Whatever our sense of place in relation to attachment to home, locale, and community – something which at one and the same time is a lived reality, and is also part of life’s journey from the past, often going back several generations, and therefore carrying with it a heap of emotional responses and personal and shared memories – we should take some time to consider how that is going to play out for us into the future if we continue with the current system of government and governance we have in Tasmania.

In a general sense we are being progressively disenfranchised from “our place”, our island home.  As Sue Neales makes clear in her op-ed piece (Mercury, 11/4/09), the Harriss report lays bare the blatant politicization of the bureaucracy.  It is systemic.  It’s most obvious manifestation until last week was the 2007 Pulp Mill Assessment Act, but that is about to be rivaled, if not superseded, by changes to the planning laws.

The “consultation draft” has been very carefully prepared to ensure that proposed changes to existing laws and regulations relating to land use are not made public.  The bureaucracy and those consulted behind closed doors in the drafting stages (presumably corporate legal watchdogs) have gone to great pains to ensure that there can be no hindrances to projects of regional significance (PORS) by petty vexatious matters like cost-benefit analyses or base-line studies.

Whoever thought of the idea of PORS have no doubt been backslapped and congratulated on numerous occasions in the corridors of power about their creative genius.  They’re sure to go far in the bureaucratic solution-seeking halls where the ponderables of keeping the internal networks of power and influence in control of public resources are the only game in town.

The Tasmanian Planning Commission (TPC) will include senior bureaucrats.  The TPC will appoint a one-off Development Assessment Panel (DAP) for each PORS.  The chair of each DAP will be appointed by the TPC.  This process guarantees the DAPs will be political appointments, because senior government bureaucrats who will control the TPC are now thoroughly politicized, with a well-practiced agenda that does not need to fit with any notion of “public service”.

DAPs have no requirement to make cost-benefit analyses, base-line studies, or put in place any other safeguards.  The proponent prepares the IS (just like Gunns for the pulp mill).  Very convenient for them, but there is nothing mentioned about the public interest in the process to be followed by DAPs.

Each DAP will formulate assessment guidelines for an impact statement (IS) by a PORS proponent, then seek State agency and public comment and “hold hearings”, before making a draft decision for the Minister. In this process public input will be cast aside by the way the assessment guidelines are arbitrarily designed, which is clearly the intention. The Minister can then “request” changes before the final decision is made, only open to appeal on a matter of law to the Supreme Court.  “Public comment” should be viewed in the same context as appeal to the Supreme Court.  A joke, you might say, but this is no joke.  This is real. 

Ministerial call-in powers provide an additional safeguard against errant councils (such as where a council acts as a developer or owns land affected).  These powers are clearly designed to prevent a recurrence of the problem created by the West Tamar Council preventing Gunns gaining control of the land from Trevallyn Lake to the Tamar River for its water pipeline for the pulp mill.  The “minister’s opinion” is the defining criterion for a call-in, and, as mentioned before, the DAP dealing with the project will be independent only in so far as it cannot contain TPC agency commissioners, but these bureaucrats will have the key say in the composition of the “expert panel”.

Under PORS the question arises about compulsory acquisition of land, as it applies under the current RPDC regime.  This is particularly pertinent in relation to the refusal of landowners on the east Tamar Valley to sell their land to Gunns for the water pipeline to the mill.

It seems transparent, surely, that this new planning legislation is designed to overcome the problems facing Gunns in relation to water supply for the mill.  Even if you are inclined to reject such an interpretation, it is nevertheless true that once they have that problem resolved, the only obstacles remaining are meeting the conditions put in place by the federal government in relation to effluent.

To be sure, the legislation is also clearly linked to the pork of piping water from the north west to the midlands, and no doubt to other matters (forestry and plantations), but the pulp mill is front and centre.  It should not be ignored that this legislation is to be fast-tracked, on similar spurious grounds to the fast-tracking of the PMAA in 2007, linking its “necessary haste” to funding guidelines. This is totally and completely lacking in credibility.

The rumours about Gunns having now obtained a joint-venture partner may or may not be true, but cannot be discounted.  It certainly makes more sense that this legislation is being fast-tracked in Gunns’ interests than any other interpretation, in the sense that the joint venture might be conditional on the certainty of water availability.  Another real possibility is that Gunns is interested in selling the project, as Maryvale has been recently (to Japanese interests).  Solving the water issue would be essential for that to occur, whether now or in the future. 

Although mills are closing all over the globe, and newspapers are shifting quite quickly from paper to digital, that is not necessarily a factor in this case.  Tasmania is politically safe (best place in the world to grow opium), politically compliant to corporate power, politically complacent about the use of large publicly-funded subsidies for corporations, and not particularly interested in preserving jobs, or creating new and more diversified industries outside the old quarry and clearfell industrial mentality.  Both major political parties in Tasmania are also inextricably entwined with vested corporate and union interests in forestry, whatever the cost to every other social, environmental and economic consideration.

These things could be of some attraction to China, in particular, especially under the arrangements which now exist between Gunns and the State about wood supply, and also water supply when the legislative frame is put in place.  In a very weird sense Gunns is closer to a Chinese government corporation than the overwhelming majority of Australian businesses, because its funding arrangements are so closely linked to the public purse, both directly and indirectly. 

But who knows apart from Gunns and a few other powerbrokers across the Labor-Liberal accord and the bureaucracy is anyone’s guess.  Bartlett’s “line in the sand” and promise to “clean up the mess” were quickly squashed after being told what to do if he wants to keep hold of the strings of hubris and ego. After all “I” is his favourite pronoun.  The bottom line in whatever is going on is well-planned, and attempts to guarantee fat cheques to a favoured few.

It’s also well worth bearing in mind (as if you didn’t already know)  that water and forestry policy in Tasmania is driven by purely political considerations – by which I mean considerations that have nothing to do with “essential public services”, but everything to do with personal careers in both politics and the bureaucracy and corporate connections. 

The consternation at the prospect of the Coal River Craigmore dam fiasco becoming a strategic political issue in 2009 and 2010 is small beer compared with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of hectares of monocultural plantations becoming Easter Island stone statues or Egyptian pyramids, in gross testament to the folly, warped ideas and greed of political and bureaucratic “elites” and their absurd, massive single-interest “development” corporate alliances and fantasies. 

Whoever thought up the plan to pipe water to the midlands is just as sure of a nice smooth ride onto the next rung of the fat cat ladder – wherever they are in the hierarchy - just like those who dreamt up the exquisite sophistry and simplicity of PORS.  Kills two birds with the one stone, so to speak.  In this day and age when rainfall in Tasmania is declining in the northern catchments, but when plantations in those areas are more needy than anything or anyone else, by definition and by policy, (and when the Tamar River and its two Esk tributaries are overdue for reclassification as something other than rivers in the normally accepted definition of the word, and when ways and means must be found to provide 40 gigalitres every year for Gunns), to pipe water from the north west under a range of interlocking PORS schemes (in the event that the Meander scheme proves inadequate), it is just a fantastic solution.  Votes in Lyons and clean water for Gunns.   

PORS is a gem really.  Bureaucracy at its best, especially if you have any pretensions to notions of place as important aspects of how a democracy should work in the interests of the social-environmental-economic interconnections.  Basic stuff really.  But as Bob McMahon indicated in his must - read piece about Celco and the Valdivian pulp mill, if we can’t see something’s wrong until we see swans falling out of the sky ….

In that case, my guess is that we’ll be quite happy to allow Gunns to take 40 gigalitres of water every year, just as long as we can buy drinking water in the supermarket, and are able to use atrazine contaminated supplies from the catchments for washing.  Forget gardening.  You’ll need a water tank for that, the bigger the better.  Best to buy from the local MIS farm. 

The point is that it is not possible to divorce our sense of place and belonging, our attachments developed through our own efforts or generational connections, both physical and emotional, to a locale, or a home, from our sense of place in the Tasmanian polity.

To allow ourselves to be voiceless, powerless and subservient in our own polity is to disenfranchise ourselves in any say about what happens to “our place”, which in the end is an abdication of responsibility to ourselves and our right to belong, but also an abdication of responsibility to others in neighbouring places, and to the future of those who are now children or yet unborn. 

Do we have the luxury of complacency and apathy into the indefinite future, whatever is legislated, irrespective of how we are disturbed that it poses a real risk, a real threat to our capacity to have a place, and to foster connections and care for our place?

To allow our rights to be stripped away before our eyes is to betray our past, our present and our future.  If you think your home is your castle, think again.  We are already being told what our place is in the Tasmanian polity by the clear felling in water catchments, by the aerial spraying of triazines in water catchments, by the wrecking of our water supplies.  The proposed changes to the planning legislation are now telling us more loudly what our place is in the scheme of things.

It is telling us, more stridently than ever before, that we, the people are in the way of the use of our basic resources, our water, our landscapes, the very air we breathe, for the interests of a few.

Is Tasmania “our place” or is it the place we are abandoning?  Are we able to call places in Tasmania “our places”, whether collectively or individually, or are we to be voiceless as they are taken from us? 

Peter Henning

Peter Henning
NOW that we have the interim report ( Harriss report: What the report says ) of the Legislative Council Select Committee into events surrounding the “shreddergate affair”, and we also have the so-called “consultation draft” of proposed changes to the planning laws, we all know well and truly “our place” in the scheme of things.