Tasmania: Time for a New Way by Peter Henning

Reproduced from Tasmanian Times

WE TASMANIANS are on the horns of a dilemma, a dilemma worsening by the day and recognized by many, but needed to be understood more widely and more quickly.

There is a clear and massive disjuncture between the whole focus and direction of Tasmanian Labor-Liberal accord policy, and local, national and global realities and imperatives.

The dilemma is profound, and cannot be resolved by the current level of political debate in Tasmania.  The reasons for this are so plain that it almost embarrassing to state them.  Outside Tasmania, in Australia and in the wider world, things are changing rapidly, more rapidly than has occurred before in living memory – at least the living memory of post-1945 generations of Australians (excluding the experiences of those who have already lived through their own hells on earth, in failed states elsewhere in the world).

It is blindingly obvious that the raft of problems confronting us now, and which will continue to do so in the near future and in the longer term, are being ignored at the State political level.  There is a kind of Mameluke-like disaster unfolding in Tasmania.

The Mamelukes were a political-miltary class (originally soldier-slaves), powerful in Egypt from the 13th century, (the only military power which defeated the Mongol invasions, and responsible for ending the crusader occupation of the Holy Land in the 1290s), until finally defeated by Napoleon in 1798.  Not just defeated, but irrevocably obliterated.  The Mamelukes had based their military success for hundreds of years on their professionalism, their dedication to mastery of set battles.  They were superior to adversaries with the same military technology, but doomed by their adamant refusal to change while the world outside (even immediately adjacent) was changing rapidly.

The Mamelukes’ years of preparation, pride in their idiosyncratic skills and professionalism, were blasted to pieces in a couple of hours.  Exquisite horsemanship and rapidly executed archery were redundant in the face of artillery and mass volleys of musketry.  The Mamelukes had ignored what was happening next door. They were trapped in their own incapacity to reform.  Their departure was abrupt and permanent.

None of the really important issues of significance in the world at large are considered relevant to the Tasmanian Labor-Liberal accord.  And the reason for that is clear enough too.  The prevailing political culture is trapped, like a rabbit in a spotlight, unable to move.  Its priorities (long ago corrupted from the public interest to the partisan and personal) are out of time, out of place, out of usefulness, and downright dangerous to all of us.  They are so blinded by the orthodoxies of their own Mameluke culture, and of their conviction that they can always capture over 70% of the vote in State elections, that they think that they don’t need to consider issues beyond the extension of their own parliamentary careers.

The current Labor-Liberal accord is wrecking Tasmania.  It has no answers to the current problems, whatever they are.  Water, land use, agriculture, fishing, tourism, health, forestry, environment, infrastructure, climate change – there is no integrated policy in these areas.

All these areas are inextricably interconnected.  None of them can be isolated from each other, as in separate silos.  Not only do they intersect with each other, but they are all also interconnected across the social-environmental-economic spectrum.  Policy fails whenever the economic is isolated from the social or the environmental.

It cannot be that there is just an intellectual incapacity to grasp the concept of interconnections, of relationships between the natural world (its resources and its health) and people (their needs and health) and economic activity (its sustainability).

How is it possible, for example, that the Tasmanian Parliament’s decision to approve the allocation of 26-40 giglatres of water to supply Gunns’ pulp mill every year into the indefinite future was made, whereby the question of whether this level of water usage would be sustainable, even for one year, let alone an unforeseeable future of anticipated climate change?  Surely intellectual incapacity alone cannot explain such moronic decision-making.

Rather, there is a deliberate and conscious cognitive decision to place the economic interest (not necessarily the sustainable economic interest, but the short-term profit-seeking economic interest) above the social and environmental.  In other words, to acknowledge that the interconnections exist, but to ignore them.  It is therefore possible, for example, that when the Tasmanian Parliament agreed to allow 70 million litres of toxic effluent to be dumped into Bass Strait daily indefinitely into the future, knowing that the effluent contained dioxins (among other poisons), that they were aware that they were potentially jeopardizing the fishing industry, the marine environment, Tasmania’s northern Bass Strait coastline, and the habitat of threatened species, but simply chose to ignore it.

It goes further than that.  The Labor-Liberal accord is locked into a political mentality of adversarial behaviour, a confused paradigm which promotes avoidance, obfuscation, exaggerated claims and counter-claims, cover-ups, and a mindset which sees the social, environmental and economic as not just separate, but competitive.  Everything, on these terms, is judged as a competing interest.  In this scenario, political decision-making cannot be visionary at all, but is reduced to a battleground between the various silos for attention.  In this sense, for example, it is not possible to have a massive wood-chipping industry, controlling thousands of hectares of native forest and plantations, without having serious adverse impacts on water supplies for all other users.  It has to be one or the other.  There can be no integrated approach, no alternative to clear-felling, no consideration of the real implications of the destruction of water catchments.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg of Tasmania’s dilemma.  There can be no insulation from wider national and global issues.  Those are the realities, and all of them, bar none, are not going away any time soon.

But there is another aspect of the disconnect between the social-environmental-economic which is most disturbing of all.  Tasmania has a modern western political system, closely connected to all sources of information about the local, the national, and the global, and it has a bicameral Parliament, an orderly electoral apparatus, a universal suffrage based on equal electorates and the principle of one person-one vote, without qualifications, such as property rights – in short a political system which has been built, through human struggle, to try to eliminate autocracy and abuse of power and install and defend democratic rights.

The disconnect, which gives priority to the economic, immediately puts democratic rights at risk, irrespective of the hard-won separation of powers in the institutional structures, and the regular electoral cycle and democratic suffrage.

Throw out integrated policy, informed by social-environmental-economic linkages, and also thrown out are all health considerations, across the board.  This is why it is not surprising for us to hear of water contamination across Tasmania, of toxin levels in drinking water exceeding safe levels, or of stories about drift from aircraft spraying in tree plantations onto farmland, people’s homes and water supplies, and of people suffering illness as a result.

Why is it not surprising that the event on January 20, 2009, at Weegana, where three people were subject to spray drift from a helicopter spraying a plantation, film footage recorded of the spraying occurring close to the Mersey River, and the people subsequently being physically ill, did not register a blip of interest in the mainstream media, and did not prompt a question – not even a question – of whether there is a link between this event and what is happening on a much broader scale in Tasmania.

In the Tasmania we live in none of these things are viewed as in any way abnormal.  The political processing of these things are part of the “normal” brief for corporate public relations people, whether in-house or outsourced, government bureaucrats, technocrats and field technicians, the local media and politicians.  Public complaint and evidence, corporate denial, bureaucratic obfuscation and inaction, criticism or suspicion of the complainant – in this case direct accusations of lying - and silence from the Labor-Liberal accord are summarized briefly, if at all, on the bottom of page out-of sight.  Mustn’t scare the horses, they mighn’t drink the water.  Or worse still, they might wonder what’s going on and stop running with the blinkers on.

But that’s not the whole picture is it?  There are choices to be made here, by a free press.  Or there should be.  To borrow from Shakespeare’s Hamlet - to be or not to be a free press?  Should we push things beyond the comfort zone, be true to the hallowed principles of freedom of the press?  If Hamlet’s moral dilemma doesn’t resonate with the fourth estate, there’s little hope they’ll think about, let alone identify, any pattern of events in the public domain which point to an undermining of people’s rights.

As for the Labor –Liberal accord, they love a gutless and ignorant print media, especially at the regional level.  It makes it possible to put events like Weegana January 20 within the frame of a wider set of events and experiences with which the broader community has become familiar and into which it quickly becomes merged.  It slips innocuously into a pattern of events in Tasmania which over time can become normalized, in much the same way that people came to accept during the Howard era that children could be incarcerated in detention indefinitely, even though the evidence was overwhelming that their lives were being destroyed.

Nice how easy it is to do that.

The political dilemma we face in Tasmania is serious. What happened at Weegana on January 20, and the response it evoked, most chillingly that the victims were liars, is a classic sign of a hollowed-out shell of political representation, a separation of interest between those holding the reins of institutional state power and the broader community, a pathology at the centre of the political culture.

Trying to nail the victims as the perpetrators is the oldest human rights crime in the political book stretching right back to our earliest surviving written records of human history.  It is also the subject of many a warning from astute and courageous commentators, activists and writers from the same period of extant records.  Socrates is possibly the most famous example in European history, condemned to death at the end of fifth-century BCE Athens, for challenging people to question the bases of their prevailing beliefs, the orthodoxies which controlled their lives and behaviours and political beliefs.

Socrates was condemned as a liar, a threat to morality and convention and the authority of the state.  Yet his name alone of his generation has been preserved (whether or not we know why) through the vicissitudes of time as well-known within the public domain (as distinct from the academy), and the reason is clear.

Socrates is Joan of Arc and Galileo and Walyer and Sitting Bull and Ghandi and Martin Luther King and Mandela and Salvatore Allende and all those people, less well known and unknown, who are victims of the politically powerful, and the unscrupulous, exploitative profiteers.

I suspect most Tasmanians do know that there is something rotten at the heart of Tasmanian politics, but they have a psychological difficulty in connecting with it, and relating events such as those at Weegana to the broader political landscape.  Most Tasmanians now live in urban environments and no doubt find it difficult to think seriously about being affected by aerial spraying.

Most Tasmanians are habituated to having “water on tap”, and cannot really envisage contaminated water as their daily fare.  For most people living in Hobart, clear felling of native forest in water catchments happens elsewhere.  The north east is a foreign country.  Launceston is Hicksville.  Thousands of Launceston residents would have no idea where their water supply comes from, whether from the north east catchment areas via the North Esk River or the South Esk River.

More significantly, many people of Launceston seem to have no idea what is happening in the catchment areas for their essential water supplies.  A large proportion of them have not recently been to the areas around Upper Blessington, the Fingal valley and Ben Lomond to see for themselves what the future holds for water supplies to Launceston. They don’t seem to realise how their water catchments are being wrecked, and they give little indication that they could care.  Perhaps they think their future water supplies in the future will come via some aqueduct from the west coast. Or from desalination.

Most extraordinary of all, as a particularly well-heeled local logging contractor mentioned to me, the equanimity of the people of the greater Launceston area at the prospect of Gunns using more than the total current regional usage of water for the pulp mill, beggars belief.  “They should be the jumping up and down and protesting about this in their tens of thousands, not just their thousands.  I can’t understand them”.

He is right.  Water is much too valuable and useful to be squandered in that way.  The absurdity of it even being considered as a public policy option by the Tasmanian Parliament is beyond question, at least in the sense of “public policy” and what that should mean.

Here lies the difficulty in a failing democratic political system.

Let me repeat, Tasmanians are on the horns of a dilemma because the Labor-Liberal accord is now effectively divorced from the people, and the notion of framing “public policy” in the public interest has more to do with preserving party and personal power than anything else, and does not see a valid political role as representing the interests of the people.  But most of the voting population, for a variety of reasons, cannot at this stage accept that this has occurred or acknowledge that the Labor-Liberal accord sees its role as representing sectional interests, usually corporate and private, rather than public.  Associated with this unfortunate conundrum is that whole sections of society are fundamentally ill-informed about what is happening around them.

It is in this context that the incident at Weegana and the political and community response reflects, in microcosm, a serious political malaise, an anti-democratic canker that must not be ignored, but challenged.  Again, this is not an isolated incident, to be dismissed as a mistake – the attack on the victims and the denials precludes that – but a political mindset which views victims as vexatious, annoying and a hindrance.

Victims are a nuisance.  They’re in the way.  They need to be dispossessed of that which makes them a nuisance.

We’re in a re-run of the 1820s dispossession, when the land grab between Launceston and Hobart and various beckoning off-shoots claimed the Tasmanian Aborigines throughout the region as a nuisance, to be dispossessed of their land permanently.  The Black War ensued, the land grants created a pastoral elite of wealth and political power and a subservient convict-emancipist work force, these people at one and the same time the shock troops of the Aboriginal dispossession and the next unwitting victims of the land grab, pushed to the margins as small holders and labourers.

That’s not good enough.  We don’t want another re-run of the 1820s.  The land grab has to be stopped.  MIS schemes are ripping the heart out of rural Tasmania, dispossessing whole communities.  Timber plantations and large-scale agri-business schemes have gone far enough.  The experience of such ventures in the Murray-Darling, with their gross distortions of the market, destruction of diversity, family farms and communities, and their huge demand on natural resources, to mention just some of the massive deleterious effects, shows they have no viable future.

The age-old argument of branding the victim follows a familiar pattern.  Consider the well-publicised Windshuttle justification for the dispossession of Tasmanian Aborigines, a justification timeless in its application by invaders, expropriators, looters, subjugators and perpetrators of mass murder and genocide – they deserved to be dispossessed.

Dispossession is multi-faceted.  It takes many forms. But it all begins with an assumption of some right to dispossess, whether it be a notion like “terra nullius”, or “queue jumpers”, or “progress”, or dismissal of rights through legislation, regulation, bureaucratic obfuscation, or simply by coercion, the application of “might is right”.

Dispossession without clear avenues of recourse to redress is oppression.

The longest serving US Supreme Court judge, the idiosyncratic William Douglas, appointed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, and through his career until 1975 the bane of conservative federal administrations and the conscientious defender of liberal democratic rights, had this to say of what is now nascent in Tasmania:

“As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged.  And it is in such a twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air – however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

That change is in the air, and has been for some time.  It has been fed by the notion that dissent is “extremist”, alternative economic and social models, incorporating community participation, diversity and discussion, are ignored, especially if they are at odds with or competitive with corporatism, and the increasing control of the key resources of land, forestry, water and other resources by a select group of corporate interests.  The whole weight of State power and authority in Tasmania has been directed towards this end, including the use of police action, indoctrination and training programs, the use of the legal system (SLAPP suits are commonplace as a means to stifle public discussion and dissent, with the active support of the Labor-Liberal accord), the undemocratic legislative program enshrined in the PMAA-PMP laws, the corruption, lies and cover-ups of the Labor-Liberal accord and the character assassination of all critics, whether in the political arena, the public service, the academy, the professions or the general community.

The people sprayed at Weegana on January 20 were acting as good stewards on our hehalf, and they deserve to be applauded for the evidence they collected about what happened on that day. But the political culture of Tasmania is one which abhors pluralism, diversity, difference and debate, and thrives on hierarchical notions of tribal and doctrinaire conformism.

The most fundamental aspects of stewardship are moribund in Tasmania. Cicero’s premise that “the welfare of the people is the ultimate law” does not apply in the Tasmanian polity.  There is one notion of stewardship, which is applicable to the circumstances of many third-world countries, and shared with Tasmania, (which although it is not a third-world economy, has third-world attitudes towards resource development and corporate-government relationships), and it is one which denies the notion of stewardship altogether.

There is a way forward, but it is not within the competence of the Labor-Liberal accord to make the decisions necessary for that to occur.

It is a way forward which promotes development of industries and enterprises that all of us can support, and which doesn’t degrade or destroy our capacity for a healthy and purposeful future, and which is not established for the economic benefit of a small number of corporate and political “squatters”, who see the rest of the population as a compliant labour market or a nuisance.

In 1995, Japanese management consultant guru Kenichi Ohmae (a strong supporter of regional economic cooperation within the framework of globalised markets – no left wing ideologue by a long shot), wrote that “government typically responds to the backward-looking demands of hard-pressed industries by providing subsidies.  Through trade, capital market, and regulatory policy, it responds to them by providing protection.  Together, subsidies and protection neither create incentives for healthy, if deliberately paced, change, nor work to build a constituency in favour of such incentives.  The only thing they do is buy off current political opposition, and they do so at an horrendous cost – in money, lost employment, and potential for future growth – that must be absorbed by all citizens in their roles as workers and consumers.”

In a nutshell the Tasmanian Labor-Liberal accord is moribund and stagnant.  It is leading Tasmania… no, leading is the wrong word.  It is taking Tasmania to disaster.

We must seek another way.  It is well past time for a new coalition of political forces in Tasmania to be formed, a coalition which supports an integrated vision for Tasmania’s future, based on an understanding of the essential and inextricable social-environmental-economic connections which needs must inform policy decision-making if Tasmania is to have a worthwhile future.

In 1976 Ian Turner’s wonderful little book, In Union Is Strength, a history of trade unionism in Australia from the convict era until 1974, was published.  In the penultimate chapter, which focused on the Whitlam years, and which he called “Today and Tomorrow”, he referred to a community debate about whether unions had the right to get involved in matters of public policy, as was occurring with greater frequency in the early 1970s, mentioning their interference in “the sending of war materials to Vietnam, the destruction of historic buildings (and) the construction of an industry which threatens atmospheric pollution”.

The centerpiece of this debate was the highly effective action taken by the Builders Labourers’ Federation (led by Jack Mundey), in concert with resident action groups, in a “green ban” against the redevelopment of Sydney’s historic Rocks area.

Turner then has this to say:

“But the fundamental question goes much further than this.  Ecologists have predicted a possible run-down of natural resources.  The ideology of capitalism has centred on progress, defined in terms of continuing technological sophistication and an ever-increasing productivity.  The structure of capitalism requires the continuing re-investment of profit.  The ideology of the working-class movement has also assumed progress; its quarrel with capitalism has been about who controls the productive apparatus, and how the product is distributed.  Recent trade union policies on conservation, however, imply a reconsideration of these imperatives, and the green ban movement has opened up new areas of common purpose between the unions and the urban middle class… (But) the working class, in Australia as in other advanced industrial societies, has been the prisoner of the ideology of progress and the goals of material satisfaction set by consumer society.”

The essentials of Turner’s analysis differ little now from when he wrote over 30 years ago.  But his hope for a strengthening of “common purpose” between the labour movement and the “urban middle class”, implicitly optimistic about a social-environmental-economic connection of coherence, was not to eventuate.

The opposite occurred, and occurred exponentially since the 1970s.  The environment in its entirety was commodified more systematically and more thoroughly in the last 30 years than was thought possible at any other time in human history.  Air, water, land and all the planet’s resources and life met one agenda – economic growth.  The social-environmental was eliminated from the equation.

It has been a calamity for Australia that what Jack Mundey and others started in the 1970s was allowed to fall apart, for there should be a natural alignment between the preservation of the environment and the interests of the labour movement.

The point is – here and now – that there must be a revival of linkages between political forces that focus on holistic connections, rather than on competitive interests.

There are incipient signs that the window of opportunity for reconnection is starting to occur.  In the wake of the Victorian bushfire catastrophe, the national secretary of the United Firefighters Union of Australia (UFUA) Peter Marshall, has written an open letter to the Prime Minister and the Premier of Victoria expressing grave concern that “current federal and state government policies seem destined to ensure a repeat of the recent tragic events”.  Marshall emphasizes that research by the CSIRO, Climate Institute and Bushfire Council found that climate change, even a “low global warming scenario, will see catastrophic fire events happen” repeatedly. (The Age, 12/2/09).

At the same time, Kenneth Davidson is warning Victorians of the need for “an understanding of impact of fires on the (water) catchment areas – specifically, the ash and fire retardant chemicals left in the wake of the firestorm that will be washed into the dams after the first big rainfall, as happened in Canberra after the 2003 bushfires”.

Tasmania’s water catchments are increasingly imperiled on a wider scale than Victoria’s by clearfelling and the establishment of highly fire sensitive mono-cultural plantations.  Members of the UFUA come from a broad spectrum of society and political perspectives, but like Jack Mundey’s BLF of the 1970s, UFUA leadership is seeking a broad consensus for action across interlocking policy areas for “state and federal governments to follow scientific advice and keep firefighters and the community safe by halving the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2020”.

Tasmanians have an opportunity in 2009 to reshape the political landscape, to refashion the direction that Tasmania is going.  We are the stewards.  We cannot disavow that. We can ignore it.  We can dismiss it.  But we do so at our peril, because dispossession can come by our own actions, our own stupidity, our own ignorance.  It has happened in the past, again and again. We can choose to be good stewards or bad stewards.  But we are still the stewards.

Now is the time for us to break the shackles of a political system, which, in the words of Tony Powell (the inaugural chairman of the of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission of 1975) is encumbered by “the ever-present politicization of public administration that bedevils the work of state and federal public services generally, fed by an evil army of ministerial advisers whose purpose is to divert, disrupt and channel public service outputs to best serve the interests of ministers, political parties, selected private sector interests of money and influence, and always to the detriment of the public interest”.

Now is the time to actively develop a new coalition of political forces across the social spectrum.  A coalition which will support the election of people to the Legislative Council in May this year who will fight for the public interest, for the long-term interest of a healthy future for Tasmania and Tasmanians.  A coalition which will fight for the removal of the Liberal-Labor accord from the corridors of power in Tasmania in 2010, which will restore basic legal rights to the people, which will remove statute bars preventing access to common law, which will fight to remove the toxic silos which enshrine corporate economic interest above the social-environmental imperatives.

A coalition which can approach our future from the perspective of a holistic interpretation of the way forward, which doesn’t see water and air as sacrificial commodities to fat bonuses for corporate executives at the expense of the public interest, here and now and into the foreseeable future.

Now is the time for a coalition of forces which sees the inextricable interconnections between a healthy fishing industry, a vibrant and diverse farming sector, tourism, business and industry, clean air and water, climate change, a healthy ecosystem, the protection and nourishment of non-human life – the entwined social-environmental-economic - for we might not have that opportunity again in our lifetimes.

Now is the time.

Peter Henning


Kenichi Ohmae, The End of the Nation State, 1995.
Ian Turner, In Union is Strength, 1976.
Peter Marshall, The Age, 12/2/09.
Kenneth Davidson, The Age, 12/2/09.
Tony Powell, The Age, 11/2/09