The environmental bureaucrats in Canberra, and their minister, would have been very pleased with themselves back in 2004 when they concluded an agreement with the Tasmanian government that would see a Tasmanian inquiry cover the Commonwealth requirements to ensure that a planned pulp mill in the Tamar Valley was environmentally sound.
Anything to do with trees and Tasmania is a political horror for federal politicians and fobbing things off to a Resource Planning and Development Commission headed by a respected retired judge was a wonderful way of sidestepping problems, until the Tasmanian government decided to get rid of the Commission’s enquiry.
The problem is now back in the lap of the new Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and dealing with it will be a major test of his political skills as well as those of Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd. Both men will face the very same pressures that were on John Howard and Mark Latham at the last election in trying to develop policies that allow development in Tasmania, without alienating the votes of environmentally concerned people in other parts of Australia.
Complicating things for Messrs Howard and Turnbull this time are the statutory requirements imposed by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. Whatever the outcome of the public investigations the Act requires, it is hard to see how they can be completed within the time frame of the end of July set by Gunns Limited, the would-be developers of the Tamar pulp mill.
If the chairman of the Tasmanian Commission, which has been considering the issues for some time, thought this deadline was impossible to meet, how will a Commonwealth body starting from scratch be able to do so? Mr Turnbull will need to find a plausible answer if his environmental credentials are not to be destroyed before he can ever get around to solving the problems of the Murray-Darling River system.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Commonwealth Government needs to be involved in the Tasmanian process, given the extraordinary developments which have seen the Labor Premier Paul Lennon accused of “leaning on” the chairman of the pulp mill assessment process Mr Christopher Wright, and when unsuccessful proceeding to introduce legislation to take the assessment out of his hands.