Image for The Zombie Contagion for Plantation Isle

How richly deserved, wonderfully richly deserved, is the testimonial statement presented to Dr Alison Bleaney as Tasmanian Times Tasmanian of the Year 2009.  This is what it says:
“For her courage, and her selfless and principled care on behalf of the health and welfare of Tasmania, its people and its places”.

Now, in the wake of the evidence of what is happening in Tasmania, of toxins in the water from the eucalyptus nitens plantation estate destined for woodchips at the planned Tamar Valley pulp mill, the Tasmanian Labor-Liberal accord has nowhere to hide its crass failures to represent the interests of the public.  It lies exposed and bare as derelict in its fundamental responsibilities and duties to work for the benefit of a healthy social-environmental-economic polity.  It lies rotten at the feet of corporate influence and the unprincipled quest for personal power.  It is a carcass which only fools and simpletons would vote back into office. 

Moreover, all environmental groups, including some senior figures in the Tasmanian Greens, have been ingloriously exposed for their equivocation and ambiguity about building a large pulp mill somewhere in Tasmania.  Where to now for all those enthusiasts for giving Gunns, the Labor-Liberal accord, pseudo-union bosses and their business mates a proactive helping hand in knocking of all the obstacles preventing a large pulp mill being built in the Tamar Valley?

This is about the future of Tasmania, not just in the short term, but well into the adult lives of the next generation and their unborn children. We are looking squarely at Plantation Isle as a road to ruin.

But exactly where are we now, just a few weeks before the Bartlett-Hodgman ship of zombies are likely to be given the tick of approval to ignore the health and welfare of the public once more?

Let’s start with the timing of the announcement in Saturday’s The Australian that “key opponents of Gunns pulp mill” in the Tamar Valley will now “embrace the $2.5 billion project” if it meets the needs required by potential joint-venture partner Sodra.

The announcement, made by Sydney silvertail Geoffrey Cousins, who has close connections with Greens leader Bob Brown, came just two days before Gunns released its latest half-yearly profit results – down from over $33 million last year to less than $0.5 million.

On the face of it, Cousins is endorsing Sodra taking control of the pulp mill project, along the lines of the parameters given the tick of approval by the Greens, The Wilderness Society and Environment Tasmania, on the basis that Sodra has demanded stricter environmental controls than currently exist.

So, an announcement to provide a fillip to the Greens’ Tasmanian election campaign would seem to be the intent – for Sodra would appear to have met most of the key Green wish list conditions for a large Tasmanian pulp mill, and the Greens could argue to the voting public their role in that outcome. 

However, the gap between intent and outcome in the affairs of mice and men “oft go awry”, as Robert Burns cautioned his contemporaries all those years ago, in 1785.

For, let’s face it, why is it not a god-send to the Tasmanian Labor-Liberal accord, in the middle of a State election campaign, for a high-profile “anti-pulp mill” figure with a national exposure whenever he speaks about the issue, to suddenly state that he would support the pulp mill project if Sodra’s conditions were put in place?  After all, the Labor-Liberal accord has already endorsed the need for Gunns to work for FSC accreditation, and Gunns themselves have recently made a commitment to use only plantation-sourced feedstock.

The pressure is really on to prevent a hung parliament by all current Labor-Liberal politicians, not now just because a hung parliament will place an enormous moral force for a full investigation of the events between January 2007 (perhaps earlier) and July 2007, which resulted in the passage into law of the Pulp Mill Assessment Act, but also because the public outrage at the years of misleading information about the “genetically improved” plantation estate is set to unleash a storm of protest and demands for answers.

This is something that the Labor-Liberal accord is seeking to avoid at all costs, for any investigations, independently conducted, could demonstrate much greater subservience to the interests of capital and willingness to betray or be cavalierly indifferent to the public interest than has hitherto been suspected.

That’s the neat context to what is now taking place. 

From another perspective, and putting it quite bluntly, whichever way you look at it, up until the multi-layered Bleaney-Scammell torpedo into the heart of Tasmania’s political rot, the hurdles for Gunns-Sodra or Sodra (after swallowing Gunns) being able to build the pulp mill in the Tamar Valley were being gradually knocked over, or eroded. 

First of all, it is clear that most of the obstacles for Gunns to lay its pipeline beside the East Tamar Highway (now being upgraded for increased log truck traffic, at public expense) have been removed.  A solution to the other contentious pipeline issue, involving land between the Trevallyn dam and the Tamar River, has not yet been publicly disclosed, but there is no doubt that the decision has already been determined in Gunns’ favour.  Time will tell how that has been planned.

Secondly, as already mentioned, Gunns has also agreed, recently, to use only “plantation” wood in the mill, attracting the enthusiastic plaudits of the well known “environmental” groups, such as The Wilderness Society-Our Common Ground, Environment Tasmania, (the same people, probably?), and some anti-pulp mill activists in the Tamar Valley and no doubt others who oppose a large pulp mill in the Tamar Valley but are happy to see it built elsewhere in Tasmania.

But most significantly, the endorsement for Gunns to seek FSC accreditation after David Llewellyn’s recent taxpayer-funded trip to Japan on behalf of Gunns’ shareholders and directors emphasized that necessity (to ensure Gunns could continue to increase its monocultural plantation estate in Tasmania for woodchips), was loud and clear across the political spectrum and across the “environmental spectrum”.

The demand for Gunns to gain FSC accreditation is – at least currently - a working agenda for the Labor-Liberal accord, for the Greens, for the key “environmental” groups, and even for some activists (not all) against the pulp mill in the Tamar Valley.  The aim of the Labor-Liberal accord in this quest is to overcome obstacles to a Tamar Valley pulp mill.  The aim of The Wilderness Society-Our Common Ground (or at least its public position), some Greens (but not all), some community action groups (but not TAP), and some other Tamar Valley residents, is to facilitate a pulp mill in another location.

Even if there is a spin element in the clamour for Gunns to seek FSC certification by The Wilderness Society, for example (in the expectation that Gunns cannot achieve it), in the end, all of these groups, through their combined efforts, are in the process of gradually eliminating all reasonable objections for the building of a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, whether that is their stated objective or not.  The impact of the results of Bleaney-Scammell investigations on the position of some of the “anti-pulp mill” groups in this mix will be interesting to see.

It is well known that Gunns, the Labor-Liberal accord, the broad union movement and business interests who see employment opportunities in building the mill (even real estate speculators, who anticipate an influx of specialist labour from outside Tasmania seeking accommodation), government business enterprises (not just Forestry Tasmania), all support the construction of the mill in the Tamar Valley.  There is simply no question among all these interlocking interests that the mill will be built somewhere else in Tasmania. 

All these groups will welcome any “environmental” support for FSC certification, especially if this support can be utilized by Gunns and Forestry Tasmania and other key stakeholders in having the mill built, as meeting the social licence conditions within the FSC certification process.  In the event of this going anywhere, a lot depends on the configuration of the “social chamber” FSC process, and whether pro-mill forces will be able to manipulate it to sway the vote away from consideration of genuinely important social impacts.  And who wants an “FSC-Lite”?

This should be all redundant, of course, for in the current circumstances of compelling evidence of toxins in drinking water from plantations destined for Gunns’ mill, if the FSC accreditation process even got past the initial stages it would make a laughing stock of FSC Australia.   

It remains to be seen whether the “key opponents of the pulp mill” will now still work to ensure that the other main obstacles are removed to their opposition, especially the use of native forests, the remaining federal EPBC Act marine effluent conditions, and the siting of the mill in the Tamar Valley, or whether they will now pull the plug on support for a pulp mill anywhere in Tasmania.  Their current position, articulated by Geoffrey Cousins (as reported in The Australian), is that “If we can get a good clean mill… it would be bloody-minded not to support them”.  “Them” being Gunns.

Bloody-minded?  That now appears as a comment which is both indolent and ignorant.  And not only because genetically modified Eucalyptus nitens cover thousands of hectares of the Tasmanian environment, across water catchments for most of the population, both rural and urban, but because of other clear and obvious reasons as well.  Just look at this:

“Newsprint demand fell by 16% in the first five years since its peak year of 1999 in North America. In 10 years demand has fallen 57%.

Uncoated woodfree demand in North America has fallen by 33% since 1999. In Western Europe the market has matured during the last decade, and we estimate that newsprint demand in 2010 will be 24% below the peak year of 2000.

If the analogy of the shifting platform materializes in the coming years, demand should decrease by 50-75% in the first 10 years after the peak year and by 75-98% in 15 years. That would mean that demand for uncoated woodfree in Western Europe would be only 2.3-4.7 million tonnes by 2014 (from a current estimate of 7.1 million tonnes) and only 187,000 tonnes to 2.3 million tonnes by 2019. Coated mechanical paper demand should drop to 144,000 tonnes to 1.8 million tonnes by 2022.” Source: RISI

Is this where Tasmania’s future lies? 

The current land grab for plantations may be a rerun of the 19th century land grab for pastoralism in some respects, such as concentrating landed wealth into the hands of a few, and pushing workers and small farmers to the margins, but wool was a valuable export which generated wealth, not like the virtually valueless monocultural tree plantations for a pulp industry which has no sustainable future.

The only people who have any credibility in the debate are those who have the vision to see beyond the short-term, not those who are seeking to knock over the obstacles to a massive pulp mill which is guaranteed to lock up much more land for plantations to produce a product of inevitably declining value into the future, let alone an endemic and persistent toxicity in the landscape. 

Geoffrey Cousins may be thanked effusively by those who run Tasmania in favour of the interests of capital for clarifying his position that a large scale pulp mill would be welcome if it met Sodra’s joint venture conditions.  At least it clears the decks to distinguish between those whose vision about Tasmania’s future is tied to the short term, to the narrow electoral cycle and to propping up decaying and dying industries for political reasons, and those who try to take a longer view.

Here is another thing for those who would welcome Gunns meeting Sodra’s requirements, including both environmental activists and some community organisations.  Sodra is not going to object to a mill in the Tamar Valley if it meets State and federal conditions under current legislation.  Which it does.  And those who think they are going to stop a Tamar Valley pulp mill by endorsing its construction elsewhere in Tasmania will now be challenged with one obvious fact if and when all the other objections are overcome: - the irrefutable issue of human health. 

Muriel Barbery, in her wonderful little book The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2008), warns that “If you forget the future, you lose the present”. 

Whatever conditions are met to get “a good clean mill” there is no way to get “good clean feedstock”, so all roads will then lead to Tasmania as Plantation Isle well into the future, a future where these roads are destined to go nowhere.  They are all roads to ruin.

They are roads to ruin extending beyond the crassly material profiteering into the realm of Tasmanian society’s health.

What does Tasmania’s future look like when Tasmania’s political classes continue to turn their backs on serious health concerns, when they ridicule legitimate evidence linking human and animal health issues and toxic water, all because they do not want to disturb the cosy relationship they have with corporate power, and they are more interested in personal careerism than the responsibilities of political representation of people?  As Jim Cox suggested, their collective attitude to the public interest is summed up succinctly in the phrase “I don’t give a stuff”.

Finally, if the Greens, The Wilderness Society-Our Common Ground, Environment Tasmania and others who have been negotiating with Sodra now refuse to abandon their support for a large pulp mill being built anywhere in Tasmania at all, they will show to the Tasmanian public that they too are not concerned about the future direction of Tasmania, for there is no future in Tasmania as the Plantation Isle.

The Greens, The Wilderness Society-Our Common Ground and others should now be telling Sodra and any other potential joint venture partner that a plantation-based pulp mill anywhere in Tasmania is a threat to the health and welfare of the Tasmanian people, both now and into the future.

Now is not the time to forget the future.