Throw away the dictionary.

A dictionary’s no help at all if you really want to know what words like “substantial” or “commencement” mean.

And heaven help us all if we try to give a meaning to the two words put together in a sentence, or even just as a stand-alone mini-phrase “substantial commencement”. In the Tasmanian political lexicon these words have no meaning that can be determined by recourse to any English dictionary. Much the same as “compensation”. Now there’s a word which is about as clear as mud in the refined use of language by Tasmanian politicians.

But at least we now know how Gunns has evaded the expiry of its pulp mill permits at the end of August 2011. It might seem more absurd than most of us expected, even though many of us have been curious for some time about how it would be done. But probably none of us expected that “expiry” could actually mean “commencement” in Tasmania, which makes us all look a bit silly, because we should be well aware that political Tas-speak has its own esoteric linguistic idiosyncracies beyond the reach of the most obvious and usual interpretations.

It transpires that the permits will remain in place until whoever is responsible for determining the meaning of “substantial commencement” is told what it means. It is that simple. The Environment Protection Authority (another deceptively labelled subsection of the bureaucracy), the authority (without authority, naturally) responsible for enforcing the terms of the permits granted to Gunns under legislation passed by the Tasmanian parliament in 2007, and amended in 2009, says it has no idea what the terms of the permits actually mean, and therefore feels entirely unable to do anything at all when the permits expire.

And no wonder. As they well know, dictionaries don’t predict how words shift in meaning overnight.


To make matters even more prettily grotesque, (oops, grotesquely inconvenient, actually) if that is possible, it appears that it requires a court to determine the meaning of “substantial commencement”, but that can only happen if a legal challenge is mounted against Gunns if the company starts “substantial commencement” after the expiry of the permits. If no legal challenge is mounted it would appear that the expiry deadline of the permits is not worth the pulp it is written on. And if a legal challenge is mounted it will be allowed to drag on for as long as it serves the interests of Gunns.


But hang about. To overcome the problem that Gunns had made no “substantial commencement” by the time of the permit expiry dates in 2009, the amended legislation stipulated that the permits would be “extinguished” if no “substantial commencement” had taken place by the end of August 2011. So we have the morally reprehensible (sorry, read that as normal) deception that it was possible to determine the meaning of “substantial commencement” in 2009, in order to pass amending legislation for Gunns, but it is not possible to determine its meaning in 2011, because that no longer serves Gunns interest.

The expiry deadlines written into the enabling legislation actually have no relevance at all. The reason for that is that everyone involved thought they’d always be irrelevant, and that’s that. Our far-sighted legislators considered (unwisely they would now all agree in camera) that an expiry date would never reach a point where the permits could be “extinguished”, because Gunns’ oft-expressed promise of a joint venture partnership eventuating tomorrow, next week, next month, next year ad nauseum, rendered the notion of having to redefine “extinguished” as unlikely. Oh dear. What a conundrum. Perhaps they could argue that what they meant was “never extinguished”, and that there’s a typo in the legislation.

We are being told by the Premier of Tasmania that the meaning of “substantial commencement” is not for her or for the government to determine, which is either a bare-faced admission that she and the whole useless collection of Labor and Liberal and independent (now there’s another term devoid of meaning in the Tasmanian political desert) neo-liberal visionaries didn’t know what they were voting for when they passed the 2007 legislation and the 2009 amendment, or they voted for legislation which they knew very well was deliberately designed to deceive the public. In other words, they had no understanding what they were voting for, or if they did, they wished to disguise the fact that they were merely lackeys of Gunns being paid from the public purse.

In short, the politicians – the vast majority of them – are putting on a brave front of interest to learn from someone what they actually voted for, because they haven’t got a clue, and if they have they’re not about to tell anyone because that would be tantamount to an admission that they should have “extinguished” the whole notion of an “expiry” date for the permits when they had the chance.

In the meantime, don’t forget that it is no longer extraordinary, or absurd, or beyond belief, or bizarre or farcical, or even beyond farcical, to hear the fork-tongued inanities of Tasmanian politicians.

Just remember that whenever you hear talk about “essential services”, it sure as hell means they’re looking for public funds from health and education and public infrastructure to be redirected into “compensation” or “substantial commencement”.

“Essential services” is not a useful phrase to use in the Tasmanian political lexicon, at least in terms of its well-understood meaning. As Lara would say, words like that have “complex” interpretations, probably opposite to any dictionary definition.

• ABC Online: Greens seek mill work halt

The Tasmanian Greens want work to stop on Gunns’ pulp mill project, as legal action looms over expiring project permits.

Permits for Gunns’ Tamar Valley mill require substantial work to begin by Wednesday.

Exactly what that means remains unclear but there are calls for work to stop anyway.

The Greens’ leader Nick McKim is seeking legal advice.

“Certainly once the permits have expired, I think work should stop until the legality has been tested,” he said.

Gunns only recently announced contracts for earthworks at the site.

But it has been reported that the Environment Protection Authority has given the go-ahead for construction to continue beyond Wednesday.

Corporate governance lecturer Tom Baxter says that raises concerns.

“The risk is that if the permits have lapsed Gunns work would then be unlawfu,” he said.

Legal action would be an added blow for Gunns which last week posted a $355 million loss.


• Mercury: Mill faces ‘substantial’ fight

ANTI-PULP mill campaigners are exploring legal options to apply for injunctions to stop earthworks on Gunns Ltd’s Long Reach site.

Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill spokesman Bob McMahon said: “We’re investigating injunctions. We have plenty of legal names looking at it. As we speak we are looking into it.”

On Friday, Gunns awarded the earthworks contract to a Tasmanian joint venture between John Holland and Hazell Bros for $20 million of work to begin this month.

“The question is whether Hazell Bros and Holland will actually be paid by Gunns or the work will be self-funded until they get finance for the mill,” Mr McMahon said.

Environment Protection Authority director Alex Schaap will allow Gunns to do work at the site north of Launceston until it is decided what constitutes a substantial start.

He said that definition may be a matter for a court to determine.

The Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007 says: “The pulp mill permit lapses if the project is not substantially commenced before the end of the period of four years commencing on the date on which the pulp mill permit comes into force [August 30, 2007].”

Mr Schaap said he did not yet have cause to take advice on the substantial commencement query.

Mr McMahon said he was dubious of the use of such a broad term.

“That term ‘substantially commenced’ just smacks of the Tasmanian way,” he said.

“There has been legal precedence on the mainland of what substantiates the term ‘substantially commenced’ work. From that there was a case involving a block of flats where even up to the slab being poured it was not considered substantial commencement, so I can’t see how Gunns think they’ll get enough work done by the date specified.”

Gunns says it has spent more than $200 million on the mill. The firm has $628 million of debt, of which $593 million is payable in the next 12 months.

“Gunns is a corpse. If, after seven years, they haven’t got a cent to back this mill surely the company is in the gutter,” Mr McMahon said.

Mercury HERE

• Matthew Denholm, The Australian: Doubt on validity of Gunns $2.3bn permit, HERE