Bartlett’s Natural Law of Government: That Spin is inversely proportional to transparency

Rick Pilkington (Originally published on ) The continuing effect of the Gunns Pulp Mill on public life in Tasmania will be one of division. Terrible division. Supporting the project stopped being clever long ago. The kindest thing to do would be for the Bartlett Government to disconnect itself from the proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill and reconnect to its line in the sand. Until the Bartlett Government or a future Hodgman Government does so, the Gunns Pulp Mill will continue to be a millstone. Connected or Divided? In 2008 Premier David Bartlett sent a clear message to the people of Tasmania that he’d had enough of the planned Gunns Tamar Valley Pulp Mill. His Government’s role in the project was over and whether the pulp mill went ahead or not, would now be determined by Gunns and its ability to get finance. The Premier told Tasmanians they would know for sure by Christmas 2008 whether the Gunns pulp mill project would or would not go ahead. The Bartlett Government appeared to have recognised it had done more than enough in meeting Gunns’ timeframe. Other stakeholders would finally be given the same certainty as Gunns. The many producers of award-winning food and wine in the Tamar Valley, where a $500 million tourism industry thrives, could now look forward to certainty and to reinvesting in, and expanding jobs-rich businesses Mr Bartlett declared: “I believe that this Parliament and, therefore the Government have done pretty much all we can and some would say too much…we have drawn a line in the sand regarding any future government involvement in this project”. When I confronted Mr Bartlett at George Town last weekend I said, “You lied to us Mr Premier. It’s there on the public record” The Premier shook his head, walked away, and mumbled something to Deputy Premier Lara Giddings. Sunday October 25 opened many peoples’ eyes to the bizzare, alternative world of media-led Government. On Sunday evening after the George Town protest, one of the commercial TV stations exposed the Premier’s kind and connected attitude to Tasmanians who have lost faith in politicians. Mr Bartlett was shown on TV talking to journalists at Low Head where he had just finished announcing $1 million of government funding for the Low Head pilot station. This was just prior to his travelling to the George Town government forum where anti-pulp mill protesters were waiting. Before leaving Low Head, the Premier flagged to the gathered media how he would attempt to use pulp mill protesters at Georgetown for a cheeky self-serving media-bite. “You just have your cameras ready” directed a smirking Premier. Many protesters including TAP’s Bob McMahon predicted the likelihood of a politically-motivated pantomine. Police and journalists were informed about the Premier’s front door entrance prior to Mr Bartlett’s arrival, but protesters were not. Mr Bartlett’s and Ms Giddings’ subsequent performance for the news cameras exposed their attempt to manipulate the media’s interpretation of their encounter with protesters in favor of government and against anti-pulp mill protesters. If the Premier was fair dinkum about having a genuine exchange with protesters, his minders may have considered alerting the organisers so a small delegation of protesters could have arranged to meet with him. The Premier did not do this, or in fact attempt to converse with assembled protesters, preferring to cynically exploit them. Some news outlets, including our public broadcaster the ABC, easily complied in spinning the government line. This is how ABC online reported the Premier’s encounter with protesters. “Premier David Bartlett and deputy Premier Lara Giddings got out of their cars to speak to the protestors but struggled to be heard over the crowd” You cannot struggle to be heard if you haven’t attempted to speak, and you cannot attempt to speak if you have no intention to do so. How do I know? I was right there and I have the entire encounter on video. Here we see the disturbing influence of the spin-doctor on news, much the same as we saw in the Examiner’s controversial publishing of the John Gay soapbox piece. The mutually dependent relationship between the corporate or government PR machine and the media where ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. The loser in all this? The Public. The Premier’s Spin Doctors Like his predecessors, Premier Bartlett is well known for his bloated and expensive posse of ministerial staff ($2 million-plus a year) and advisers and strategists ($1 million-plus a year). Last financial year, wages within the Premier Bartlett’s office outstripped Mr Lennon’s from the year before. Indeed Tasmanians shelled out close to $9 million for the pay packets of political staff to Tasmania’s senior government ministers. Recently the Bartlett Government advertised for $100,000 per annum to implement an “internal and external communication marketing and branding strategy (spin doctor) for the Tasmanian Polytechnic”. Then of course there was $90,000 to spin the Government’s unpopular water and sewerage reforms. Last week an Auditor General’s report criticized Government advertising campaigns including former Premier Paul Lennon’s six figure pro-pulp mill advertisements. The report also criticized the Government’s now disgraced Pulp Mill Task Force Information Bus, which is widely recognized as having had a key role in destabilizing the independent RPDC pulp mill assessment process. Auditor-General Mike Blake argued that the bus’s activities might have undermined the RPDC pulp mill assessment process. Blake’s comments echoed concerns expressed by former commissioner Julian Green and assessment panelmember Warwick Raverty upon their shock resignations from the RPDC’s Pulp Mill assessment panel in late 2006. Bartlett puts the line in the sand behind him Yet this has not deterred Premier Bartlett, who in the run-up to the state election, has now well and truly put the line in the sand behind him, and thrown his government’s full support behind the Pulp Mill Presumably, Mr Bartlett’s million-dollar army of advisers have reasoned it politically expedient for the Pulp Mill to be used as an election wedge against the Greens on jobs. Just as the Premier’s advisers reasoned at the outset of his administration that it was politically expedient for Mr Bartlett to distance himself from former Premier Paul Lennon and Gunns. The downside of the Government’s present strategy is that rather than healing community division as Premier Bartlett once promised, the fighting and arguing over the Gunns Pulp Mill will intensify. So much for being connected. Whatever the reasons, and despite the government’s best efforts to downplay its renewed support for the Gunns project, Tasmanians are finding out this year just how involved the Bartlett Government is in the Gunns Pulp Mill. Indeed, a few weeks ago Tasmanians learnt that the Premier had rededicated himself and his government as willing lobbyists for the Pulp Mill via a secret letter written to Gunns Chairman John Gay The letter was written in May this year. Then in September this year Gunns put out a press release thanking Treasurer Michael Aird for… “Agreeing to lobby its prospective pulp mill partner…Gunns spokesman Matt Horan said last night while the Tasmanian Government had always been clear about its backing for the giant pulp mill, ‘every little bit’ of open support helps. Mr Aird left yesterday for a week-long, $50,000 trip to Europe, during which he will meet the unnamed companies Gunns hopes can be convinced to invest in its controversial pulp mill”. Talk about dropping the Government in it. Treasurer Aird was forced to admit that he was travelling to Europe partly to help Gunns secure project finance. Even after intense scrutiny from political opponents and media, Mr Aird was still not completely forthcoming about the details of his taxpayer-funded trip to Europe. Upon his return the Treasurer was still cagey. When pressed Mr Aird reluctantly revealed he had in fact attended multiple meetings as well as toured various European pulp mills. It was also rumoured that the Treasurer and Mr Gay were travelling together when the Australian Financial Review reported, “Gunns chairman John Gay and Tasmanian Treasurer Michael Aird are in Scandinavia trying to finalise finance for Gunns’ plan”. Kind or Malevolent? Treasurer Michael Aird is known to be an ardent fan of the Gunns Pulp Mill, and has been recently quoted as saying that “John Gay is mis-understood”. This is what Dr Rodney Ross, a retired Dentist from the Tamar Valley said of a recent meeting with the Treasurer at the Beaconsfield Community Cabinet… “However, he made absolutely no attempt to assure me that the Government would help in any way whatsoever. As far as he was concerned it was our problem. It was all my fault. “You just got the impression he wasn’t really listening, you know. It was all in one ear and out the other. He did not care. It was a case of dollars and cents with Mr Aird - ordinary people do not count…” “Then, amazingly, he inferred that it was our fault we were in this predicament. The industrial area in Bell Bay was bound to have a factory built on it sooner or later he said and we should have taken that into account when we decided to live in the Tamar valley” “When I asked him about the potential odour issues and shared my experience and knowledge of the Tumut Mill in NSW, Mr Aird said, “Well we are hoping it’s not going to smell”. I (Mr Ross) said. “Come on Mr Aird!” - then he looked really sheepish actually”. Some more rather revealing encounters with Bartlett Government Ministers have begun to emerge in the wake of the recent Beaconsfield and George Town ‘Community Cabinet Forums’ The accounts below are from by Tamar Valley locals who met with Government Ministers at the Beaconsfield and George Town. Of her meeting with Infrastructure Minister Sturges, Sue McMahon of Exeter said: “His department did all the talking. He hardly looked at me. He looked at his fingernails and he just looked around the room. “You know… It was just hopeless really…he seemed totally disinterested I had expected him to be on top of the issues enough to talk to me about it and when he did talk he just repeated what this other bloke said”. Another couple from the Rowella area - (asked not to be named) close to the Longreach mill site said of their meeting with Treasurer Aird… “He didn’t answer our questions to our satisfaction, and particularly in relation to the two years of unmitigated stink. “His answer to that was that if it was too bad then would the just have to stop the whole procedure! (LOL) “At which point we said…what you just flick the off switch and say to them tatah! Oh you have to all go home now because the locals said it’s smelling too much. It (the conversation with Mr Aird) was just ridiculous”. “We also brought up that when they were funding their eight million dollar bus that came around we had Dario Tomat come around. “He sat in the lounge and said “I don’t know why you are worried, you know the most it’s going to smell is 4 or 5 days when you mightn’t want to go outside. “That’s what he said to us. “That was when the pulp mill bus was coming round. The Task Force bus. They sent these people round who could talk to you. “Dario Tomat told us that. “We thought this was very wrong so we wrote off to Julian Green and we posted this off to him to say that this is what we were getting. “In a way I’m a bit sorry about that now because he’s (Green) gone (LOL)…he would have gone anyway”. “…We said to Mr Aird if they think it’s (the pulp mill) such a good thing why didn’t they just put it to a ballot of the people. “This was just dismissed”. Anne Layton Bennett, businesswomen from Hillwood, said of her meeting with Treasurer Aird… “He basically said well it doesn’t matter what you say or how much you oppose this mill - I think it’s a good idea …and basically this is what he said - I think it’s a good idea and because it’s going to happen! “So he (Aird) was basically dismissing anything that the community might say; any concerns that they might have. “Aird thought it was a good idea… so it was a good idea. So it was going to happen”. The Premier’s Press Club Audition Two weeks ago while Tasmanians were watching the Premier deliver a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra, it was widely rumoured that the main reason the Premier, Mr Aird, Lara Giddings and senior bureaucrats were in Canberra was to meet with federal colleagues and help stitch up financial support for Gunns’ mill. The Government is yet to deny this. From a line in the sand to messenger boy for Gunns? At the Press Club the Premier went to work talking up Tasmania. “Tasmania can and will be a national leader and a global leader in key areas” “We are a small island pursuing an agenda of global significance – one that will change traditional perceptions of Tasmania forever” “Our harnessing of a natural water advantage will provide Australia’s food security for future generations” “Our renewable energy sector will drive Australia’s renewable energy sector to reach its 2020 targets”. Despite the Premier’s entrenched reputation as being heavy on spin and over-reaching with his rhetoric, most would concede that Mr Bartlett has an impressive command of information, an ability to articulate it, think on his feet and deliver confident intelligent public speeches. David Bartlett is simply a superior public speaker and parliamentary performer than Will Hodgman and his predecessor Paul “Mr Speaker, Mr Speaker” Lennon. Though the Premier will of course deny it, his speech at the press club was delivered with an eye to a future career in Canberra. His slick and confident performance would not have escaped the notice of his federal colleagues and Canberra journalists. Premier Bartlett has made a habit lately of daring his critics to judge him at the ballot box, much in the way that Howard did before his federal election defeat, all the while knowing the end was nigh. Indeed, Mr Bartlett would be well aware, as John Howard was prior to the last federal election that his government is headed for defeat in March 2010. One senses, that underneath David Bartlett knows there is likely to be a silver lining for him beyond Labor’s 2010 election defeat, if not in the private sector, in the Federal Parliament. David Bartlett is young and the Rudd government has long way to run. There is plenty of time and opportunity for him to take his act to Canberra and make a successful career with Federal Labor. Time will tell whether his press club audition was successful. Clever or Foolish? The Pulp Mill at the Press Club When Premier Bartlett finally inclined to mention the unpopular Pulp Mill in his Press Club speech he did so as an afterthought with a dutiful plug at the end of a 40-minute speech. To say the Premier looked uncomfortable talking about the divisive and controversial pulp mill in front of a cynical national press would be an understatement. Mr. Bartlett segued from a lengthy eulogy about Tasmania’s future techno revolution to his short pulp mill reference with what is now a standard Bartlett anecdote about the mobile phone company Nokia. “Most of you in the room today will have a mobile phone, if it’s not an I phone or a blackberry its probably a Nokia, and for many Australians, you wouldn’t know but Nokia began life as Forestry Company. That’s how it made its wealth before it branched out. “Now we have older industries…or should I say traditional industries in Tasmania like forestry……… “ we are talking here about a very technologically advanced mill, meeting the strictest environmental standards anywhere the world. It too will provide opportunities for innovation and the effective use of new generation technologies”. It’s not difficult to imagine how the Nokia anecdote has found its way into the Premier’s repertoire. However, hitching Gunns’ pulp mill to the rising star of ‘New generation Technologies’ came across as lame and contrived. Attempting to link the Gunns Pulp Mill to Tasmania’s future new world of IT and speedy communications is extremely tenuous and at worst makes the Premier look suspiciously like another in a long line of Tasmanian Premiers who are locked into an unhealthy bondage to the logging industry. Many Tamar Valley locals fear that whilst Gunns Pulp Mill will benefit its distant shareholders, the quiet, clever and diverse community who have managed to live harmoniously for generations with the local environment will be left to pick up the pieces as the Gunns Pulp Mill business fails. There are indeed many precedents of this occurring in other countries. Indeed, it will be of little consolation if the pulp mill does go belly up and the Tamar Valley is left with a Gunns mobile phone shop and a $3 billion hi-tech squat for the homeless. At that stage there will be little recourse for compensation. Gunns, unlike existing locally owned businesses, will not be directly accountable to locals, rather protected from them by law. If local boy - 2003 Tasmanian young achiever award winner, Daniel Alps can no longer serve the freshest, cleanest seafood and organic vegies because he can no longer afford to buy, or indeed to source it locally then the young people he employs from local towns like Exeter and Legana will be laid off. If this occurs, will the Bartlett or Hodgman Government be forthcoming with a bailout package? Likewise, local family business Miller’s Orchard was established in the 1930s and employ up to 60 full-time workers with a large percentage of their produce destined for the export market including France, Holland, Taiwan and Italy. Millers’ produce is more expensive than many of its competitors but it maintains its market because of the quality of the produce and the perception that it comes from a clean and pristine environment. Millers may well lose their export markets as their buyers worry about the damaged Tasmanian Brand and the impacts of pollution on the produce. The continuing effect of the Gunns Pulp Mill on public life in Tasmania will be one of division. Terrible division. Supporting the project stopped being clever long ago. Most Tasmanians have already worked this out. The kindest thing to do for the Island of Tasmania would be for the Bartlett Government to disconnect itself form the proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill and reconnect to its line in the sand. Until the Bartlett Government or a future Hodgman Government does so, the Gunns Pulp Mill will continue to be a millstone around their necks, as it locks Tasmania into a future so irreconcilably at odds with Premier Bartlett’s vision for the state, as outlined in his speech to the Press Club. “Tasmania’s future does not lie in the massive bulk exports of raw materials, it lies in low volume high quality, high value exports. To do that we need to re-think our logistics, transport systems that are low emissions intelligent systems…It’s about our skills sector, science, and innovative agribusiness. It’s about transforming our logistics into smart, low emission transport systems, and drawing more people to visit our State through our growing food and wine tourism sector. That is a clever Tasmania in action”