AT Gunns’ AGM last week John Gay was reported as saying that the company was seeking 25 -30% joint venture partners in the United States and Europe to build the Tamar Valley pulp mill.

It is worth remembering that under the terms of the Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007 (PMAA), those responsible for establishing the mill and operating it are “… Gunns Limited, including its officers, employees, agents and contractors, or any body corporate, or joint venture, or other person, their officers, employees, agents and contractors, to which Gunns Limited sells, assigns or otherwise transfers in whole or in part its rights and obligations under the PMAA”.

Gunns has complete control.  They have been granted this control by the Tasmanian Parliament.  They can decide the terms of any joint venture arrangements.  They can negotiate a foreign 30%, 50% or 100% stake.  They can determine the terms of any decision to sell the project in whole or in part at any time in the future that suits their own “commercial” interests - next week, next year, 2015, 2020.

It is important for Tasmanians, especially those living in the greater Tamar Valley, including Launceston – especially Launceston - to understand this and consider what it might mean for their futures, and the futures of their communities.  The residents of Launceston, for example, have no control over what happens in the water catchment areas which supply the city.  The catchment areas are beyond the jurisdiction of the Launceston City Council.  Similarly, the people of the West Tamar have no control over what happens in the headwaters of the South Esk, which supplies the bulk of their water through the Travallyn Lake storage facility.

Premier David Bartlett has now backed away from his commitment that he would withdraw support for the project if construction had not commenced by the end of November this year.  He is now saying that he hopes the project will continue “at some point in the future”.  Whether the so-called sovereign risk agreement will also be extended is unclear, but is in fact immaterial to the issue, and represents only a small saving of tax-payer funds that have subsidized Gunns’ timber operations, and will continue to do so.

Bartlett’s new position fits completely with the assertion of Gay at the AGM that Gunns is committed to building the mill for “as long as it takes”.  It now remains to be seen whether Bartlett will now also betray his earlier promise not to legislate to give Gunns control over private land on the East Tamar for the mill’s water and effluent pipelines. 

The State government is also currently investigating how to deal with the difficulty created by the West Tamar Council in not granting Gunns access to public municipal land to build its pipeline from Lake Trevallyn to the Tamar River.  Presumably, under the oversight of Michael Aird, it is seeking to rebut the independent advice of constitutional lawyer Michael Stokes that, given the decision of the West Tamar Council, the PMAA does not now provide authority for the pipeline to be built.  Alternatively, it will be seeking means to grant Gunns exemption from existing laws, in much the same way as their forestry operations benefit from a range of exemptions.

It is clear, of course, that the Bartlett government and the Hodgman opposition will ignore the interests of the people and communities of the Tamar Valley in whatever further legislative or regulatory action the Parliament takes on behalf of Gunns.  That is a foregone conclusion, as has been consistently demonstrated in all their actions in relation to the pulp mill. 

The most recent manifestation of this blatant failure of representation occurred last week in the outrageous Labor-Liberal collusion in preventing Gay and former Premier Lennon being questioned by Parliament about events leading to Gunns’ withdrawal from the RPDC planning process last year.  This issue goes to the heart of “parliamentary democracy” in Tasmania, as all parliamentarians well know.  Once again, the majority of them abrogated their professional responsibilities in the most fundamental way.

Northern Tasmanians should harbour no illusions about the ramifications of all this. The Tasmanian parliament has passed legislation which explicitly enables a private corporation to build a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, to enter into joint ventures with distant managers, and to sell entirely to distant owners – and the first stages in the implementation of this politically irresponsible (at best) legislation are now being played out, before our eyes.

Federal and state governments have absolutely no concern for people and communities affected adversely by forestry operations, in whatever their dimensions, in Tasmania.  To suggest otherwise is to ignore all the evidence.  Gunns is pressing ahead with its plans, whatever they turn out to be, by ensuring that all the permits are put into place by federal authorities, and by seeking ways and means to overcome other outstanding obstacles.

Then?  Joint venture will result in higher levels of unaccountability than currently exist (and yes, higher levels of unaccountability are possible – look at Indonesia, Brazil) and is a prelude to total sale and control by absent managers and owners.  To consider otherwise is absurd. 

Then?  Well, let me revisit a passage from Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1946, All The King’s Men, which I quoted in an article I wrote earlier this year:

“There were pine trees here a long time ago but they are gone.  The bastards got in here and set up the mills and laid the narrow-gauge tracks and knocked together the company commissaries and paid a dollar a day…  Till, all of a sudden, there weren’t any more pine trees.  They stripped the mills.  The narrow-gauged tracks got covered with grass.  Folks tore down the commissaries for kindling wood.  There wasn’t any more dollar a day.  The big boys were gone, with diamond rings on their fingers and broadcloth on their back.  But a good many of the folks stayed right on, and watched the gullies cut deeper into the red clay.”

For pine trees, read water if you like, or productive farm land, or tourism in the Tamar Valley – but not monocultural plantations for chipping, in their hundreds of thousands of hectares.  If you are a resident of northern Tasmania – particularly Launceston - and if you are at all unclear about where this all could conceivably end, and you have not read the “fast-tracked” PMAA and the pulp mill permits, and you are able-bodied and have not visited the main catchment areas that supply all your water needs, you are, dare I say, failing in your responsibilities as a citizen and a voter, and as a custodian of what is important to preserve for future generations of Tasmanians.

I say particularly Launceston, for it is a large population centre and dependence there is correspondingly greater, costs consequently more extensive and adaptability more difficult than in the rural hinterland.  For Launceston, the Tamar Valley pulp mill would be an unsustainable, unremitting millstone of attrition by water torture.

Recently a very well-known Launceston-based timber operator told me he could not understand why the Launceston community was not taking serious and concerted action to preserve the sources of its water supplies before it is too late. 

It is time for residents of Launceston to shake off the blinkers, to take a more proactive stance to ensure that the PMAA goes no further.  The legislation is undemocratic and unethical.  If allowed to stand, at some stage it will be implemented, whether by Gunns or some other company, but almost certainly ultimately by a consortium outside Australia, and it will claim many more victims among the residents of Launceston than in any other single location within the northern region of Tasmania.

Surely that in itself is enough reason for the people of Launceston to fight to repeal the PMAA?  The alternative of doing nothing is, quite frankly, not an option for the long-term health and well-being of Launceston.


Peter Henning
 


Peter Henning
It is clear, of course, that the Bartlett government and the Hodgman opposition will ignore the interests of the people and communities of the Tamar Valley in whatever further legislative or regulatory action the Parliament takes on behalf of Gunns.  That is a foregone conclusion, as has been consistently demonstrated in all their actions in relation to the pulp mill.  The most recent manifestation of this blatant failure of representation occurred last week in the outrageous Labor-Liberal collusion in preventing Gay and former Premier Lennon being questioned by Parliament about events leading to Gunns’ withdrawal from the RPDC planning process last year.  This issue goes to the heart of “parliamentary democracy” in Tasmania, as all parliamentarians well know.  Once again, the majority of them abrogated their professional responsibilities in the most fundamental way.