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In the Tasmanian Parliamenton Tuesday 17 May the Premier, Lara Giddings, confirmed that the establishment of the so-called forestry roundtable a year ago was to provide support for Gunns to establish the Tamar Valley pulp mill ( What Lara said about the mill ).

In response to a question from the opposition leader, Will Hodgman, she made this very clear.  She stated, without equivocation in any way, that the “whole statement of principles process… is about trying to assist Gunns to get their pulp mill up”.  She castigated Hodgman for “bagging out” the statement of principles process, describing it as “the very process which came out of the decision by Gunns to look at handing back their licences” to log native forests in Tasmania.  She went on to say that “Gunns want to move out of any native forest harvesting to give them the best leg up they can have with a new pulp mill in this state…  That is why all this (the statement of principles) has been triggered.  Through that process we have ended up with the environment groups as well as industry…”

So there it is.Too late now for any signatories to the unprincipled statement of principles to say “Hush, Lara, hush”.

As these words of wisdom fell disarmingly from the Premier’s mouth, the only other face to be seen on the camera vision of her speaking,was that of Michelle O’Byrne, who sat benignly listening, betraying no sense of surprise at anything her boss was saying.  But one wonders if the rest of the government members – not least the Greens – had such relaxed demeanours hearing the Premier put on the public record that the whole statement of principles was established to meet Gunns’ interests.

It’s all so déjà vu.  History repeating itself.  Remember Paul Lennon running up and down Tasmania, from his Hobart suite to Lindsay Street, to get Gunns imprimatur for the Pulp Mill Assessment Act.

Nothing much has changed in that sense.  The forestry roundtable was squired by David Bartlett way back in – who cares – about May 2010.  Sorry, that’s not correct.  Bartlett was told to squire it.

So it’s not hard to imagine that there were some sweaty palms, some dry and open mouths and some rumbling bowels here and there in and outside Parliament on Tuesday.  It certainly confirms David Bartlett as a willing flunky of Gunns.  What a pathetic scenario for a man who had talked about a “line in the sand”.  How embarrassing it must now be for him to be exposed in this way by his successor.  One question that does arise from this, of course, is whether he was honest in his explanations to the public and to Parliament for the establishment of the forestry roundtable.  Whatever the case, it is just one more example of the weak, deceptive and supine leadership Tasmania has had to endure during the last decade.

Just as significantly, what Giddings has said certainly makes the Greens look like utter fools.  Back in May 2010 Bartlett and Nick McKim were the best of political mates.  McKim immediately embraced the establishment of the roundtable as a “once in a generation opportunity”, ignoring all cautionary voices.  His support for it has never wavered, but has remained consistent throughout the whole shonky process.  Now he has nowhere to hide. Giddings has just told him, as plainly as she could, that he has been enthusiastically supporting a process designed from its inception to help Gunns get joint-venture partner finance for the Tamar Valley mill.

The Greens had just supported Giddings against a Liberal no-confidence motion when she decided to dump this heap of scurrying rats into their collective laps, but they have no one to blame but themselves. Unless they are thoroughly out of their depth, they well know that their support for the statement of principles was a betrayal of their policy position on the pulp mill.  McKim has led the Greens into a dead end.  Giddings knows it.  This is not the first time she has wedged him beyond his capacity to respond. It’s a very interesting game that Giddings is playing.  She is slowly but surely exposing the Greens as hollow at the core, while also exploiting their abilities and pandering to their ambitions.

McKim has already faltered in his handling of the prison portfolio, and O’Çonnor has shown herself to be her own worst enemy.  The government has already called Kim Booth’s bluff on his promise to pull the plug on government spending on the pulp mill, but he keeps on saying it.  It’s just rhetoric.  The Greens are putting a motion to the Parliament in a few days to repeal the Pulp Mill Assessment Act, but they know and we know that it’s just a public relations exercise.

It has long been argued by this writer and some others that the forestry roundtable was initiated to serve Gunns’ agenda, much to the annoyance of the ENGO-Green trolls.  But the timing of the creation of the roundtable was always the dead giveaway, coming as it did shortly after the collapse of Gunns share price to 26 cents, the departure of John Gay, the ascent of Greg L’Estrange and Timo Piilonen, and the sudden intervention of then Premier David Bartlett to establish a group of industry representatives to thrash out a “peace deal”. 

The purpose was made more transparent as the months went by during 2010, with decisions coming from the roundtable in logically sequential steps according to public announcements made by Gunns.  When it appeared that some of the industry representatives were becoming uneasy about how the inevitable job losses might impact on their own cosy positions, they were pulled into line in various ways, especially by the introduction of Paul Lennon into the mix.

When Gunns had really finalised its satisfaction with the whole process towards the end of September 2010, David Bartlett was called in to publicly wind up the deliberations and get the signatories names on a document by the end of October.  This was all done to fit Gunns’ timetable, particularly pertaining to their AGM, but no doubt in relation to other matters as well.

When the statement of principles went into the public domain in November it immediately sparked claim and counter-claim about the location of the pulp mill which all members of the roundtable had signed off to.  The ENGOs disingenuously spoke of “a” pulp mill somewhere in Tasmania, as did the Greens, while the rest of the industry representatives, and Gunns as well, saw it all as a green light for the Tamar Valley site.  Gunns went on the front foot, claiming a “social licence” had now been granted by the ENGOs for the mill, a claim which Gunns hoped would free up joint-venture capital.

When Bill Kelty was signed up (and good grief, the ENGO-Greens didn’t bat an eyelid), it could not be more transparent that the talks were centred on Gunns’ interests.  There was no attempt to hide the fact.  To the contrary.  Lindsay Street became the meeting place for the roundtable!  No subterfuge about that.

The reality is that everyone associated with the statement of principles has always known the context in which the roundtable was formed, to revive the pulp mill, and they have all gone along with that while trying to repackage it for the consumption of their various constituents, both inside and outside the forestry industry.  They have all tried to repackage it in ways to make their own positions smell like roses.  One remarkable consequence of this is that Gunns has been able to close mills, sell off assets and lay off workers with impunity, without so much as a mute protest from workers’ representatives or politicians to the company.  If anything, they have elicited sympathy and fawning sycophancy from those within the industry who should be standing up for those who were losing their jobs. 

Instead, Gunns was shielded from criticism, which was deflected elsewhere, while the forelock tugging and kowtowing to this failing dinosaur company remained undiminished, and still does.

But until Tuesday, 17 May, all the players in the time and effort to help Gunns grow new legs on the dead carcass had been very coy about it all. Up until then all the public pronouncements by the various signatories never mentioned Gunns directly, but instead gave emphasis to how the exit (by Gunns) from native forest logging could be managed.  Depending on the nature of their constituencies, all signatories have focused on this aspect of Gunns’ policy, but without referring to Gunns by name. 

On the other hand, they have all been very silent about the other part of the Gunns’ agenda – the use of the monocultural plantation estate for pulp.  The reason is obvious. It is very difficult to argue the benefits of the type of monocultural plantation estate which Tasmania has developed to any constituency within the timber industry, and impossible to do so to anybody else, except those who believe in an on-going public subsidisation of pulp for decades into the future.  To their shame, the ENGOs in particular have been active in silencing public debate about Tasmania’s monocultural plantation estate, but the other signatories to the statement of principles have no cause to be proud of their behaviour on this matter.

In short, the main problem for all the signatories in being open about the real purpose of the roundtable is that it was not going to do their own shaky careers much good to come right out and say that all the logos on their shirts should be Gunns insignia.  Some of them may be totally fatuous and lacking in any ability to see what was happening right in front of them, at the very table where they were sitting for months on end. That’s likely to be just as true for the ENGO representatives as for the various industry people.  But let’s not label them with that level of stupidity, for some of them, if not most, identify their own interests with those of Gunns anyway. And if not, they were open to a trade-off (or a sell-out) if it meant they could come out of it with their seats more firmly attached to their positions.

In the final analysis none of this had anything to do with the public interest, but everything to do with a concocted and distorted and manipulated process which shaped the terms of the agreement to fit some kind of “community” consensus.  This was probably the most inherently dishonest element of the “talks”, which permeated and corrupted the integrity of the whole agreement.

As for the mainstream media, their whole coverage of this farce from the start has been as imbecilic as it is possible to be.  They are all so in thrall to Gunns – including the ABC – and they have such a timid perception of the meaning of real journalism, that they cannot be regarded as anything more than hacks and incompetents.  Even as late as the writing of this piece the Tasmanian talkback theme on the ABC about “forestry talks” was so way off the mark in its emphases as to be laughable.  The mainstream media has failed abysmally to deal with the main issues.  At no point did they broach the question of Gunns involvement, not to mention their total control of the agenda.  As with everything else to do with the pulp mill, they got it wrong at every turn, again and again. 
In a nutshell, the mainstream media are a hindrance to public understanding of the issues.

Nevertheless, all the signatories to the principles of agreement must be feeling a tad squeamish to be exposed by the Premier as just “working for the Man”, even if they happily knew that was what they were doing.  After all, it’s one thing to be employed and paid by the boss.  It’s entirely another to be perceived as a lackey, as merely a messenger of the Man, doing his bidding while ostensibly holding a position of representation.

The Premier of Tasmania and the parliamentary Labor Party are all working for Gunns. That has been clearly articulated by Lara Giddings this week.  Giddings’ admonishment of Hodgman for not supporting the statement of principles was based on the premise that opposition to the statement of principles was opposition to Gunns’ best interests. 

No doubt the Greens wished they could have said, “Hush, Lara, hush”.  It’s too late for that.  Far too late.

Peter Henning

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First published: 2011-05-20 06:17 AM