The Gunns pulp mill moved a step closer to reality yesterday with the Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon presenting two reports on the viability of the project.

There was no surprise that both reports were in favour of the mill, despite significant concerns being expressed about, firstly, the political process giving life to a pulp mill that, secondly, is of questionable environmental efficacy.

Mr Lennon was this morning contacted for comment, but his staff directed Crikey to the Premier’s 45 minute address to parliament yesterday (for the full speech click here. To read the reports click here). Some highlights:

I have always said that we can’t have a Pulp Mill at any cost — and these reports demonstrate that we can continue to protect the environment, and build a new industry that is underpinned by careful and responsible management practices.

I wanted the community to know if a Pulp Mill of this scale and nature was possible for Tasmania.

I wanted to know if we could end the lunacy of shipping woodchips, and with them our jobs, to other parts of the world for processing into pulp and paper instead of keeping them here to value add.

Gunns Limited has formally advised that they can meet the recommended conditions.

The compliance with these conditions means that the Pulp Mill will represent world’s best practice technology, and be subject to tough international environmental standards.

Despite the Permier’s enthusiasm, opposition is mounting. Three weeks ago, 11,000 protesters gathered in Launceston to express their hostility to the mill. Further, Crikey was told that Tasmanian talkback radio this morning was “jammed” with people protesting the government’s behaviour.

Crikey also understands polling in the federal seat of Bass, the eventual home of the mill, shows over 50% of the primary vote going to Labor, with 14% heading to the Greens — the state average for the Greens is around 8%. Those figures are interesting given there’s not a cigarette papers’ difference between the policies of the two major parties on the issue. The seat was won back by the Libs at the last election.

While the parliament listened to Mr Lennon yesterday, a Federal Court judge was hearing evidence in a case brought by the The Wilderness Society against Gunns Limited and the Federal Government over the assessment process, alleging, among other things:

(Mr Turnbull’s) decision was invalid because it was effected by apprehended bias evident in the choice of assessment approaches and in the public statements and financial support for the mill from the government.

Indeed, accusations of political expediency and bias have long shadowed the project, says Peg Putt, state Green’s member for Denison.

“When Gunns pulled out of the RPDC process, the pretext was the timeframes were too long, but using freedom of information material, the Greens learned that they’d just been told that the impact statement was critically deficient, and they were likely to fail the assessment,” Putt told Crikey.

“These reports under the new process confirm that those critical deficiencies remain, but the recommendation is to go ahead regardless. They basically got out of the fast track at this point exactly what they wanted.

“It’s incredible the influence that Gunns has in the state. It’s very detrimental to Tasmania’s future to have one company calling the shots like this, having special legislation enacted for it, which everybody else has to abide.”

A judgment in the court case is expected within two weeks. And a decision on the Mill? As Mr Lennon said yesterday:

Making these reports available early will assist honourable members with their decision-making when the Pulp Mill Permit, and other associated documentation, comes into the Parliament in six weeks time.

The Government intends to table The Permit, that is, all the licences and approvals, with their conditions, to allow the Pulp Mill to proceed, on Tuesday, August 21.

Peter Fray

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