In 2009, at the height of a passionate public debate on the merits or otherwise of a giant pulp-mill proposed for the Tamar Valley, with articles appearing daily in the press and media a confusing mish-mash of spin, hyperbole, misinformation, technical jargon and too often, unmitigated nonsense, I lauded, in a letter published in the Examiner, the contributions of some senior academic staff - noting that they brought to the debate, objective fact-based commentary and analysis (independent of vested interests) and a depth of technical knowledge and expertise otherwise absent.
They acted in the best traditions of academic freedom, ethics, knowledge and public service. Names mentioned in the letter included McCall, Stokes, Wells and Gale, et al.
Now, an excellent book Pulp Friction in Tasmania, edited by Dr Fred Gale, tells the story of the Pulp Mill Assessment Process in great detail. It should be a ‘must-read’ for all politicians, business-leaders and bureaucrats – not just those involved in this odious example of corruption of democratic process. It should also serve as a prescribed text for future students of political science, economics, law, government and environmental studies.
The book, comprising a series of Chapters by experts in their respective fields, has been extensively researched; is informative and educational; and addresses the issues without fear or favour. In so doing, the respective contributors provide us with a much clearer picture of how our democratic institutions have been usurped by a form of crony capitalism based on nepotism, favouritism and corruption. And the same names of senior academics feature in this book. By being willing to go public in this way, they not only reflect great credit on their institutions and on themselves for contributing massively to the greater public good, they also provide a glimmer of hope that our parliamentary system, now so seriously in disrepute, will respond positively to being exposed to critical public gaze and censure in this way and begin the long road to reform.
One wonders in this respect if any of the public figures involved in the pulp mill fiasco feel any sense of remorse or embarrassment for inflicting on so many citizens (in the Tamar Valley particularly) a long period of uncertainty and stress associated with family plans and business investments having to be put on hold indefinitely; and for creating social division and economic dislocation unnecessarily. As noted by the authors (Gibson & O’Donovan) in their “pulp mill and business” chapter, “ its (the proposed TV pulp mill) affects on other businesses in the area could result in losses that are, in relation to the size of those businesses, many time the magnitude of the financial losses already felt by Gunns – in addition to social and environmental degradation. At risk were the activities likely to provide an income for hundreds of small businesses and their families in the area for generations because they are sustainable”.
That the TCCI enthusiastically and unconditionally supported the proposal from the outset (before the facts were known) is indicative of a lack of professionalism , and an abrogation of their responsibility to represent the interests of all businesses, large and small. They should forever be condemned for this conspicuous failure; as well as the fact that they had no hesitation supporting, unequivocally, an evaluation process that failed to quantify any costs or subsidies , infrastructure or externality cost (Wells, p 243). That is, this was to be a project without costs – a world first! Good old Tassie ! And good old TCCI – no wonder they went ‘belly-up” late last year and have since had to be reinvented.
Politicians are notorious for their lack of economic nous and business understanding, but how could professional bureaucrats (economic development) and a peak business body ( as well as business analysts in the press and media) ignore such a nonsense?
As for the Government’s role “by fast-tracking the review process, they promoted an assessment methodology that could produce only one result – the mill would increase Gross State Product” (Wells,ibid). Farcical! Any business with experience in major industrial developments would have insisted on a stringent independent review of the assessed financial benefits, to guard against any bias or error in the calculations.
As Stokes pointed out (p129) “ the willingness of the executive to intervene in an established and rigorous assessment process because it did not, ostensibly, suit the business timetable of a large company, and the weakness and lack of self-confidence which the parliament displayed in allowing itself to be bullied into passing the PMAA and accepting a permit which arguably did not comply with the weak requirements of the Act, indicated that there is a very low standard of governance in Tasmania”.
Of all the damning facts, observations and evidence produced in this well compiled and compelling book, this is arguably the most damning : a Parliament seen to be in thrall to a large corporation, bowing to its every demand.
The Editor (Dr Gale) homes in unerringly on the matters which, in essence, enabled the proposal to proceed as far as it did – all of which call seriously into question the extent to which our democratic systems operate to protect the interests of the public at large:
• “The approvals processes were seriously flawed”
• “Gunns used its corporate power (epitomised in the Gunns 20 SLAPP suit) to bully governments, contractors, environmentalists and the local community into doing whatever it believed was in its own corporate interests”
• “Lennon’s handling of the pulp mill, his close ties to big business and Gunns, and allegations that he may have lied to parliament have caused Tasmanians to question the degree to which the State’s political arrangements are delivering anything more than democratic formalism : the illusion of rule by the people”.
Where to now?
Stokes (p282) argues persuasively ”that the PMP is invalid and that the privative clause in Section11 of the PMAA does not protect it from challenge in the Courts”. We can only hope he is right and that this matter is resolved sooner rather than later. Only then will citizens feel that the toxic dark cloud that has hovered over the Tamar Valley for eight long years has been swept away, and life can return to normal. A great day, if and when it comes, but we should never forget, nor forgive, the perpetrators of the blighted mill proposal and assessment process for their flagrant abuse of our assumed democratic system (revealing it to be in urgent need of restoration and reform).
We are all indebted to Dr Gale and his colleagues for their significant contribution to the wider community in producing, and publishing, a book which reveals how a few unscrupulous and unprincipled people in positions of power, can use and abuse our so-called democratic system of government in the interests of a favoured few, ignoring the voice of the people, science and the environment. In today’s world, that is a recipe for failure. Let us hope that lesson at least has now been well learned!
A heart-felt THANK YOU to Dr Gale and colleagues .You have championed the cause of the people when so many others opted to do otherwise.