Recent ‘discussion’ on Tasmanian Times along with various phone calls and emails have demonstrated a few of the severe repercussions resulting from our paid representatives failing to do their job of representing the public.
The real causes of greatest difficulty in the case of the pulp mill stem from Australians having no rights, only responsibilities while governments have all the rights and are able to shuck off their responsibilities at will.
ALP governments are using the situation to favour particular groups in society while forcing everyone to pay taxes equally as if we were all being treated equally. We are not.
I regard that structural problem as fundamental to our current concerns about corporate favouritism (HERE) and lack of care about citizen health and well being (HERE), so I ask readers to bear in mind that I am talking about those causes in this article.
Overall, we need to remember that it was government that approved this mill, government that devised a ‘fast track’ process that excluded socio-economic impacts, government that subsidises wood chip production with public money, government that signed a 20 yr wood supply agreement from our forests, and government that refuses to recognise citizen concerns.
A representation vacuum
Liblab politicians in Tasmania have chosen to support projects and industries without any regard to potential problems for citizens, listening only to positive messages from proponents while ignoring any risks and socio-economic impacts.
Unfortunately systemic problems (e.g. no representation of public views) create real human problems and real people end up being damaged by the results.
In the Tasmanian pulp mill case, I submit that the lack of public representation is already producing serious dysfunction including a kind of ‘representation war’, where different groups seem to claim to represent community views, or promote policies that could harm communities without consulting them first.
Short of somehow creating a new political entity that actually does represent the people, there appears no easy solution to this problem.
The dysfunction has been compounded by the mainstream media avoiding reporting the socio-economic implications of a pulp mill, instead promoting the false notion that the only objections are environmental.
This distorted idea has meant that the socio-economic impacts have remained hidden from public view.
· The potential job losses in tourism and agriculture, and
· losses of food producing land to trees, and
· conversion of Northern Tasmania into a pulp mill zone, and
· risks of unregulated foul odours being trapped in the Tamar valley, and
· stinking fogs on the E. Tamar highway, and
· leaching of toxins from the vast settling pond into the sea.
These problems and more have been ignored while the ecological concerns of well funded conservation lobby groups have been widely promoted and recognised.
Crudely, it’s being presented as a choice between a few eagles and a lot of jobs.
Examiner Editor Fiona Reynolds demonstrated this when she complained that the community had insufficient knowledge of the media and disclosed that “To achieve balance and fairness we can go to professional environmental campaigners like the Wilderness Society for comment”. (HERE)
That’s how easy it is to convert socio-economic impacts into environmental concerns with a media that expects a disparate community to have a professional media office. Sounds like silver spoon territory.
Whether Tasmania gets a pulp mill or not, the absolute failure of the citizenry to be able to police their own representatives is likely to stimulate ever greater departures from democratic process as politicians and bureaucrats accommodate further to citizen impotence.
Each new political initiative is likely to surpass previous efforts in confrontational politics and abuse of community trust with growing disposals of community assets and monies to favoured ‘mates’.
Who will dare police this mill?
One early problem is likely to be pulp mill operations and its widely distributed feedstock sources.
Which government department is likely to risk the ire of embedded politicians to enforce whatever permit conditions exist?
Who is going to take on Gunns if their operations are offensive or hazardous to individuals or groups?
Will the media dare to report ‘accidents’ or chemical emergencies?
An unrestrained slide into total control by dominant corporate interests is more than just possible, it appears to be happening right in front of us, right now. Perhaps it’s one of those boiled frog things?
Gunns is already the biggest landowner in Tasmania as a result of taxpayer funded MIS.
What kind of citizen protection will be possible if the whole of Northern Tasmania becomes a pulp mill supply zone?
Elevating the corporate
An odd consequence of the lack of representation is the drift into apparent acceptance of Gunns as the party with whom we should negotiate, either singly or in groups.
Unfortunately, by signalling that we are willing to negotiate with Gunns, we risk validating the very lack of representation that got us into this mess in the first place.
We seem to be saying…OK if our paid politicians aren’t going to do the job we’ll negotiate with the company directly. We can manage OK without the middle man.
While this may sound persuasive, particularly given the woeful performance by our politicians, there exist remarkable dangers that are worthy of consideration.
First, only the government has the force of law available to control mill operations.
Secondly, it is the government that receives and distributes our tax monies.
Third, our forestry problems are creations of governments at all 3 levels.
Gunns is a corporation that profits from public assets and requires substantial public subsidies to convert trees into woodchips/pulp.
Gunns can only get what they want with the explicit permission of the government. They don’t need public endorsement if they’ve got government support.
Mill subsidies include substantial volumes of fresh water which is a rapidly disappearing commodity in Australia and is to be taken from a pressured catchment that serves many communities.
With a mill requiring 4 m tonnes feedstock each year and continuous operations, such subsidies could become unaffordable.
In the event that there isn’t enough water, who will lose out?
Can we trust government departments to curtail Gunns water supply and threaten profits or will food production and urban uses be cut back first?
All of these questions demand answers from government, not from Gunns.
The lack of representation is creating too many risks for communities to rely on environmental lobbyists with narrow agendas to deal with their concerns.
The tacit acceptance that the only valid objections to Gunns pulp mill are environmental rather than socio-economic also creates new problems if/when conservation groups decide the solution to wilderness problems is to transfer them to communities.
This appears to have happened when one organisation asked the public to press their politicians to support plantations and Gunns building a mill (with conditions) (HERE).
Plantations are reported to create many severe problems for rural dwellers, while government subsidies have been cited as responsible for the acceleration in conversion of food producing land to trees in perpetuity.
The socio-economic risks of such a strategy could be considerable yet consideration of them is not within the remit of conservation groups. The result is a huge social ‘blind spot’ that allows cashed up lobbying groups to promote their messages while limiting social engagement from community members because they are too ‘unorganised’.
Don’t we realise that free society members have disparate views and are deliberately unorganised?
There are also serious questions about the use of subsidies to support a loss making industry while vital portfolios like health and education are starved for funds.
My position is that no group should advocate policies that could have detrimental consequences on others without full consultation with the communities involved and full impartial assessment to help assure a comprehensive understanding of the risks.
These are exactly the same principles that should apply to government.
What amplifies the risks of the mill drifting out of control is the perverse dynamic that local property devaluations caused by a mill would act to the advantage of mill operators by making local land cheaper to acquire. Not a pretty thought and a situation to which we appear entirely exposed.
Until and unless the community gets more control of its own agenda and socio-economic environment, everyone in the area appears to be potentially at risk.
Watch this space.
Mike is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator and executive/management coach.
Note. The author welcomes constructive criticism and new information that adds to our understanding of these matters.