The “new ABC” was at its lacklustre best on Monday night’s Four Corners report on Gunns proposed pulp mill for Northern Tasmania. While such curious acts as Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon having his colonial mansion renovated by a Gunns subsidiary were not mentioned, clearly seen as not being part of the story, Four Corners rightly identified anyone shown in opposition to the mill who had Green Party connections.
Why, however, in choosing Launceston businessman Sam McQuestin to represent small business in support of the pulp mill, did Four Corners not feel the same need to thoroughly identify the interviewee? Sam McQuestin described himself on air as ”a minnow” in the pulp mill battle. His recent behaviour however had been more that of the aspiring shark and his background is not simply that of a small businessman who is motivated solely by the supposed benefits he believes the mill will bring his bottle shop.
Writer Richard Flanagan revealed some other facts about McQuestin in his recent article on Gunns in The Monthly:
When actress Rebecca Gibney said in a television interview that she would leave Tasmania, to which she moved two years ago, if the pulp mill was built near her home in the Tamar Valley, Sam McQuestin achieved local notoriety by publicly attacking her as a ”serial complainer” whose family made no contribution to the Tasmanian economy and who had no ”right to tell the rest of us how to live our lives”.
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As well as being a bottleshop owner, Sam McQuestin is an unsuccessful Liberal Party candidate (not mentioned by Four Corners) and the role of Mr McQuestin’s own family is very well known, though perhaps not by Four Corners or, if so, not deemed by Four Corners to be of relevance to Mr McQuestin’s position on the pulp mill. This seems surprising, given that Sam McQuestin’s father is, after all, Gunns director, David McQuestin.
It is worth repeating some interesting detail from the 1991 royal commission into the Rouse bribery scandal — when then Gunns chairman Edmund Rouse sought to protect his logging profit by bribing a member of the Tasmanian parliament in order to bring down the newly elected Labor-Green government. The Royal Commission found that David McQuestin — then also a director — whose friendship with Rouse is characterised as “obsequious”, was not “unlawfully involved as a principal offender” with the bribery attempt, although his “compliance” with Rouse’s direction in the matter was “highly improper” — a “glaring breach of the requisite standards of commercial morality”.
In January 1993, Devonport Magistrate Sam Mollard recorded a guilty verdict against David McQuestin on a charge of negligence under the Companies Code. Had the conviction held, David McQuestin would have been unable to stand as a company director for five years. But Justice Peter Underwood (now Tasmania’s Chief Justice) however cleared David McQuestin of the charges in a later ruling — October 1993.
You might also ask why in giving Barry Chipman of Timber Communities Australia such prominence in the report, Four Corners did not feel the need to tell its viewers that this purported grassroots organisation has from its inception in 1987 been the vehicle of the National Association of Forest Industries (NAFI).
Again I quote from Flanagan’s article in The Monthly:
The TCA’s support for the Tasmanian logging industry was once described by John Gay as an ‘invaluable alliance’. Invaluable though it may be, the logging industry does put a cost next to it: in 2002-2003, $723,154 of the TCA’s total revenues of $836,977 came from direct industry contributions. In the same year Barry Chipman’s wages were directly paid for by NAFI, which in turn is financed by the logging industry.
Chipman drew the wrath of some logging contractors last year when he defended Gunns’ decision to break contracts because of a downturn in woodchip sales. It was ”situations like this,” Barry Chipman went on, that sorted out the ”good operators” from the bad, further incensing those contractors who had taken out bigger loans to purchase better equipment on Gunns’ promises of more work, and now were unable to meet repayments. “Everyone needs to tighten their belt a little bit,” said Barry Chipman. ”Any downturn will also be suffered by the company and its shareholders.”
It was also odd that when presenting CFMEU officials talking about the issue, Four Corners chose not to bother with recent revelations about CFMEU officials, who are, according to Tasmanian ABC’s own local news ”doing financial deals” with Gunns; some officials, for example, buy second-hand Gunns cars.
There is, in the history of Gunns’ rise, a story to be told about the consequences for a society when a corporation appears to no longer recognise the conventional boundaries between commerce and government, and when state interest has become so thoroughly identified with corporate profit that any questioning of that corporation’s interests is met with political fury.
This ought to be understood not as an environmental story, but a harbinger of Australia’s future if we choose not to understand what has happened and what is at stake.
Sadly, Four Corners on Monday night turned its back on telling that story.