Miranda Devine — born with a silver typewriter at her fingertips — has long run the convenient fiction that she stands with the ordinary Australian against the elites.
Miranda ( On TT, HERE )seems to dislike people who question the powerful and rich, which is strange for an anti-elitist. But perhaps it explains why when she writes of Gunns and its chairman, John Gay, her three witnesses are two millionaires and an ex-premier.
If she lived in Tasmania I doubt she would describe Gay as ‘a hero of the working people of Tasmania.’ Gunns is despised in Tasmania. Even its own research showed it to be deeply unpopular. It was a bad employer, a bad neighbour, and exercised its corporate power ruthlessly.
Ask those who slaved in the clearfells for it. Ask the farmers whose properties were over sprayed with Atrazine by it. Ask the grandmother sued by it. The communities who fear their water supply have been poisoned by it.
Gay, writes Devine, now ‘lies in bed at night and worries about the logging contractors he couldn’t save, who borrowed money to buy equipment and have lost their livelihood’.
Here’s a question I’d like John Gay to answer: Did he lie in bed back when he was boss at Gunns worrying about all the logging contracts Gunns broke, all the contractors Gunns sent to the wall in order to make more profit?
Was he losing sleep over Gunns fighting furiously with those contractors in court, only deepening both their debt and despair?
Did he stay awake at night worrying about the sawmill workers at Scottsdale Gunns sacked in 2008?
The sawmill workers in Hobart Gunns sacked in 2009?
Do ask him, Miranda. We’d all like to know.
Or do those sawmill workers and contractors represent part of the great Godless Green conspiracy that Miranda so despises?
For Miranda hates greenies, which is fine; she no doubt believes, as she wrote after the Black Saturday bushfires, that “it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies”; and it is brave to write what one believes. But hate, which may help garner headlines, blinds her to the truth of Gunns and all that befell Tasmania.
It is perfectly reasonable for Miranda to advise Australia that a vote for the Greens will move Australia ‘back to the Dark Ages’. But she will need better evidence to bolster her opinion than the deluded testimony of embittered old men.
Former unionist and former ALP premier Paul Lennon is one of Devine’s two witnesses in the defence of Gay. He led a government so inept it made Kristina Keneally’s look like Churchill’s war cabinet in comparison, and publicly gave the appearance of being more Gunn’s gamekeeper than the island’s premier.
Gunns was no friend of the workers, which made Lennon’s choice of its anti-union construction company Hinman Wright & Manser to renovate his Georgian mansion a curious one.
Under threat of legal action by his minders no media outlet in Tasmania dared run the story of Gunns’ renovation of Lennon’s home at the time the pulp mill was being approved by Lennon’s government.
After the story finally broke on the website tasmaniantimes.com, and Lennon was pressed on the matter, he said the renovations cost him somewhere in the vicinity of $150,000. No documentation was forthcoming. The Australian subsequently quoted a builder who said they were in the vicinity of $400,000. No explanation of the discrepancy was ever forthcoming.
In Devine’s article, Lennon seeks to claim Tasmania’s economic malaise is attributable to a forest industry nobbled by Green activism. But the forest industry in Tasmania is not what the mining industry is to Western Australia. On its own figures, in 2006 it employed the equivalent of 5,870 full time workers. After the retrenchments and closures of the last few years, the figure today would be considerably less, under 5,000 — or just over 2 per cent of Tasmania’s workforce of 237,000 working Tasmanians.
Unlike the mining industry, woodchipping doesn’t create jobs. It sheds jobs. Unlike the mining industry, the woodchipping industry doesn’t create wealth for government. It takes wealth from taxpayers. Dr Graeme Wells, an economist from the University of Tasmania, has calculated that the Tasmanian forest industry received $767 million in taxpayer subsidies in the last 10 years alone. Little of this made its way down to those workers Gay claims he now loses sleep over.
But then the woodchipping industry in Tasmania was never a real industry. It was a racket in which Gunns ran the island as its fiefdom, rorting the state for all it was worth, maintaining its power through cronyism, bullying and intimidation, through cultivating cosy relationships with the likes of Lennon, and through the use of its flunkeys in the media to run soft stories about the woodchipping industry, and attack stories on those who questioned that industry.
Devine’s other witness is Robin Gray, the ex-Liberal premier and former Gunns board member, widely regarded as the power behind Gay’s throne.
In 1989, Gray’s Liberal government lost power by one seat to a Labor-Green alliance. The then chairman of Gunns, Edmund Rouse, attempted to bribe a Labor member to cross the floor. The aim was two-fold, to restore Gray to government in order, according to the evidence Rouse’s bagman gave to the subsequent 1991 Carter Royal Commission, to protect Gunns’ logging profit.
The Royal Commission found Gray ‘knew of and was involved with Rouse in Rouse’s attempt to bribe Cox’, and that while his conduct was not unlawful, it was ‘improper, and grossly so’. Rouse went to jail. Gray became a director of Gunns.
Devine writes Gay’s home was ‘under assault two or three nights a week for years-from smoke bombs under the house, stink bombs at the front door, dead possums in the yard’. This presumably refers to the farcical events of last year when Gay claimed his home was under attack from ‘a radical anti-pulp mill element’ painting graffiti and using smoke bombs.
The local media initially presented Gay’s account of this event as Devine does, without question. In the subsequent hysteria there was front-page talk of eco-terrorism, and in Paul Lennon’s words, the ‘expertly trained operatives’ of the anti-pulp mill movement.
The truth turned out to be more prosaic and rather embarrassing for all concerned, though it would seem not for Miranda: the police discovered several drunk youths had let off some sparklers at the Gays front door and daubed a green penis on the Gays wall.
More Summer Heights High’s Jonah Takalua than a Californian tree spiker, one man was sentenced for vandalism, the magistrate finding that he “did not act with political or activist motivations’‘.
Devine doesn’t bother to mention this though, nor the many well publicised instances of businesses being burnt out, people bashed, and careers destroyed because of their stated opposition to, or in many instances, just questioning of the woodchipping industry.
Instead she talks of ‘violent feral protestors’.
What violence, where Miranda?
There is no evidence of Tasmanian forest protestors ever being violent. The 40-year history of the Tasmanian environment movement is of a strong commitment to non-violence.
There is though much evidence — and several convictions — of the violence flowing in the opposite direction, as this sickening YouTube clip makes clear.
The video, filmed by a hidden camera, shows Gunns logging contractor, Rod Howells, smashing the window of a gutted car that is blocking a logging access road in the Florentine valley with a sledge hammer. He and two other logging workers have subsequently been found guilty of assaulting the protestors they then pulled out of the car.
John Gay made abundantly clear to politicians what Gunns’ position was in other ways.
Here’s Bob Cheek, one time leader of the Tasmanian Liberal Party, on being summoned during an election campaign to meet John Gay — the man Miranda describes as ‘visionary’ — in the middle of the night, Gay telling Cheek that it would be “worth my while”.
Gay gave Cheek a cheque for $10,000 and offered him another $20,000 “if I locked in the right answer to the question: ‘Will you continue to support the existing forestry policy?’”
Some visionary, Miranda.
A decade ago it was clear that the world had changed and that Tasmania’s third world forestry practices were becoming no longer acceptable to its first world customers. That wasn’t a Green conspiracy. That was history.
And then politics failed Tasmania. Rather than insisting the industry modernise, both Liberal and Labor parties allowed Gunns to become a rogue corporation. Both parties, when in power, paid them our money to destroy our heritage to make a handful rich. Gunns returned the favour by making large donations to both major parties.
Both sides ran protection for Gunns’ ever more unpopular excesses. Lennon even brought Gunns lawyers into draft the bill that fast tracked approval of Gay’s pulp mill. It included provisions preventing legal action under criminal law by the public against the mill, even if evidence of corruption was found. Both major parties voted in support of what Tasmanian upper house president, Don Wing, described as ‘Gunns’ dream bill’.
The major parties entered into a compact with Gunns so perverse it saw Labor Party luminaries campaign with John Howard in the 2004 election. So bizarre, it saw the Liberal Party remove a Federal candidate, Ben Quin, who looked likely to win a lower house seat, because he believed Gunns pulp mill proposal should be subject to proper process.
If there had been the political will and courage to make the woodchipping industry reform, the industry would not be in crisis today; there would be many world heritage class forests still existing, many working class Tasmanians would not have suffered as they had and are, and Tasmanian society would not poisoned by the hate, lies and corruption of public life that was so necessary to ensuring the woodchipping racket continue.
And so the racket continued, rorting the taxpayer, screwing the workers, raping the land, and attacking and sometimes destroying any who dared questioned what was happening.
And at the end of the racket what did we have?
A forest industry on its knees.
Certainly that’s what the market thinks. Gunns shares had dropped to 25 cents in the dying days of John Gay, and soared after he left. Certainly that’s what the forest industry thinks, because they — including to its credit, the post-Gay Gunns — are seeking a historic settlement with the conservation movement, and the two are at this very moment locked in complex negotiations.
With no thanks to either political party, the two groups are trying to find common ground. As forest contractors said to Eric Abetz two weeks ago, stay out of it. They — like all Tasmanians — want these discussions to succeed.
At a time when national politics in both its dominant versions has lost courage and clarity, Tasmania is a reminder of the terrible cost of such a failure of leadership. Politics that pursues only power inevitably betrays us all.
Miranda paints a picture of us and them, of working class heroes destroyed by ‘greens in suits’. But the story of Tasmania wasn’t any of those things: it was how greed poisoned and then split a society, made it foul with hate and violence, rancid with lies and corruption.
And now that society is trying to bring itself back together. It’s far from easy. It may fail. But it is a source of hope, whereas Miranda’s melodrama is just a lie. An old, divisive lie, pregnant only with despair.