Image for The Future Eaters: Being Vigilant for The Man 2007-2010

Events are apparently moving fairly quickly to implement the forestry roundtable agreement, whatever that means,with the combined voices of the Tasmanian Greens, Environment Tasmania and The Wilderness Society issuing almost identical press releases on Friday, November 19, stressing “the once in a generation opportunity” that the Tasmanian and federal governments now have to protect high conservation forests for the future. 

Greens leader Nick McKim said that he was“proud to confirm that the Greens have worked with Labor to develop a proposed governance model which will ensure the utilisation of expert advice, stakeholder community involvement, public transparency, and a clear and transparent decision making process. As part of the proposed model, there will be a Cabinet sub-committee consisting of the Premier, the Forestry Minister and myself.”

McKim’s statement reiterated what was said in the roundtable agreement’s “Community Engagement Principle”, and was also specifically addressed in the “Industry Principle”, the only place in the document which mentioned support for the establishment of “a pulp mill”, stipulating that “stakeholder consultation and engagement with the proponent, ENGOs and the community” will need to occur.

But let it be said, quite categorically, at the outset, that the precise context for the establishment of the roundtable was the collapse of Gunns’ share price during April and May this year, to the point where there was serious speculation that the company could collapse.  IMF Australia was preparing a class action against the company.  Bartlett’s initial announcement of the roundtable occurred almost simultaneously with John Gay’s resignation from Gunns as executive chairman, under pressure from institutional investors who were intent upon saving their investment through a change in strategic direction by the company.

The change in strategic direction also coincided with the appointment of Timo Piilonen to oversee the planning for Gunns’ mill, although the strategy to strip away “non-core” businesses and assets to focus on woodchips for pulp had started before Piilonen’s appointment.  Gunns’ retail interests and native forest holdings were for sale. Gunns publicized its intention to exit native forest logging, because native forest logging was wrecking their ability to survive in the global woodchipping marketplace.  Plantation feedstock was now the standard.  Nothing else would satisfy the market.This change in direction was also accompanied by publicity from Gunns that they were interested in gaining FSC accreditation, which required a “social licence”.

The plan to save Gunns from the scrap heap was born, with the sweetener that FSC certification was the aim.  This was a useful marketing tool at home, immediately applauded by environmental groups, but the real purpose was to rebuild the base to obtain finance for the Tamar Valley pulp mill. 

On May 28 this year, one of the first public statements of Greg L’Estrange, when he replaced John Gay at Gunns, was to say that that the company was now pursuing a “social licence” for the mill.  Subsequently, the legal action against the “Triabunna 13” was dropped.  More recently, anti-mill protesters were given open access to the site for the pulp mill.

At the same time that L’Estrange took the helm at Gunns decisions were being finalized about the composition of the roundtable.  Bartlett’s initial proposal for a roundtable which was inclusive of community representation was abandoned at this point.  Suddenly it seemed that the plug would be pulled on the whole idea.  Then, almost as suddenly, the idea was revived, with a much restricted representation.

Fast forward to November 19, and McKim’s reference to “stakeholder community involvement” in the next stage of the process.

The “stakeholder community” in relation to the pulp mill are identified in the roundtable “Industry Principle”. This “Principle”, of course, is probably the most crucial element in the document in relation to the overall shape of Tasmania’s future economic-social-environmental direction, particularly in linking “a pulp mill” with the plantation estate.  The impact this will have in discouraging flexibility, diversity and capacity for adaptability in Tasmania’s rural and regional development cannot be overstated.  The last thing the Tasmanian economy needs in the current global metamorphosis is a “fixed position” Soviet-style 20 year plan.  But that’s the plan, and fixed for much longer than 20 years of course.

The ENGOs and the Greens have managed to get themselves into an invidious position.  It’s real make-or-break territory for them now, made worse by the fact that they’re caught in a double-bind.  On the one hand, they have publicly declared that delays to a final deal will ensure that native forests will continue to be trashed.  For this reason alone they have committed themselves to taking the lead in finalizing the deal.  On the other hand, we already know that the trashing of native forests will continue anyway, especially in the catchments, at least until 2027.

This is all complicated by the fact that by taking the lead the ENGOs and the Greens are also supporting the decisions taken by Gunns, and in effect working for the implementation of Gunns’ objectives.  In the end game that’s where the trap lies, for nobody else in the roundtable agreement has a vested interest in a quick decision.  Gunns can sit back and watch how things play out.  They made their decisions about their future strategy months ago.

That’s the nature of the game that is being played at the moment.  Everybody who is a signatory to the agreement hopes they understand the nature of the cards that are on the table, and are hedging their navel-gazing bets on whether their own career interests and their own organization’s vested interests reston slowing down, speeding up, undermining or wrecking the process.  Don’t assume that there’s any focus beyond the short term here. 

The recent in-depth analysis by Bob McMahon ( War and Peace: HERE ) about the factors at work, and their likely consequences, summarises very coherently what many independent, apolitical observers (apolitical in the sense of willing to critique all parties across the spectrum, without fear or favour) have been warning the ENGOs and the Greens about for some time.

Writing in the Launceston Examiner on August 6, during the federal election campaign, Tasmanian political scientist Tony McCall asked a number of questions about the so-called forestry roundtable, what he called “secret men’s business”, including: -

“Are pulp mills and forestry policy issues going to be silently left to the machinations of the faceless and unelected round table members pretending to represent the ubiquitous community interest during this campaign?  Has a deal been brokered?  What’s in it for the rest of us?”

Predictably, McCall’s questions were greeted with a wall of silence throughout the election campaign and thereafter for some time, but then – out of the (pre-planned) blue – Tasmania’s very own “open and transparent” Premier David Bartlett suddenly made public statements demanding that the roundtable finalise things by mid-October.  Ostensibly, the reason was that CFMEU members were being balloted in late October to determine their support for the agreement.  No problem. A two or three page document appeared on cue, a mission statement of 18 motherhood generalities called “Principles of Agreement”. 

It’s hard to know how long it took for the carefully chosen “parties to these Principles” to produce this small, ambiguous document for public perusal, but the key elements were all associated with decisions made by Gunns during 2010, following three years of failure to obtain finance for the Tamar Valley pulp mill.

Let’s follow the dots. 

The establishment of the roundtable in May coincided with the replacement of Gunns’ chairman John Gay by Greg L’Estrange.  But coincidences of this nature in matters forestry in Tasmania don’t exist.  Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 21, Andrew Darby noted that L’Estrange “demurred at a suggestion that he convened the round table talks”, but “he said Gunns had sat at the table for the whole process”.

In the same article Darby said that FIAT boss, Terry Edwards, considered that “Gunns forced every industry hand into the talks”.  According to the report, Edwards said that FIAT could have “just let Gunns go through with what they wanted, and let the industry fall over, or we could be involved in the process and try to negotiate an orderly and structured transition”.

The key elements in Gunns’ new direction, as written into the roundtable agreement,were to move “the commodity forest industry” from public native forests into plantation-based feedstock, to develop “processing facilities including a pulp mill” and to pursue FSC accreditation. 

Gunns’ requirements underpin most of the “Principles” signed off by the roundtable, especially the exit from native forest logging for woodchips, other environmental management aspects of the agreement and social license provisions.

The point is that once Gunns had decided to exit from native forest logging, the whole Tasmanian industry had to dance to the new tune, whether they liked it or not, as Terry Edwards has said.  And some things had to be put in place across the whole industry to facilitate this.

In effect, Gunns set the agenda for the roundtable decision-making process.  But this should not be surprising to anyone, because the genesis of the roundtable itself was to address the bundle of issues which had developed around Gunns’ problems, the most prominent (next to keeping the company alive) being its failure to get funding and/or a joint venture partner for the Tamar Valley pulp mill. 

To put it another way, the roundtable was set up as part of the strategy to connect the 2007 Pulp Mill Assessment Act with what Gunns requires now, and beyond 2010.

In 2007 when the PMAA and its permits were passed into law, openly flouting notions of representative democracy and deliberately obliterating any legal recourse by people via common law, negating principles of natural justice, the Tasmanian Parliament did not anticipate that the proponent for the mill would have difficulty in securing finance. It even helpfully provided options within the legislation for whatever arrangements the proponent sought fit to do – go it alone, seek joint venture partners or sell.

The question in 2007 had been “what does The Man need?” Then it needed the Parliament to replace the standing statutory planning authority, because that authority had determined that some necessary standards for the green light for the TamarValley pulp mill were “critically non-compliant”.

But that didn’t work well at all.  In fact it played an important role in undermining the ability of Gunns to get finance, particularly in focusing the attention of prospective investors on the widespread public antipathy to the process, and alerting them to unidentified risks which had not been assessed.

By 2009 it had finally dawned on the power brokers in the main political parties, the politicized bureaucracy, even in the forestry industry itself and its moribund benefactor, the highly secretive and legislatively firewalled Forestry Tasmania, that the marketplace in the world for pulp was turning away from third-world practices of clear-felling old-growth and native forests.  It was becoming harder to sell toilet paper from such sources in a world where climate change concerns were changing consumers’ behaviour.

By this time Gunns had no hope of raising finance as a stand-alone proposition, so prospective joint-venture partners were being wooed by the proponent’s tax-payer funded Tasmanian ministerial delegations to Europe and Asia. During 2009 both David Llewellyn and Michael Aird participated in these ventures on behalf of Gunns.  This was when the bad news finally hit home to the Bartlett government that spruiking the lie of “world’s best practice” in the global marketplace was a different proposition to spreading that garbage at home.

So the problem of 2007 needed new clothes, because supine legislation as the sure-fire guarantor for money was a failure. Working for the interests of The Man in 2010 required a new approach.  And where better to hit a rich seam than reworking old diggings. 

That’s part of the context for a rerun of the roundtable concept(modelled, by the way, on the 1989 committee which produced the ill-fated Salamanca Agreement), but another part of the context was that some of Gunns’ large institutional shareholders were reading the tea leaves through an altered lens as well.  Unimpressed with issues about transparency at Gunns in the latter part of 2009 and early 2010, as Gunns share price plummeted, institutional shareholders cleared their vision and withdrew their support to force the resignation of board chairman John Gay.

Gay’s departure swept the decks for the new strategy to gain finance for the pulp mill.  As Bob McMahon has shown so clearly, Gunns understood the convergence of its new strategic objectives with the aims of Tasmanian ENGOs.  But this was no accident either.  Institutional investors had cleared their vision well before May.  In February Geoffrey Cousins made clear that there was a way forward for institutional investors to save their money, by jettisoning Gay and getting out of native forests. This slotted into a neat alignment with the ENGOs who had been vocal through 2009 in support of a plantation-based pulp mill. When Gay was removed, Cousins stated that he had played a role with institutional investors to achieve that outcome.

And a very welcome outcome it was for Gunns’ shareholders, including Gay himself, because the value of their holdings doubled immediately, from a cliff-edge scenario to a level of safety.

In this new world of so-called “peace talks”, the ENGOs’ role was straightforward.  It was to provide evidence for potential backers of Gunns’ Tamar Valley pulp mill that a social and environmental license for a pulp mill had been granted, or was now achievable.  From the perspective of the ENGOs’ self-interest (especially that of the controversially internally-riven Wilderness Society), they wanted to be able to claim credit for implementation of the “Principle” to “immediately protect, maintain and enhance High Conservation Value Forests identified by ENGOs on public land”, because that would shore up their support (and that of the Greens) in the inner-city suburbs across the nation, which was their financial and political base.

Irrespective of the fact that Gunns was already committed now to exit high conservation value forest anyway, the ENGOs quickly claimed the crucial role in shifting the whole world of Tasmanian forestry on its axis.  They argue very strenuously, for example, that their voice was extremely influential in persuading the global market (especially the Japanese market) not to accept woodchips from non-plantation sources.

All this is immaterial to the industry parties to the agreement, and to Gunns, who have been stating loudly for some time that any ENGO assent to the “Principles” represents the community voice of Tasmania as well as the environmental voice.  Gunns has been particularly vocal in applauding the outcome as a “social license” for the pulp mill and their quest for FSC certification.

As mentioned earlier, some of the industry players were always going to be upset about the new rules of the game, once the realization hit home about what The Man needed now and into the future if the pulp mill was to be built.  So a key role of the roundtable was to address those industry issues and to ensure that the fallout would be paid for from the public purse. The introduction of Paul Lennon into the game just before the siren rang, as a soothing balm on heated brows (or rather more), shows just how significant those issues were.

The timing of all the public releases surrounding what was happening in the roundtable were important for Gunns as well, especially during September, when L’Estrange made his carefully crafted statement about Gunns’ new strategy to the Forest Industry Development Conference in Melbourne. L’Estrange told the conference that “in the future” Gunns would not be part of “native forest sawmilling and woodchip exports…  This may well mean transitioning to plantations”.  After giving the roundtable participants a week or two to soak in this focus-sharpening bath, Bartlett issued his hurry-up orders to the roundtable.  Then the signed-off agreement hit the press in the week before Gunns announced the closure of the Scottsdale mill. All this worked quite well in Gunns’ favour, because it further bolstered the confidence of institutional investors that the Tamar Valley pulp mill could now be more attractive to a foreign joint-venture partner. 

This was as much as they could have hoped for in the 2010 global economic climate, for in May the share price had sagged below 30 cents, but in the aftermath of the roundtable agreement it reached 78 cents.

It is too early to say how the next stage, the political “governance structure” for the implementation of the roundtable recommendations, announced on November 19, will improve that picture for Gunns.  What is clear is that it gives the Tasmanian government the final “interpretative” control of the consultation process. 

Apart from stabilizing its share price, the roundtable’s real achievements, from Gunns’ perspective, are firstly, the agreed “Principle” for “a pulp mill”, and secondly, a “governance” structure where pulp mill supporters have control, irrespective of what Nick McKim is now saying about “transparency”.The fact is that “transparency” no longer has traction.  Nor does rhetoric in stark contradiction to behavior.

There is an increased expectation in the market that the Tamar Valley pulp mill is now more likely to proceed, and that Greg L’Estrange will give the appearance of being less rigid than John Gay in accommodating community concerns, especially in the Tamar Valley itself.

The Tasmanian communities likely to be adversely affected can expect no support from most politicians on this matter, except for some rhetoric from some Greens. Nor can they expect the local media to be anything but totally supportive of Gunns.  The legislative framework is in place.  The permits are in place. The road infrastructure is in place. The federal jurisdiction is bending backwards for an accommodation which avoids political fallout in their direction.

The one outstanding federally imposed hurdle is the question of effluent impacts on the marine environment in Commonwealth waters. Don’t be surprised if the Gillard government comes to the party on this one.  Gillard herself has close connections with CFMEU boss Michael O’Connor, and it could be that the forest workers interests in other States than just Tasmania are being discussed in relation to the Tamar valley pulp mill.  Especially the use of plantation wood from Victoria.

A solution to the effluent problem would fit neatly into the jigsaw surrounding parts of the forestry debate taking place in Victoria right now.  So don’t write off federal intervention with sweeteners for Gunns to upgrade the effluent management to tertiary treatment.

Unfortunately, there is nothing within the roundtable set of “Principles” which relates at any way at all to the real issues facing Tasmania’s social-economic-environmental future.  To the contrary, it is all about locking Tasmania into the paradigms of the past, into an industrial model in inexorable decline.

It is not a cause for celebrating “peace in our time” that the problems appear to have been merely shifted sideways, dumped wherever the 300,000 hectare plantation estate exists, and dumped wherever the consequential economic, social and environmental costs may fall in the future.  Nor is there cause for any notions of peace in the fact that the 2007 Pulp Mill Assessment Act is now more likely to see active service in the field than at any time in the last three years.

The roundtable has taken a further step in entrenching Plantation Isle as a solution “to resolve the conflict over forests in Tasmania, protect native forests, and develop a strong sustainable timber industry”.  What are we going to do with the plantation estate?  How are we going to save the plantation estate?  How can we let more than 300,000 hectares of spindly, costly, water thirsty, helicopter-sprayed, fire-prone, clear-felled, monocultural, MIS schemed plantations not be the dominant economic, social and environmental issue for Tasmania for us and for those who follow us?

The answer of the roundtable is to shift the problem from the living to the unborn. We, whose decisions will breathe what we do into the lives of those who follow, can steal from them and siphon the substance from their future by entrenching bulk commodity woodchipping and pulp interests.

Plantation Isle, as it is envisaged by all the parties to the roundtable agreement, and irrespective of whatever arrangements are put in place, under whatever auspices of a “social license” to proceed with a pulp mill, in the Tamar Valley or elsewhere in Tasmania, is guaranteed to march inexorably into a an awful and intractable dilemma for people who live in Tasmania in the future.

Is there anyone who seriously believes that the governance model’s “opportunity for community input” will listen to those who express such views?  Well before the round table was established it had become clear that independent voices, irrespective of the validity of their views (and even some very well-considered options for policy formulation and future direction) would be ignored, or invite dismissal, scorn, personal abuse and condemnation, or a combination of these tactical weapons of character assassination.

Does anyone imagine that an “opportunity for community input” will take note of anything that Alison Bleaney, David Obendorf, David Leaman, Pete Godfrey, Frank Nicklason, Bob Loone and Frank Strie – all people with specialist knowledge and expertise - have to say about the plantation estate?

It is now no longer possible for independent voices to be heard and listened to in the so-called forestry conflict in Tasmania if they deviate in any way from some accepted orthodoxy framed by vested political, industry and ENGO interests.

The question then is to what extent the “secret men’s business”, as Tony McCall asks, is about ensuring that the terms of the “social license” can be encapsulated under the umbrella of “community” voices that fit the paradigm required to assist Gunns in its quest for a pulp mill.

Greg L’Estrange was reported as saying a month ago upon the release of the roundtable agreement – “this is a once-in-a-life opportunity for the industry to get it right”.  That template was echoed in the press releases of Nick McKim and the ENGOs on November 19. We shall now see how the attempt to marry the legislation of 2007 with the roundtable agreement of 2010 plays itself out in Gunns’ new strategic direction to acquire foreign finance.

One thing is clear enough.  It matters not at all whether a large-scale pulp mill is built in the Tamar Valley or elsewhere in Tasmania in terms of the destruction it will bring to Tasmania’s future, for the issues of Plantation Isle will be the same irrespective of the location.  Those problems will not be resolved at the same level of thinking that established them, which includes the ENGOs who think all will solved by moving the mill to a site outside the Tamar Valley.

That’s simply not going to happen. If reports about the role played by TimoPiilonen at Botnia’s Orion pulp mill on the Argentine-Uruguayan border are correct, he is renowned for hard-line negotiation.  According to an article written by Jorge Daniel Taillant, Piilonen showed“nerves of steel in relation to even the most staunch” opposition to the Botnia mill, including active ongoing protests involving between 50,000-100,000 people.  Taillant thought that Gunns “probably… brought him aboard due to the growing opposition to the Gunns Tamar Valley project”.

Piilonen has been involved in a much more socially hostile and volatile environment than anything likely to happen in Tasmania, so there is no particular reason to believe that the L’Estrange – Piilonen partnership is going to be swayed by the voices suggesting alternative options to the Tamar Valley.  While no one would have thought in 2007 that Gunns’ strategy in 2010 could dovetail so well with ENGOs interests, the ENGOs have no influence at all when it comes to the location of the pulp mill.  Plantation Isle is not an unintended consequence for the ENGOs or for Gunns.  It is the direction both have chosen to go down, side by side.  No one thought that would happen in 2007.

But nevertheless, forces are already at work tearing at the fabric of the assumptions that underpin the roundtable agreement, even before a plan has been put in place for its implementation.  The rapidly changing faces of information and communications technology are seeing to that.  The rigid and inflexible nature of large scale plantation agroforestry for pulp is out of sync with the times of change.

Finally, and very significantly, the plantation estate is a potential legal time bomb waiting to explode.  The warning signs are already strongly on the radar.  Endangered species such as the Tasmanian Devil aren’t able to fight for their rights to a healthy life, but it is only a matter of time before the damage being done to Tasmania’s water catchments by the plantation estate becomes an issue of the legal rights of people.

Furthermore, the evidence suggests that the question of FSC certification is probably a false-flag operation, because it would appear that post-1994 plantations which replaced native forests are not eligible for accreditation, and that these rules are not eligible for review in the near future.  Post-1994 plantations form the bulk of Tasmania’s plantation estate. Also, those responsible for signing off on FSC accreditation for plantation wood for Gunns’ proposed mill have a chartered responsibility to examine carefully the standards within the Tasmanian plantation industry.  At the moment those standards have a long way to go to meet FSC requirements.

It could be, of course, that “FSC-Lite” is all that Gunns thinks it needs, but the Tasmanian plantation estate as a server for “a pulp mill” makes no sense in terms of full FSC certificated feedstock, or in terms of Tasmania’s future social-environmental and economic health.

Sadly, what the roundtable agreement has produced was past its use-by date before the participants were brought together, because the rationale for its creation, to follow Gunns’attempts to avoid collapse, wasalways based on a salvage operation.  This is no way to create Tasmania’s future.  It has no place in a coherent, sensible and proper analysis of the place that Tasmania should be seeking to occupy in the world now, let alone at any time in the future.

What the roundtable has produced is extraordinary in its shallow appreciation of the challenges facing Tasmania’s future, and a complete failure to address those challenges.  It is a document of no intrinsic merit at all, because it belligerently refuses to acknowledge that the world’s pulp usage, and sources, are entirely different to 1970, or to 1995, and will be different again in 2020 and 2030.  It belligerently refuses to acknowledge that woodchip prices and pulp prices have been in decline now for decades, and that the decline will continue.  It is irreversible. Like those who thought the internal combustion engine would never replace the horse or the bullock, or those who thought mass transport by air was only for birds with feathers, those who think paper products will litter the future in some fairytale revival are deluding themselves.

The roundtable agreement is one of those classic examples of a future eater, a flat earther, a parasitic sucker from the past stifling the here and now, and destined to be flattened by external forces or internal – one or the other, or in some combination.