Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings and Deputy Premier Bryan Green are probably the only two people in Tasmania who say they believe the pulp mill floated by doomed timber company Gunns is still a goer. Whether Giddings and Green actually believe what they say is doubtful.
The tarnished development permit that Gunns holds for the $2 billion mill still sits in the safe at company headquarters in Launceston. The company’s administrators properly regard it as an asset, even a bankable asset, for sale to the highest bidder, should there be one.
That bidder has to be sufficiently foolhardy to want to run the same gauntlet of public opinion that Gunns did to fulfill the Gunns’ dream of a mill. “Social licence” is not a term that was in general use when former Gunns’ boss John Gay and former premier Paul Lennon first hatched their plan for the mill across the dining table at a restaurant on the Hobart waterfront. Their waiter that day spotted the document and blabbed to the Greens, lending credence to the adage that in Tasmania there can be no secrets.
Of course, some here look to China for the mill’s salvation since, they believe, the phrase “social licence” is of no import to the Chinese.
The problem facing any would-be pulp mill developer using the Gunns’ permit is that they would be handling soiled goods. While attention has always focused, understandably, on the environmental impact of a mill at Bell Bay in terms of its resource inputs and pollutant outputs, the broader and deep-seated resentment to the project is the lack of due process involved in Gunns gaining the permit.
When Lennon and Gay knew that the independent assessor, the Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC), had strong reservations about the mill, they took the permit out of its hands and directly into the paws of Tasmania’s 40 state MPs. In effect, politics rather than science would determine the fate of the application. The result was never in doubt.
Yet, Lennon had committed a cardinal sin. Following the similar Wesley Vale pulp mill experience in the late ’80s (a campaign that brought the Australian Greens’ leader Christine Milne into public view) Lennon knew that the Tasmanian electorate was highly sceptical about the technology of pulp mills and if this one was to succeed where Wesley Vale failed it had to stand the tests of science.
Lennon promised the electorate that the independent umpire, the RPDC, would determine whether Gunns’ pulp mill proposal met those standards. I was working with the Tasmanian forest industry and the government at the time. My own research convinced me that pulping technology had advanced considerably since the days of Wesley Vale. What I could not know was whether I could trust Gunns to embrace world’s best practice. The RPDC would be the judge of that. When Lennon and Gay contrived to take the approval process out of the RPDC’s hands, the project lost me and thousands of others because the independent evaluation was gone.
So, the permit sitting in the Gunns’ safe bears that soiled legacy. It may be bankable in law but it has no social licence in its present form.
Undoubtedly, the demise of Gunns is the third notch in the bedpost for the Greens, after the Franklin River and Wesley Vale campaigns. However, Gunns is but one battle in a war of many fronts being waged in the Tasmanian forests and those fronts are all about to reach their moments of truth.
The flight of confidence from Gunns and its own flight from native forest harvesting helped to trigger negotiations between major conservation groups and the timber industry to effect a peace. It was a putative olive branch that the Tasmanian and Australian governments seized upon to formulate an intergovernmental agreement to secure the peace through more agreed forest reserves and a reduced saw-log yield from remaining usable forests.
The olive branch is broken. The talks have broken down. The government, through pressure of the Greens in cabinet, has also just decided to dismember Forestry Tasmania, the government enterprise responsible for conserving forests and managing the commercial zones. Forestry Tasmania had been given the responsibility of determining whether the proposed reduced commercial zones of public forest could deliver the industry the saw-logs it required to remain viable.
In short, it’s a mess. We might end up back at square one.
Some of the innocent victims in all of this are the people with whom I work these days, Tasmanian farmers.
Thousands of farmers have private forests and they have patches of forest plantation that Gunns planted on the farmers’ land on a lease arrangement. On maturity, these fast-growing eucalypts were to be fed into Gunns’ woodchip plants and then into the pulp mill.
Throughout the demise of Gunns and the forest peace talks, these farmers have been sidelined. They were not invited to participate in the talks despite the impact of contraction on the public and private forest sectors. Now the administrator expresses his doubts about the farmers continuing to receive lease payments. Notionally, ownership of the trees will transfer to the farmers if lease payments are in default, but what are they supposed to do with them? With Gunns gone, the only woodchip plant that could handle them is owned by Green supporters, managed by former Wilderness Society director Alec Marr and he’s keeping the gate locked.
So for the farmers the hope of a pulp mill to process their pulpwood trees is forlorn and they are about to hit a government-imposed ban on any more land clearing for pastures.
The Greens tread a fine line in claiming their third victory in Tasmania. There will be a reaction to it and the Labor government, which shares the bed with the Greens, is compromised, but that’s another story.
*Bruce Montgomery is a former journalist with The Australian, a former adviser to the Forests and Forest Industry Council and now consults to the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association.