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Sep 26, 2012

Flanagan: Gunns’ demise lifts a darkness over Tasmania

It was Gunns' greed-at-all-costs attitude that destroyed its public reputation and ensured its financial demise, according to Richard Flanagan. The company and its planned pulp mill had gone rogue.

The story of Gunns is a parable of corporate hubris. You can, as they did, corrupt the polity, cow the media, poison public life and seek to persecute those who disagree with you. You can r-pe the land, exterminate protected species, exploit your workers and you can even poison your neighbours.

But the naked pursuit of greed at all costs will in the end destroy your public legitimacy and thus ensure your doom. Gunns was a rogue corporation and its death was a chronicle long ago foretold. The sadness is in the legacy they leave to Tasmania — the immense damage to its people, its wildlands, and its economy.

Opposition to Gunns long ago outgrew any conservation group and Gunns was in the end undone by the many, many people who refused to give in to its threats, lies and intimidation. It was the small victories of the little people that ended up delaying the project until it disappeared into the fantastical realms of commercial impossibility.

Yet for a decade the only policy either major party has had has been Gunns and Gunns’ pulp mill. The former premier Jim Bacon, near his death, confessed to Peter Cundall that “the forestry industry were too strong” for him to take on. Of the latter, Premier Lara Giddings observed not so long ago that “the pulp mill was no longer the icing on the cake for Tasmania, but the cake itself”.

In consequence of this non-policy, the prosperous years of the early 2000s, when Tasmania should have been reinventing itself to ensure it had a prosperous future, were instead lost as government identified state interest as Gunns’ profit margins. The Tasmanian government mortgaged the island’s future to Gunns and squandered the good years pursuing the chimera of the pulp mill. The result is the wretched economy and impoverished society that is Tasmania today.

It appeared foolish for Premier Giddings to seek to keep the myth of the pulp mill alive in her statement to Parliament yesterday. These comments offer only false comfort to the mill’s supporters and uncertainty to its opponents. Yet the mill is dead — legally in limbo, socially unacceptable, politically impossible, and commercially fantastical. Its end ought to mark the possibility of a new beginning for Tasmania when the state can seek to address its many problems with many solutions free of the bitter divisions Gunns promoted and prospered from. The death of the mill should be a source of hope, not despair.

There was always about Gunns a distinctly personal and political flavour that sometimes smacked more of vendetta than of sound commerce. The demise of Gunns brings to an end a tumultous three decades of Tasmanian history that began with Robin Gray losing the Franklin Dam battle to the Bob Brown-led environmental movement in 1983, continued with Robin Gray losing  the Wesley Vale pulp mill battle and government to a Labor-Green government in 1989, and now the loss of Gunns and Gray’s third white elephant, the Gunns pulp mill.

In each case, the same arguments were run and shown to be nonsense; in each case the island changed regardless. It’s time now we began to honour those changes and seek to build on them, rather than repeat the mistake of searching for the one great project solution and the social conflict their political carriage inevitably demands. Let us hope the days of the cargo cult are over.

Whatever happens next, yesterday was in its way as historic a day as that of the High Court decision in July 1983 that ensured the Franklin River would not be dammed. Australian corporations will in the future ignore public sentiment at their peril.

A great darkness has lifted from Tasmania. The last remnants of the fear that so pervaded and paralysed Tasmanian life are now gone.  But whether Tasmanians have the courage, the wit and the passion to seize the great opportunities that now present themselves remains an open question.

*This article was originally published at Tasmanian Times

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17 thoughts on “Flanagan: Gunns’ demise lifts a darkness over Tasmania

  1. izatso?

    thank you Richard. the economics supporting Gunns and Forrestry was/is atrocious. An examination proper is well overdue. Post Shredding, natch

  2. Scott

    Tasmania is under the pump at the moment.
    When Gunns closes down, it just means Tasmanian workers will move to forrestry industries in Victoria and WA, taking their younger families (and their economic activity) with them. All that will be left in Tasmainia will be it’s fishing industry (as long as no more super trawlers rock up of course) and it’s band of grey nomads (who don’t spend a lot and require a lot of health care expenditure)
    Not exactly sustainable. As they say, be careful what you wish for.

  3. Bo Gainsbourg

    Yep, if you go back to around 1996 the greenies were predicting this kind of result for woodchipping nationally based on the economics of global woodchip supply and local plantation economics. Still state and federal governments poured in the taxpayer cash to the industry,as they continue to do. As it turns out the vast bulk of media and so called ‘realist’ economic pundits were wrong and the greenies economic analysis was right. Though you probably won’t find much acknowledgement of that in the post match analysis. In the meantime the rogue agency Forestry Tasmania, seemingly protected by the human shields of the Labor and Liberal party from any kind of economic realism, continues to squander hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayers money propping up a socialised “industry” that can’t even employ 1% of Tasmanian’s and has to trash huge tracts of remaining native forests, worth more standing that woodchipped, for the privilege. You couldn’t make it up.

  4. Bill Hilliger

    For a long time it was said there was a need to keep cutting forests under the guise of sustainable logging to create and keep timber industry jobs. Timber industry jobs in the last 30 years, for what?… WOODCHIPS the lowest form of value adding to using a valuable resource. We sold it cheap to foreign entities instead of milling the same valuable resource for TIMBER products… yes value adding timber for building, furniture and other wood products as we were doing before WOODCHIPS. Now Gunns the great forest destroyers are gone, as are the jobs and sadly…as is much of the old growth forests with marginal amounts of timber left for timber mills and their traditional products. For people who were employed by Gunns life goes on albeit in a different direction and they are still around. As for the old growth forest, we can only now imagine what was there… and never to see it again.

  5. zut alors

    I was non-plussed by Giddings’ remarks. Everybody but Giddings can see the emperor has no clothes. It’s uplifting to witness Gunns receive their just reward.

    Back on the mainland the clock has now begun ticking for the coal seam gas cowboys.

  6. khtagh

    Unfortunately there is no way to make them accountable now. There is a far greater criminal act that they will never be held accountable for. That is the fact that the devil facial tumor disease was caused by the wide spread aerial spraying of the horrid herbicide Atrazine [2-chloro-4-(ethylamino)-6-(isopropylamino)-s-triazine] across the sate (with government compliance both! labor & lieberal).

    DFTD only came apparent a yr or so after this practice (aerial spraying)was started. They should be held accountable for all the ghosts not just those so far.

    Genocide of the devils will be their ever lasting legacy.

  7. michael in melbourne

    Move on and stop gloating. What is the plan for Tasmania now? Your energy would be far better spent coming up with ideas for “re-inventing” Tasmania, than making snide remarks about the demise of Gunns. Whatever else you may think, Gunns employs people, who have families, and now face a most uncertain future. You might want to bear that thought in mind as you celebrate its demise.

  8. John Bennetts

    Michael in Melbourne is wrong.

    There is huge difference between gloating and celebration. Tasmanians have every right to breathe easier now that the opressor has been slain. Perhaps, not so much slain as starved out.

    Over 50 years ago, my father took me to walk the Overland Track as a teenager. I have returned several times, and brought my family with me. Long after his death, I also read his diaries. Clearly, his time in many parts of Tassie’s forest lands were the best of his life. I’ve stood on more than half of Tasmania’s highest peaks, yet I am no superman. These are experiences which transcend the usual stuff of life.

    Peter Dombromvoski’s photography of forests now gone are world renowned. The beach of Peddar still exists, though flooded.

    Peter Cundall was right.

    Tasmania needs time to heal and to begin the slow process of building organisations that are not the Hydro, are not their sad and captive Forests Department and are not Gunns, but which are capable of building on the foundations provided by its special things which have lasting values.

    With passion and high hopes, I very much desire that the future of this island state takes a turn towards nature and for the better.

    To say that Gunns had to die in order that Tasmania could live again is not hubris or gloating. It is a sobering, undeniable fact.

    R.I.P. Gunns. Arise from bondage, Tasmania.

  9. AR

    MickMelb prates the most banal of greed-is-good lines (ignorant or complicit?)- death camps & armament industries also employ people. The point has been made over & over, specifically for Tassie, and in general for OZ, that green jobs are sustainable, environmentally beneficial and psychologically (dare i say spiritually?) satisfying. QED.

  10. izatso?

    These people must eradicate the Wilderness. It scares them that so much freedom can be allowed to exist, and not belong to them, not be utilised. The idea, also, that it is known to exist, they hate that too. Etc. Little by Little, the future must be theirs. They will have all the Reserves. Or they will poison everything. With Economics. With Monetisation. With ‘Putting A Value’ on things Price- Less. With Bull S—