It's time to stop and get off the Gunns pulp mill merry-go-round

Bob McMahon TAP Spokesman, January 8, 2009

As the community campaign against the Gunns pulp mill proposed for the Tamar Valley enters its fifth year, federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett has set a new deadline of March 3, 2011, for Gunns to complete hydrodynamic modelling of effluent dispersal into Bass Strait.

The extension condemns the people of Tasmania — the communities of the Tamar Valley in particular — to at least two more years of uncertainty and conflict. Investment in the region will continue to dry up because of the continuing threat of the pulp mill. The property market collapsed years ago — an analysis of sales figures for 2003 and 2008 show a 75% decline — and people have held off investing for four years in the hope that the mill plan will be knocked on the head.

Gunns has continually failed to meet deadlines and has continually been granted extensions. It's like playing "pass the parcel" to a cracked record. The music never stops and the parcel goes round and round.

No one in the Tasmanian or federal Labor governments will drop the parcel or unplug the record player, nor have they any intention of doing so.

Why not? Because something sinister happened in 2004. State and federal Labor endorsed the pulp mill before it was even assessed, as did the Howard government and the Tasmanian Liberal Opposition. The support of the Gunns mill was locked into Labor and Liberal policy. They also accepted a "benefits-only" view of the project that excluded any assessment of costs, risks and impacts to the public.

The public was deliberately excluded from consideration, as were other irritants such as the wood supply to feed the mill (Tasmania's forests), availability of water, the existing businesses in the Tamar and the Tasmanian fishing industry.

The Tamar Valley, one of the nation's most beautiful, prosperous and productive locations, home to 100,000 people, was set up to be the sacrifice zone for one of the world's biggest pulp mills. As a site for a pulp mill, the Tamar Valley ranks alongside, say, Bennelong Point (home of the Sydney Opera House) as a peculiarly demented choice. Is it any wonder the people of the Tamar are in a state of rebellion?

Is it any wonder the Australian populace opposes the mill and views the corrupt and corrupting saga of the approval process as symptomatic of the failure of representative government in Australia?

From the beginning, the pulp mill was a state-sponsored and state-promoted project that would rely for some of its construction and long-term operation on a heap of subsidies — estimated at between $200 million and $300 million— pillaged from the public purse. (After which Gunns made a profit last financial year of just $64 million).

The pulp mill proposal is not private enterprise in all its capitalist purity. One needs to turn the clock back to the Soviet era to comprehend what we are dealing with.

So when the National Association of Forest Industries calls for the Australian Government to provide infrastructure funds to help Gunns fast-track the $2.2 billion pulp mill, because Gunns is unable to raise any money in the world credit markets, that is entirely consistent with the propping up of favoured industries that we witnessed under John Howard and that is now a runaway train under Kevin Rudd.

Howard's vision of a 3 million-hectare tree plantation estate fuelled by managed investment schemes, which has caused such devastation to rural Australia, particularly Tasmania where 25% of farms have gone under trees, is nothing compared with the staggering scale of Rudd's proposed 34 million hectares of carbon offset plantations.

According to this logic, if you plant trees as a carbon offset, you won't need to reduce your carbon emissions. Thus the piddling 5% carbon reduction target. Keep on mining. Keep on logging native forests. Keep on burning coal and oil. Sounds like the mission statement of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, does it not?

Julia Gillard's spruiking of the pulp mill is the authentic voice of that union. Is there an implied federal guarantee to Gunns in this? I fear and suspect so.

The Labor Government is putting behind it the collapse of the Murray-Darling, the dying of the Great Barrier Reef, the destruction of the native forests, the finitude of water resources. Australia is a nation choosing to fail.

The pulp mill is a symptom of a deep-seated disease that is Australia-wide and not a localised "not in my backyard" issue for the residents of the Tamar. It is the local scab on a national cancerous sore. It is fast looming as a symbolic battleground for Australia's future.

It has been forced on the people of this nation by rotten government policy and rotten government behaviour. It has forced the people of Tasmania on to the streets in their tens of thousands. It has forced us to mobilise community resources to defend what the generations have built here in the Tamar Valley.

We must defend our vineyards and our olive groves from the assault by government and corporation. We must defend our fishing grounds and our farms. We must defend our families, livelihoods and property because we have a vision for Australia's future that begins with what has been proven to be sustainable.