Gunns, the Tasmanian timber kings, dragooned a State Premier into speeding up an approval process for its planned Tamar Valley pulp mill but may well find a Federal Prime Minister determined to slow it down.

The emergence of federal environmental approval for the mill as an issue of page one significance is not what John Howard wanted. The original proposal for a joint state and federal enquiry process suited him just fine until Premier Paul Lennon was persuaded to abort it because it was taking too long.

It apparently did not occur to Gunns, nor to Premier Lennon, that the federal review of the project would hold things up and that certainly appeared to be the case when Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull released a draft approval before the Tasmanian Parliament began its own consideration of the expedited state environmental investigation this week.

The entry of the Prime Minister’s mate Geoffrey Cousins in to the debate has changed things. Rather pointedly Mr Howard yesterday refused to back Mr Turnbull in his very public spat with Mr Cousins over whether the minister’s approval has followed proper processes.

That looks to me very much like a signal that Mr Howard would like the Chief Government Scientist to find a reason or two why further inquiries are needed before any stamp of approval is given to a pulp mill after the election rather than before it.

Such a delay would surely test the strength of the Gunns’ convictions as they were adamant that any slowing down of the process would see them abandon the pulp mill altogether.