"Last Words: The Tamar Valley and 2009" by Peter Henning

WHAT IS IT about the Tamar Valley which has made its people, its communities, its diverse and productive businesses and its natural and man-made attractions so completely lacking in worth and value, so completely insignificant, like a newly-identified terra nullius, a kind of territorial tabula rasa, to the majority of Tasmania’s elected political “representatives”?

Former Premier Paul Lennon answered that in an interview with the Launceston Examiner’s editor, Fiona Reynolds in early November 2008, when he stated that it was not the role of his Labor Government to have any say on a decision by a private company, Gunns, to build the nation’s biggest pulp mill in the Tamar Valley.  Lennon was reported as saying that the decision was based exclusively on commercial considerations, the essential factors being the Bell Bay port facilities and close access to timber resources in the north east.

The role of the Tasmanian Labor and Liberal Parties was to legislate for that to occur.

He merely confirmed what many people have been saying for several years.  It was most inconvenient that people actually lived in close proximity to the Bell Bay site.  It was most inconvenient that high quality food producing industries and associated enterprises, including a high proportion of Tasmania’s viticulture and other niche agricultural products, substantial fishing, tourism, recreational and residential investment, actually existed in the valley.

One problem for Lennon was identifying the best strategy to remove the inconveniences.  The next step, the implementation stage, was trickier.  The first part of the strategy, as we all know, was to ignore the inconveniences, to ignore all voices from the community and from independent experts, to treat all these things as superfluous or a nuisance, and to portray them, en masse, as NIMBY anti-development extremists.

But Lennon and his cabinet wanted a stronger counter against residents and businesses of the Tamar Valley if their inconvenient presence could not be easily isolated, silenced or labeled.  The strategy needed legislative teeth. Lennon always knew he had the support of the Liberal Party in this matter.

These parliamentary “representatives of the people” knew that if the people proved too resistant in protecting their own interests, whatever they were, there had to be weaponry in the legislation that was rammed through Parliament.  That is why the Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007 contains carefully worded clauses to ensure that the common law was set aside.

One thing that Paul Lennon learned as Tasmania’s Premier when John Howard was Australia’s Prime Minister, or had confirmed for him, was that in Australia’s constitutional “democracy” parliaments are able to legislate “to set aside the common law if they choose to do so” (Julian Burnside).  This was done by the Howard government with the Migration Act, which enabled them to argue all the way to the High Court that a stateless man without a visa could be detained for the rest of his life.  That is what can happen when parliaments set aside common law.

How can we thank Gunns enough, and how can we thank the Labor Party enough, and how can we thank the Liberal Party enough, for their unprincipled support for the brilliant idea of building a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley?

It is a serious question, because everything in the Tamar Valley is irrelevant in the face of the interests of the pulp mill.  Everything and everyone.

Even in the last few weeks when Gunns’ share price has plummeted, and there has been speculation that Labor- Liberal politicians are starting to view the project as an electoral liability, there is no hint of concern for the people of the Tamar Valley.  For example, Treasurer Michael Aird was reported as saying, in response to Gunns’ decision not to seek an extension to the sovereign risk agreement, that “the government has done everything possible to ensure the mill goes ahead, but the decision to proceed is up to Gunns and its financiers”.

Just take a moment to focus on Aird’s statement.  It mirrors Lennon’s comments to the letter.  Gunns has the legislative framework to do what it wants in the Tamar Valley, as Aird emphasises.  The timing, the decision about joint-venture, about selling the whole thing, about the pipelines, about the use of water, and all other matters are all done and dusted issues that Gunns has complete authority to negotiate, without government intervention.

Whatever happens in the Tamar Valley is now beyond the interest of the two main political parties, for purely political reasons.  If Gunns is successful, well and good.  Both Labor and Liberal will claim credit for the support they provided, legislatively and financially.  If Gunns is not successful, both parties will express regret at all the effort, praise Gunns for their wisdom and vision, and move to provide Gunns and their shareholders with alternative opportunities for “value adding”.

Aird would have known when he made his statement (just prior to November 22, 2008) that Forestry Tasmania would extend the wood supply agreement (WSA) for the mill when it expired at the end of November 2008. It is probably pointless to explore the timing of Forestry Tasmania’s directive to David Bartlett that the WSA would be extended.  Bob Gordon has indicated he can’t remember when he spoke to Bartlett about it.

The academic question, of course, is whether Gordon told Bartlett what decisions had been made on behalf of his government before the “line in the sand” comments, or afterwards.  It doesn’t much matter now because Bartlett has failed to honour every commitment he made about what his government’s position would be at the end of November 2008, as reported in the media (and they could not have all got it wrong).

The simple fact is that Bartlett’s “line in the sand” commitments meant nothing.  They were always just weasel words.

The renewed wood supply agreement has given Gunns a time extension to get the pipelines problems resolved, to sort out the federal permits with Peter Garrett, who no doubt will grant extensions for compliance whenever required beyond the current deadlines in January 2008, and to organize who will build and own the mill.

Bartlett has so far proved unwilling to legislatively resolve the pipelines problem on Gunns’ behalf, seeing such action as a threat to his political future, but no doubt there is a lot of detailed discussion occurring behind closed doors about how to sort out the West Tamar Council, East Tamar landowners and whoever else is an obstacle to Gunns’ control of the land needed for the pipelines.

As Deputy Premier Lara Giddings indicated on ABC news in Tasmania on 23 November 2008, “the pulp mill is unlikely to be built in the current economic circumstances”.  She was not indicating uncertainty about the prospects of a Tamar Valley mill, just its timing.  The legislation has no time frame.  All time frames in relation to permits, water, timber and everything else have already been shifted in Gunns’ interests, and will continue to be, at both State and federal level.  There is no reason to doubt that.

The real questions for people in the Tamar Valley should be about trying to foresee how the corporate, political, union alliance to get the pulp mill going will occur in the next few months.  The most obvious possibility is a federally funded “infrastructure” proposal, a public-private partnership (PPP), so enamoured by the Labor-corporate linkages Australia-wide, using taxpayers money to prop up corporate power for partisan and personal political advantage.

One plank in this possible scenario has already been put firmly in place during the first week in December.  The Senate passed legislation for the further extension of MIS plantations on agricultural land under the guise of climate change policy, and the final design of the scheme will be determined before the end of this year.  Do not be surprised if this is soon followed by Peter Garrett’s “approval” of key permits for the pulp mill at the height of the holiday period.

It is extraordinarily paradoxical, even laughably so, that an extension of MIS plantations onto agricultural land is being contemplated at this time.  The opportunity costs of these failing schemes are enormous already, running above six billion dollars since they were established under the Howard government in the late-1990s.  The public money foregone is lost to areas where infrastructure is in dire need.  Not only that, but clear-felling in important water catchments is occurring on an increasing scale, degrading water supplies and water availability for other users incrementally. Turning more and more agricultural land into water-thirsty plantations downstream at the same time as water catchments are being progressively destroyed is not only patently absurd and irresponsible.  It is political incompetence of a high order.

Perhaps most extraordinary of all, the bipartisan Senate was agreeing to this madness at exactly the time that all the MIS plantation schemes are facing huge problems.  John Lawrence has shown in detail what is happening at Great Southern Plantations, Timbercorp has just announced plans to sell 40,000 ha of plantations, Enviroinvest has gone into receivership with a reported debt of $100 million, and Gunns has just sold $175 million of plantation timber to pay off debt.

Unfortunately, the inane MIS policy has not been formulated within an assessment framework which examined the socio-economic and environmental costs.  That is also very interesting and very informative from a Tasmanian perspective, because it shows the bipartisan political mindset surrounding the MIS policy are eerily reminiscent of that in Tasmania, in the way the pulp mill legislation was passed.

This should act as an important reminder to Tasmanians opposed to the pulp mill, and to the current forestry “management practices” in Tasmania, and to the extension of plantations on agricultural land, that they can expect no support from the Rudd government or the Turnbull opposition in their quest to save the Tamar Valley, its people and its industry and business and its future prosperity and health.

There are also important signs that the Rudd government, like the Tasmanian governments in the last 20 years, of whatever political party, but especially Paul Lennon’s, is looking to PPP arrangements to prop up ailing dinosaurs in the corporate rust-belt, a kind of backward-looking corporate welfare, strong on short-term populist appeal, but lacking in any visionary initiative, especially in confronting the essential challenge of sustainability.  It is instructive to compare Rudd’s massive funding of the car industry with the grudging encouragement to alternative energy development, especially urban-based solar power, or to urban-based water saving measures.

So what does all this mean for Tasmanians in 2009, especially those in the firing line in the Tamar Valley?

The mill saga has demanded of most residents in the Tamar Valley that they ask themselves, and that they discuss within their communities there, why they live there, why they have chosen to build lives for themselves and their families there, to build or buy homes there, or to work there and develop and own businesses there. That will continue in 2009, and it will further strengthen residents’ understanding and knowledge of what they are fighting for and who they fighting beside, in reciprocal support.

It means another step in people sharpening their interest in the broader Tasmania polity, from governance (the way the whole Tasmanian political system is devoid of the essential elements for effective and responsible representative democracy) to the use of resources (including the degradation and destruction of the island’s ecology which supports all life), and from policy development across the whole spectrum of essential social services (for example, the abysmal public health and education infrastructure) to public-private partnerships for the benefit of corporate interests.

It means a reinforced understanding for many Tasmanians that democracy cannot be found in a political system which puts party and personal loyalties above representative responsibilities by enshrining caucus conformity above individual conscience.

It means additional encouragement for many Tasmanians throughout the State to become more actively engaged in political discourse in ways that they have not done before, to be part of the development of grassroots democratic involvement in ways that have not been seen in quite the same form since responsible self-government was introduced in Tasmania in 1856, and probably since the Anti-Transportation movement of the 1840s and early 1850s.

It means a growing political literacy which enables an informed focus and examination by many Tasmanians about the future of Tasmania, a matter increasingly released from the shackles of deference, reliance or trust on party-political spin, and a realization that the decisions of a backward (and probably incompetent) parliament bear little or no relationship to a sustainable future in the short term, and most certainly not for those who inherit the legacy from the present in the long term.

It means an increased awareness among people of the vital importance of localized activism as a precondition for democracy.

It means a continuation of the fight against the Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007, a fight which will continue now until the legislation is repealed.  This in its turn means a fight for real political representation of the people in the Tasmanian parliament, to replace the aridity of the “tinsel democracy” now in the hands of the two main political parties.

In the final analysis, for the people of the Tamar Valley, 2009 is a year in which they will be forced to continue the fight for their future.  It is ironic, but true, that the current Prime Minister was seen as a beacon of hope a little more than twelve months ago, partly because of his professed commitment “to forge a new coalition of political forces across the Australian community, uniting those who are disturbed by market fundamentalism in all its dimensions, and who believe this country is entitled to a greater vision than one which merely aggregates individual greed and self-interest”.

How hollow and deceptive that now seems.  Bartlett and Rudd are as one in relation to matters of sand.

Peter Henning