neutral position” on the pulp mill issue because in his view, and in his words, “I cannot see how it will have any effect on me”.

This “elector” goes beyond the boundaries of the timid and the easily spooked, as described by Pete Hay, and presents as selfish, uninformed, and lacking empathy, in some ways a neater fit with the dilemma of Leunig’s concern – perhaps one of those who will speak out when it is all too late and the damage is irreparable. But obviously in his case, only when his cosy suburban existence, such as the quality of his water supply, is under threat. 

Now for the “elected”, or in this case, a sitting MHR about to be defeated.  Michael Ferguson, Liberal member for Bass, was fond of lamenting in the weeks leading up to the election that the pulp mill issue was shaping as a personal disaster for him, because preferences from the predicted increased Green vote would likely flow strongly to the Labor candidate.  This would destroy his “career”, as he put it, almost as soon as he’d begun it.  Ferguson was already on record as saying to a British journalist, without irony or embarrassment, that he had not visited the site for the proposed mill, in his electorate.  Ferguson’s failure to represent the interests of his constituents who might be adversely affected by the mill was absolute and complete.  His main interest in the mill was the effect on his personal political career.

The dangers of this sort of political culture have become all too apparent in Australia during the Howard era, and in Tasmania they are no less obvious.  It is a culture which promotes a narrowness of vision, a shutting down of alternative opinion and discussion, and a condemnation of dissent.  In this culture politicians’ self-serving careerist ambitions can only be pursued within the cloying but comforting confines of the party system of caucus solidarity.  Conscience and principle are best left out of the equation.  The experiences of Ben Quin, on the Liberal side, and Terry Martin on the Labor side, in challenging the party line on the pulp mill, on grounds of principle, are testimony to that during 2007.  Both were warned by their party hierarchy to conform, and when no longer party members, both were vilified by their former colleagues.  Lisa Singh only preserved her “career” prospects within the ALP by agreeing not to vote as her conscience urged.

But if all courage is a form of constancy, courage of conviction is no less so.  Once personal principles and ethical standards are compromised other betrayals come more easily.  Quin and Martin have bolstered their standing and reputation within the community.  They are highly regarded for their honesty.  They are trusted because they have placed principle before personal career and the comfort afforded by “caucus solidarity”.  They refused to abdicate their sense of individual moral responsibility by continuing an obedience to the dictates of party conformity.

Political careerism has merged with the gross ossification of caucus conformism to produce a culture where those who put their moral convictions above loyalty to party become exposed to a particularly vicious wrath of ostracism and abuse.  Former Liberal Premier and Gunns director Robin Gray was vitriolic and savage in his public attack on Ben Quin, and Terry Martin was forced to endure a similar character assassination from the ALP leadership. 

These political parties are nowhere more united than in their own narrow focus on self-preservation above all else, for it is that, and that alone, which sustains lengthy political careers and the rewards of office. Obedience to party has become more important than representation of the electorate, and this model has been strengthened during the Howard years and is now the dominant feature of Australian parliamentary practice at state and federal level.  In this way democracy is subverted, diminished and threatened from within.

Once representation ceases to be the central focus of political activity, and loses its sense of mutuality between elector and elected, it becomes easy to ignore the needs of others and to dismiss their claims to equal value.  It becomes easy for politicians not to look, or as Judith Wright has said in another context, “not to learn to look”, but to be blinkered by a self-protective evasion.  Michael Ferguson saw no need to look at the Longreach site, others see no need to visit the valuable niche agricultural enterprises at Rowella just adjacent across the Tamar, nor to look at the clearfelling in the river catchments. 

Just as disturbing, in stifling dissent and promoting its own narrow vision, it is a political culture which is equally as vicious towards critical voices from within the general community as it is to dissenters within its own ranks.  When Richard Flanagan commented, in 2005, in an article on the close relationship between the Tasmanian government and Gunns, he was labeled a traitor in the Tasmanian Parliament by then Minister for Forestry, Bryan Green, and publicly informed that he was not welcome in Tasmania by the Premier.  People who have raised legitimate concerns about the likely adverse affects of the pulp mill have been branded as “extremists”.  Some people in northern Tasmania who oppose the mill are too frightened to speak out or reveal their identity because they fear retribution. 

Perhaps most dangerous of all, it is a political culture which treats alternative visions with contempt and derision, gratuitously ignoring or rejecting any specialist or expert knowledge that contradicts policy positions.  At the height of the controversy during 2007, after Gunns withdrew from the RPDC process and the Tasmanian Parliament arrogated to itself both the expert “planning” role and the decision-making responsibility, a clear abrogation of due process, all Tasmanian politicians of both major parties, both state and federal, paid no attention to any information provided by independent analysts. 

One typically absurd failure of this kind occurred when Tourism Minister Paula Wriedt professed complete ignorance of possible negative impacts of the mill on the Tamar Valley’s lucrative tourism industry, including world class niche vineyards, restaurants and other enterprises, denying all knowledge of the warnings provided by Professor Eduardo Jaramillo, a Chilean academic experienced in the hazards of pulp mill disasters in estuarine locations, including leadership of a team of 30 scientists to investigate the environmental destruction caused by the Chilean Valdivian pulp mill.  Jaramillo had visited Tasmania in December 2006, his recommendations were well publicized, and he was scrupulously ignored by politicians.  Another politician, an “independent” MLC, responded to all communications from the public about their concerns with a copy of Gunns’ impact statement, a loud and direct statement of his allegiance and political alliance.

This total failure of political due diligence, from both Leunig’s “all-powerful Australian swinger-people” and all current state and federal Liberal and Labor politicians, well documented and described by writers such as Mike Bolan over the past year or so, has been aided and abetted by the most influential newspaper in northern Tasmania, the Launceston Examiner.  The paper has adopted an unashamedly uncritical editorial stance totally supporting the proponent.

The editorial staff of the Examiner would do well to consider what they could learn by having a look at the clearfelling in the river catchments for Launceston’s water supply.  After all, on 20 January 2008 they editorialized as follows:  “Most of the silt that gets deposited in the Tamar comes from outside the municipality (of Launceston), either as result of historical flooding or increased forestry activity”.  Their solution.  Taxpayers should foot the bill for cleaning up the Tamar.

What of the clearfelling?  The logic of the Examiner’s support for the pulp mill is that clearfelling continues, and in fact accelerates, and that taxpayers pay to clean up the mess, and not just for dredging the Tamar, but for cheap wood supplies from “government owned” Forestry Tasmania, for transport infrastructure and or for 26-40 million gigalitres of free water annually.

In 1946, Pulitzer Prize winning author, Robert Penn Warren, wrote his iconic book, All The King’s Men, perhaps the definitive novel of American political morality, its corruptions, power, privilege and guilt.  It should be read by all Tasmanian politicians, especially those who cling to the notion that representation of the people and the protection of their environment, their health and well-being, is somehow secondary to their own career aspirations and the interests of their party.

Warren had this to say in 1946: 

“There were pine trees here a long time ago but they are gone.  The bastards got in here and set up the mills and laid the narrow-gauge tracks and knocked together the company commissaries and paid a dollar a day…  Till, all of a sudden, there weren’t any more pine trees.  They stripped the mills.  The narrow-gauged tracks got covered with grass.  Folks tore down the commissaries for kindling wood.  There wasn’t any more dollar a day.  The big boys were gone, with diamond rings on their fingers and broadcloth on their back.  But a good many of the folks stayed right on, and watched the gullies cut deeper into the red clay.”

Which brings us to the well-known position of the proponent.  It was neatly encapsulated at Gunns’ 2007 AGM in responses to two questions.  The company directors were asked whether there had been “a cost-benefit analysis in relation to the impacts of the mill”.  The answer was an unequivocal “Yes” from John Gay, not added to or contradicted by any other director or senior manager present.  Gunns has not completed a cost-benefit analysis.  It has done a benefits-only analysis.  That fact has been underscored by several independent analyses, the latest by the National Institute for Economy and Industry Research, which has concluded that the costs to the Tasmanian economy will most likely outweigh the benefits, from between $300 million to $1 billion dollars. 

The second question related to how air pollution could be avoided in the Tamar Valley, with its well-known atmospheric inversion character.  The answer, from a senior manager, was that the volume, speed and heat of the emissions “would punch through” the inversion layer.  Where it would then disperse was not considered worthy of comment.

The costs cannot be ignored, for whether they be defined narrowly as social, economic or environmental, they are all intertwined. They go to the heart of ecological responsibility, which is no longer an option, no longer an “inconvenient truth”.  It is an essential, or rather, the essential. 

Those who turn away from this most basic of fundamentals, for their various reasons, who refuse to look, who prefer not to look, who do not want to look, or just cannot see – whether they be voters, politicians, journalists, workers, business leaders, union leaders, institutional investors, bankers and others – are all deliberately or thoughtlessly promoting their own detachment, isolation, lack of connection and lack of empathy.  Moreover, they are ignoring the costs.

Without an understanding of costs there can be no comprehension, no real capacity to see future consequences of all kinds, including the ethical and humane. 

There are alternatives to this diminished and impoverished Hobbesian state of affairs.  As Mike Bolan has said, “Denying responsibility neatly denies us a useful role in the development of our society”.  Looking away produces by default a drift towards the kind of political system Hobbes advocated in 1651 in Leviathan, where the ruler owed no responsibility to those who chose him, except to keep the peace, and he had an absolute right to legislate whatever he liked.

Both the debate and action for alternatives are gathering pace and strength.  There are increasing numbers of people whose vision for Tasmania’s future is not one which will abide the relentless degrading of our greatest assets, the irreplaceable and diverse assets of the island’s very ecology, and will not abide the relentless downgrading of  health and education services, and will not abide the relentless destruction of our capacity to produce clean and healthy food.

The attempt by the Bacon government, with the support of a supine, surrogate opposition, to destroy such voices in the political domain by reducing the size of the House of Assembly, failed dismally.  Lennon’s Labor government and its Liberal alternative are both deeply unpopular.  Their neo-liberal model at federal level, the Howard “brutopia”, as Kevin Rudd has described it, has finally been rejected by a majority of the Australian people.  This in itself is cause for hope, as is Rudd’s new rhetoric.

Rudd has written that “neo-liberals reject the legitimacy of altruistic values that go beyond direct self-interest.  When costs… threaten to affect economic self-interest, however, they often seek to externalize them and transfer them to the state”.  Rudd’s support of the pulp mill is in direct contravention of what he has written about the dangers of neo-liberal free-market fundamentalism.  He needs to be continually reminded of this.  Further, he needs to be reminded that the neo-liberalism in action which he condemns is exactly what is happening in Tasmania under the Lennon government, but with the government as instigator, as collaborator, in the transfer of taxpayers money in subsidies to corporate interests, to the detriment of - and let us use Kevin Rudd’s words again – “the identification of key public goods, including education, health, the environment and the social safety net”.

Many Australians voted for Rudd on the basis of hope for a new direction, not for more of the same, and in the hope that he would bring a new honesty to public life, that he could be trusted.  Before the election he wrote that “there must be a new premium attached to truth in public life”.  He cannot have it both ways.  His government’s continued support for the mill will come at the cost of his credibility about his stated core political beliefs, especially his rejection of neo-liberalism.

But there is a new mood in Australia, a new sense of optimism that more inclusive, other-regarding opportunities are emerging.  There is cause for hope, as a new generation of able Green political activists gain seats in municipal councils, and Greens continue to be elected to the other tiers of government with strengthened support, and as people like Ben Quin and Terry Martin provide models, in their courage to represent.  There is cause for hope because a host of Tasmanians across all walks of life (for example in local community organizations such as TAP), are becoming more influential in shaping discourse and encouraging activism, and because the voices of prominent professionals, such as lawyers, writers – including a growing chorus of journalists, primary producers, and businessmen are now being heard, not just locally, but across the nation and internationally.

There will always be those with a Hobbesian will to impose silence and obliterate diversity and debate, as there will always be those willing to “sell their souls and live with good conscience on the proceeds”, to quote Leunig again.  But, to repeat, those who would promote abdication of personal responsibility, abdication of mutual obligation and representation in political life, and abdication from a meaningful and humane social contract, are promoting an ill-informed, disengaged, disconnected, and uncomprehending citizenry, the antithesis to real democracy.

Such failure has been described by another Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Cormac McCarthy, renowned for his uncompromising exploration of the extremes of human behaviour and morality.  In 1992, in his epic novel, All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy had this to say:

“No creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold.”

Only an informed, active citizenry can overcome this dilemma.  Let us conclude where we started, with some paraphrased wisdom from Pete Hay.   Only an informed, active citizenry can promote “a vision of democracy that mandates ethically-imbued rather than merely selfish public activity”.

Peter Henning