This week actress Rebecca Gibney sold her secluded home on the western bank of the Tamar River at Long Reach in northern Tasmania, her sanctuary blighted by the prospect of Tasmania’s most loathed company, Gunns Limited, building a pulp mill eyesore on the other shore. Gibney moved back to Sydney, citing work practicalities as the main reason.

Yesterday Environment Minister Tony Burke gave his final approval for Gunns to build the $2.5 billion mill at Long Reach, though the company describes the site as Bell Bay, which is an adjacent, heavily industrialised port area. That deception is just part of the spin that has taken place in what has been a wholesale deception. The mill is to be built at Gibney’s Long Reach, not at Bell Bay.

But before it is built, friendships will be tested, political alliances between Labor and the Greens at state and federal level will be stretched to the limit though not ruptured. On the ground and in the water at Long Reach, blood will be spilled; paddy wagons will file to George Town and Launceston, packed to the rafters.

The anger and revulsion expressed following Burke’s announcement yesterday are not the result of anything he said or did. He became a bit player after Gunns upped the environmental limits on the mill at the 11th hour, though. Again, it was all a matter of spin. Plantation timber has always been the preferred feedstock for the mill and elemental chlorine was never an acceptable consideration for the pulp bleaching process.

The anger and revulsion is an upwelling of the sense of betrayal that thousands of Tasmanians feel at the Tasmanian parliament’s abandoning of due process in 2007. That sell-out of principles has devalued any subsequent claim that this could be the finest pulp mill ever built.

In October 2005 then premier Paul Lennon rose to his feet in the Tasmanian House of Assembly to tell the world that we had all learnt the lessons from the failed North Broken Hill Wesley Vale pulp mill venture in the ’80s: how not to con the masses.

This time it would be different, Lennon promised. We have an independent umpire, he said. The Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC) would run the mill approvals’ process from go to whoa, make its recommendation to him and he would recommend a governor’s order for the project to proceed. “The order will give effect to the RPDC report and the conditions it contains,” he said.

Towards the end of 2006, it was clear in Lennon’s office that the Gunns’ proposal could not comply with the RPDC’s environmental guidelines and that it was time for the government’s secret plan B: dump the RPDC and make parliament the arbiter; parliament with its in-house expertise of former sewing machine salesmen, teachers, fitters and turners, and two disc jockeys but with a former Miss Australia recently departed.

In March 2007 Gunns pulled out of the RPDC assessment. The commission had been on the verge of telling Gunns the proposal was critically deficient in many key areas, including fugitive odours. The parliament feigned shock but came to Gunns’ rescue; the salesmen, teachers and the disc jockeys took over the task of assessing the mill.

It is this fraud perpetrated on the Tasmanian people, by the Labor government and endorsed by their Liberal and independent colleagues, that continues to so enrage the populace. It devalues anything Burke may feel he has imposed on the mill. Due process was not followed. We don’t really know whether this is going to be world’s best practice. Only when it’s too late will we know. MPs did not learn the lessons of Wesley Vale. The masses did.

Assuming Gunns secures a backer, the mill is a fait accompli. Federally, the Greens, with the balance of power in the Senate from July 1, have no leverage on the Gillard government other than to block the unlikely event of federal money being proposed for the project.

Similarly, the Tasmanian Greens, in coalition with Labor, can do little other than go through the motions of introducing doomed disallowance motions for the project. The Liberals will back Labor all the way. The Greens, who have two ministries, won’t bring down the government over the mill. The cause will demonstrate the Greens’ political priority: principle or power.

Bass Green MP Kim Booth, perhaps now able to be described as the only true believer because he would indeed move to bring down the government on this issue, will be left to fight virtually single-handedly, standing alongside every man and his dog who take to the streets and to the barricades in a Franklin Dam-style attempt to blockade the Long Reach development site.

The declaration of exclusion zones and a mass force of reluctant wallopers will fix those, but this edifice will divide this community for decades to come.

Of course, the ANZ and other banks could decide the wiser course would be to walk away from this bad smell, just as Gunns did in March 2007. It’s unlikely.

Peter Fray

Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey.

This extraordinary year is almost at an end. But we know that time waits for no one, and we won’t either. This is the time to get on board with Crikey.

For a limited time only, choose what you pay for a year of Crikey.

Save up to 50% or dig deeper so we can dig deeper.

See you in 2021.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

SAVE 50%