Image for Holding up Gunns through secret deals

Gunns, once the billion dollar super company of Tasmania, is today on its knees and needing its pulp mill — a project now seven years old and still without finance — to simply stay in existence. Its share price is abysmal and it reportedly owes millions to its principal supplier of trees, Forestry Tasmania.

Ironically, to get a funding partner that will help finance the mill Gunns now desperately needs the support of conservationists — the much-vaunted social licence.

Last year, with their markets collapsing and their industry in crisis, the Tasmanian forest industry sued for peace with the conservationists and began talks about getting out of native forest logging. Gunns pulp mill was never meant to be part of these discussions.

But the worst kept secret of recent months is that Gunns sought to play those negotiating on behalf of the environment movement like a cat with a mouse. Bill Kelty — recently appointed by the Federal government to facilitate these talks — has finally made the secret deal the conservationists were offered public and explicit.

The deal is staggering: in return for the ending of native forest logging environmentalists must support the pulp mill. Or put another way, no pulp mill, no ending of old growth logging. By publicly putting a gun to the head of environmental groups, Kelty is revealed as a fixer for the problems of Gunns rather than of Tasmania, going so far as meeting with potential joint venture partners for the Gunns mill.

Gunns and those around it had believed that some environmental concessions would see opposition to the mill largely disappear. But after seven long years, that opposition is stronger, larger and angrier than ever. The threats of mass civil disobedience are real, and Tasmanian police have already made preparations for a Franklin River campaign level of mass arrests should the mill commence construction.

When a few weeks ago word of the possible deal began to leak out, it became clear that this deal could not be stitched up privately. In going public with what is a threat, Kelty would seem to have been forced by the clear anger within Tasmania generally at the revived prospect of the Gunns pulp mill.

For in Tasmania loathing of Gunns is deep seated and widely held, and there is little support for either Gunns pulp mill or old growth logging. That loathing is closely entwined with the contempt they feel for the Tasmanian Labor government, which shares similar popularity ratings with the NSW Labor government.

In its various incarnations over the last 12 years, it has always given the appearance of a government that understood its principal role as a government to bankroll, support and run protection for Gunns, no matter what the cost to the Tasmanian people. The dying former premier Jim Bacon rang anti-mill opponent Peter Cundall in the last weeks of his life to tell him that the forestry lobby had simply been too strong for him to oppose.

Bill Kelty has covered himself in ignominy by doing what Tasmanians now understand to be the only purpose of Labor apparatchiks in Tasmania: to keep propping up a company for which not even the markets now have any use.

Was Bill Kelty appointed by the Federal government to help Tasmanians out of the decades long conflict over the forests, or to perpetuate it by breathing life back into the dying monster of the pulp mill?

What made him think his brief extended to talking to prospective joint venture partners to Gunns?

What was he seeking from these companies?

Why is he proposing what would appear to be another fast track assessment of the mill?

What is the amount of subsidy and support taxpayers will be expected to dole out yet again to Gunns after the hundreds of millions they have already rorted, and is he seeking to gain a consensus of support for these? Or was he assuring the joint venture partners he would deliver the necessary social contract by forcing the issue with a devil’s choice for the conservationists?

Whatever the answers to the questions, Kelty’s is a shameful position that perpetuates so much that is so wrong in Tasmanian public life.

Like other exotic species before him, he appears to have been felled by the island’s chainsaw Camorra. For as well as being duped by Gunns, Kelty would appear to have been dudded by the Tasmanian government. Kelty has failed to get any commitment from the Tasmanian government to do anything to halt the logging of high conservation value forests, nor any sign of them doing anything to achieve that end in the future. As you read this, high conservation value forests in iconic areas continue being clearfelled and the annual autumn napalming has begun.

New Tasmanian premier Lara Giddings made the most concise, if Marie Antoinette-ish, statement of the government’s position last month, when she declared that before the GFC the Gunns pulp mill was the icing on the cake, whereas now it was the whole cake.

If it is, it’s one now all over Bill Kelty’s face.

Was his role to help reform the industry here, or merely to keep the old rackets running? Because the old racket, and the corruption of public life that flowed from it, have to end if Tasmania is ever to move forward.

While in Tasmania, Kelty is said to have been fond of recounting, parable like, an anecdote about Teddy Kennedy on his deathbed regretting not cutting a compromise deal on medical insurance in the 1970s.

That’s an American story, which admittedly seems in vogue with national Labor figures at the moment.

Here’s an Australian story.

In the late 1970s, the then Tasmanian Labor government, faced with growing opposition to its plan to dam the Franklin River, offered Tasmanians a referendum in which they could choose either a dam on the Franklin River or a dam on the nearby Gordon River.

The conservationist response, No Dams, shaped not only the triangle designed to house the slogan but the future of politics in Australia. It helped bring Labor to federal power in 1983 and the Accord of which Bill Kelty is rightly so proud.

Sometimes a deal is not the best option. Sometimes no deal at all is the realistic choice. And sometimes that leads to a better world. Who knows what regrets Bill Kelty might have on his deathbed?

Richard Flanagan’s most recent novel is Wanting.

First published on The Drum Unleashed: HERE

First published on TT: 2011-03-26 02:15 PM