The Prophecy Fulfilled
“I have no such intention, as Premier of Tasmania, of overriding the recommendations of the RPDC. To do so, in my opinion, would lead to a significant lessening of public confidence in the project and do irreparable damage to the RPDC. The RPDC has demonstrated itself able to sift out good projects from bad as it looks for these projects of major significance”. Paul Lennon, 24 March 2005
“Gunns CEO John Gay said that unless the mill was approved within 6 months the project would be axed”. The Mercury, 9 Jan 2007
Premier Lennon admits he is having the ability of the RPDC panel to continue “assessed” and is taking legal advice, refusing to rule out the need for a new approval process…he also sought to reassure Mr Gay that the Government would do all it could to make the process work for him.” Mr Gay said he was reassured by the Premier’s promise on Wednesday that he would be “working on the process to do his best to make sure the pulp mill is built”. The Gunns chief also said he would like it noted that it was Mr Lennon who had rushed to see him on Wednesday, and not the other way around. The Mercury, 12 January 2007
“It would be irresponsible of the Government not to keep available the full range of statutory powers open to it. This included the existing power to make different recommendations to the Governor and to Parliament than those contained in the RPDC’s own recommendations”. Paul Lennon, 31 January 2007
“Mr Speaker, the Pulp Mill Assessment Bill 2007 establishes a new assessment process for the project. It provides the proponent with the certainty it requires for an end date for the assessment, without compromising Tasmania’s rigorous environmental standards”. Paul Lennon, 22 March 2007
Within 24 hours of Gunns withdrawing its pulp mill plans from the Resource Planning & Development Commission (RPDC), Premier Paul Lennon took the unprecedented step of recalling the Tasmanian Parliament to announce that he would expedite the Gunns project via a special act of parliament. The first time any company had been afforded such a privilege since the Tasmanian Government established its independent statutory planning body.
The Premier’s speech to the lower house on March 15 2007 will be remembered as one of the most extraordinary in the parliament’s history.
Paul Lennon gushed about Gunns Pulp Mill project as if it were Government owned. The Premier argued that the future of a comparatively affluent Tasmania and the Gunns pulp mill were inextricably linked. Approving the mill was framed as the essential business of ‘responsible government’ - crucial to the island’s social and economic survival.
Far from the independent overseer they were promised, Tasmanians were confronted with a Premier whose personal interest in the pulp mill was bordering on the obsessive. Paul Lennon was now prepared to make Gunns Pulp Mill law and in doing so deliver Tasmanians from the ‘bondage of poverty’.
“2000 Tasmanian families would not have to worry about how they are going to pay the bills or afford to send their children to school or wonder where their next meal is coming from. 2000 Tasmanian’s who will not have to leave the state to find work. The benefits are also within our reach. The opportunity is there for us, but we cannot afford to let it slip” Premier Paul Lennon.
Conservation groups and the planning system itself were blamed for Gunns’ RPDC withdrawal. Gunns CEO John Gay had disendorsed Tasmania’s statutory planning scheme and Will Hodgman’s Liberals quickly fell into line behind the Premier and Gunns.
Singing from the same song sheet Will Hodgman, Paul Lennon and John Gay were adamant that Gunns were blameless. Gay, Tasmania’s most controversial CEO, regarded with suspicion and loathing in sections of the community, was framed by Liberal and Labor Parliamentarians as the victim of a fatally flawed planning system.
The entire Tasmanian parliament bar the Greens had turned on the planning scheme it had previously created, in favour of Gunns.
For many Tasmanians this was hard to stomach.
Apart from young Labor backbencher Lisa Singh, no Liberal or Labor politician would be seen criticising Gunns - in or outside the parliament.
Parliamentary Hansard shows the Greens and Independents willing to confront and question Gunns on the pulp mill issue but nothing resembling criticism can be found in statements made by Labor or Liberal politicians. This contradiction typified the serious breakdown in communication between the Tasmanian Government and the community and RPDC on the Gunns Pulp Mill.
Richard Herr offered this insight about the Government’s intervention “Parliament took the stance ‘if we shove the legislation through quickly no-one will notice’ … but the people did notice and will not forget”.
The Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007 is an extraordinary piece of legislation which Gunns’ lawyers helped to prepare. Neither Gunns nor the Tasmanian Government denies this. The Legislation has been criticised extensively in legal and academic circles for effectively bullet-proofing the pulp mill from legal appeal. Under the PMAA even bribery or other criminal conduct could not legally thwart the mill’s progress.
Upper House President Don Wing described Paul Lennon’s Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007, as “Gunns dream bill”.
The nation watched as the Tasmanian Premier engulfed himself in one of the most pervasive controversies in the state’s history. With public outrage growing, it seemed to many their worst fears about the close links between the Government and Gunns had been realised. Condemnation of the Premier came from across the political spectrum with widespread talk of corruption and calls for Mr Lennon’s resignation.
If the term ‘Gunnerment’ had not been entrenched in the local lexicon it was now.
Over the ensuing 12 months the print and electronic media turned the spotlight on the relationship between the Tasmanian Government and Gunns. From ABC’s ‘The Chaser’ to ‘The Australian’ newspaper to Channel Nine’s ‘60 Minutes’, media lined up to have their piece of the Tasmanian Premier.
Paul Lennon made great cannon fodder.
He never disappointed big city journos who came looking for a Premier who legend had it wasn’t afraid of shirt-fronting his political enemies. Paul Lennon had a hard earned reputation as a greenie-hater and prone to boorish and hot-headed behaviour.
60 Minutes reporter Liam Bartlett, a former ABC Perth breakfast presenter, went home understanding the anger of Lennon. When Bartlett confronted the Tasmanian Premier in Hobart, a visibly shaken and red-faced Lennon could barely restrain his anger. Viewers watching the 60 Minutes interview could have been forgiven for thinking they were about to see the Premier punch Bartlett.
“Look, I don’t think any of us need to put up with your rudeness, thank you…….I think you’re a very rude person” barked Lennon.
This was a bad look for the Tasmanian Premier on the national stage.
As the Pulp Mill controversy increasingly found its way into national and international headlines, outside observers continued to focus attention on the Tasmanian Government’s ‘special’ relationship with Gunns.
The national media grilled the Premier over many issues including why he had chosen the Gunns owned construction company Hinman, Wright and Manser to renovate his Broadmarsh mansion. Hinman, Wright and Manser are normally a civil construction company that focuses on large construction projects. A peculiar and controversial choice by the Premier. As the media’s interest intensified Mr Lennon denied getting mates’ rates for the renovations and was furious at what he argued was an attack on his family. A curious perspective from a hard nosed politician who had thrived on his reputation as a political head kicker.
Paul Lennon could not appreciate that having his house renovations done by Gunns whilst the same company was looking for Government approval for the pulp mill created the perception of mates looking after mates. The Premier even saw fit to parade the highly controversial mansion makeover in a pictorial spread in the Women’s Weekly magazine. The Premier’s response to his accusers “What, just because I’m the Premier doesn’t mean that I can’t do what other families do does it?”
This was neither the first nor last error of judgment from a Premier whose loyalty to the big Tasmanian logger was proving to be damaging.
Gunns Withdraws from RPDC
The controversy around the mill’s assessment had intensified in January 2007 with the resignations of RPDC Pulp Mill assessment panel chief Julian Green and national authority on Kraft Pulp Mills, Dr. Warwick Raverty.
The resignations would be followed by a series of bombshell revelations about the destabilising role of Paul Lennon’s Pulp Mill Task Force – a multi-million dollar tax payer funded ‘information’ unit curiously set up by the Premier to spruik the pulp mill, alongside the state’s independent planning process.
Raverty and Green blew the whistle on Gunns’ “critically non-compliant” pulp mill submission and the Premier’s bias and government’s deceit over the reasons for their resignations.
However it was Gunns’ withdrawal from the RPDC two months later (14 March 2007) which provided the fatal insult in terms of public support for the project and for the Premier.
Polls from this point on saw a complete U-turn in public opinion not only toward the pulp mill but also the Premier. Though Gunns threw large sums of money at advertising campaigns on TV and in a compliant Northern Tasmanian print media - in addition to the Lennon Government’s $300,000 of tax-payer funded TV advertising - large-scale opposition to the project remained. Paul Lennon opted for several makeovers accompanied by vows to renew and rededicate himself to Tasmania. However, neither Paul Lennon nor the Pulp Mill would recover the public’s confidence.
RPDC Pulp Mill scientist Dr Warwick Raverty would later write in an article for the New Matilda “deeply suspicious of this peculiar Government-Gunns relationship, the majority of Tasmanians who had been happy became very unhappy”.
Former Liberal Party candidate, Ben Quin quit the party over the pulp mill. Quin was censured by the Liberal Party for publicly questioning aspects of the approval of the pulp mill and was savaged by former Tasmanian Premier and Gunns’ board member Robin Gray who labelled Quin a “coward”.
“It is my opinion that the majority of Tasmanians believe that Mr. Lennon (and his closest confidents) did have advance knowledge of Gunns’ decision to withdraw and that the fast track approval was a pre-determined process. I was campaigning as a candidate for the Federal seat of Lyons as these events were taking place. I had discussions with thousands of people on this matter. From Queenstown to St Helens, from Port Arthur to Sheffield, from timber communities to latte communities, there was a consensus: the race was fixed” Ben Quin.
RPDC Resignations Damaging
If the public thought Gunns’ RPDC withdrawal was the end of the Pulp Mill controversies, worse was to come. The torrent of damaging revelations from the RPDC’s expert Pulp Mill assessment panel began to flow.
As internal correspondence from the RPDC’s pulp mill assessment panel leaked into the media it was revealed that Julian Green, the former assessment panel chief had said “the RPDC had bent over backwards to help Gunns” and that “it was only because Gunns were a Tasmanian company that the project had not been thrown out already” Julian Green 20 December 2006.
Dr Warwick Raverty said “I believe that the delays by Gunns up to 21 December 2006, the date of my resignation, were highly undesirable but the RPDC Panel could have managed them as long as Gunns had produced the missing information that the international peer reviewers requested in an easily digested form by the middle of January 2007. What I asked Gunns to produce and what Gunns promised to produce is recorded on page 14 of the official transcript of the Directions Hearing held on 25 October 2006 ... Now, as so many times with Gunns, what they promised on 25 October and what they published on their website on 14 March 2007 are poles apart. Rather than the succinct information that could be easily digested, what Gunns published after a delay of 3 months was, in my opinion, a 1200 page dog’s breakfast of poorly presented data and statutory declarations”.
The extent of the Government’s interference in the RPDC’s assessment process was becoming more apparent as was the enmity between the Premier and Julian Green’s esteemed panel of experts. According to Julian Green and Warwick Raverty, Pulp Mill Taskforce chief and current Managing Director of Forestry Tasmania, Bob Gordon, continued to ignore concerns that the independence and integrity of the RPDC’s assessment process was either being compromised or threatened by the Pulp Mill Task Force. The Hobart Mercury reported that Bob Gordon, had told Julian Green to “get lost” when Green complained about the taskforce’s aggressive promotion of the pulp mill.
A senior public servant told The Mercury that Bob Gordon warned Julian Green that any complaints he had about the taskforce’s actions would fall on deaf ears, since Premier Paul Lennon was one of his closest mates. “Go ahead” said Gordon of the Premier, “he’s my mate you know—he won’t do anything”.
It was also revealed that Julian Green, in a conversation with Dr. Raverty, had described Gunns as “a bunch of clowns” and that Green refused to meet the Premier before he left the RPDC because he was so infuriated by the Premier’s conduct that Green thought he “might punch him”.
Dr. Warwick Raverty would soon bear the brunt of a smear campaign led by the Government. Parliamentary Hansard (29 March 2007) reveals the Government leader of the upper house Doug Parkinson, who would also lead a public lynching of his former Labor colleague Terry Martin, using parliamentary privilege to describe Dr. Raverty “a clown” and “a rabbit”.
At one stage Parkinson offered this advice to a fellow MLC who was quoting Dr. Raverty: “I wouldn’t quote too much of his nonsense”.
Don Wing, the President of the Legislative Council countered “He (Raverty) has had vast experience and ignoring his views would be to the jeopardy of anybody who chooses to do so. If the Government chooses to do so, it is on their heads”.
Indeed Warwick Raverty, a good and decent man who had devoted his scientific career to conducting research aimed at assisting the pulp and paper industry to become truly sustainable, must have wished he’d never set foot in Tasmania. Warwick Raverty later stated that he would “welcome a criminal justice commission, or royal commission” and “was pretty sure that Julian Green would also”.
This was Paul Lennon’s ‘New Tasmania’ dominated by the powerfully bound and well connected mates and ageing silvertails from politics, industry and unions.
Lennon misleading over public hearings
Not long after Paul Lennon introduced the Pulp Mill Assessment Bill into the parliament another controversy erupted which legal experts argued could have seen the Premier facing a criminal sanction.
Once again it involved a member of the RPDC. This time it was former Supreme Court Judge Christopher Wright whom Lennon had appointed in February 2007 to replace Julian Green as the new Pulp Mill assessment panel’s chief.
Premier Lennon said of Justice Wright upon his appointment “Mr Wright is ideally qualified to oversee the pulp mill assessment process and is held in high esteem not only in legal circles but right across the Tasmanian community. The public can have the utmost confidence in his integrity”.
However in March 2007, Christopher Wright said that he almost resigned after a meeting on 27 February 2007 when Premier Lennon pressured him to drop further public hearings from the assessment process. Mr Wright said at the meeting that the Premier made a ”…completely inappropriate attempt to pressure him to fast-track the assessment of Gunns Ltd’s $2billion pulp mill project”.
The former supreme court judge said Mr Lennon gave him an‘ultimatum’ to scrap public hearings and agree to a new timeline concluding the assessment by 31 July 2007 or face legislation and ministerial directions to that end.
Christopher Wright stated “I don’t know if he was doing this off his own bat or acting as a messenger boy for Gunns, but there was never any doubt in my mind that he was a enthusiastic supporter of the whole process and that he was anxious throughout that a process acceptable to Gunns should be followed” … “It was as plain as the nose on my face”, Wright later said, “that he was trying to please Gunns”.
In an interview with the ABC radio’s Roisin McCann in March 2007, Christopher Wright repeated his claim that Premier Lennon pressured him to drop further public hearings from the RPDC’s assessment process. Just prior to the Wright interview Ms McCann interviewed Premier Lennon who gave a conflicting account of the Wright meeting stating that he did not ask Mr Wright to drop public hearings.
Christopher Wright would be vindicated when Jocelyn Nettlefold and Matt Denholm reported (in the ABC TV’s ‘7.30 Report’ on 21 March 2007 and The Australian Newspaper) that Paul Lennon confessed that he had indeed asked Justice Wright to drop public hearings at the February 27 meeting.
This from a Premier who once swore before the Parliament “my Government is committed to the people of Tasmania and to the Parliament of Tasmania having every opportunity to be engaged and to examine it (the Pulp Mill) in close detail. This will be a thorough approval process - a painstaking process. No stone will be left unturned, no voice will go unheard”.
On 22 March 2007 in unprecedented scenes Justice Wright called a press conference and released a statutory declaration and a copy of his resignation letter refuting the claims made by the Premier about the 27 February meeting. Christopher Wright did this in an attempt to show that it was he, and not the Tasmanian Premier who was telling the truth.
In an interview in the Australian newspaper the former Supreme Court Judge, described Paul Lennon and his version of events as ‘ridiculous’.
On the same day inside the Parliament the Premier seemed to have suddenly lost confidence in the ‘integrity’ of a man who a few weeks before he had showered with praise, saying “I hope Christopher Wright now explains why he could not shave any time off because that will be illuminating, quite frankly, now that he has entered the public debate”.
A legal opinion sought by The Greens from Prominent QC David Porter was released which argued that if Mr Wrights’ version of the February 27 meeting were accepted, a prima facie case existed that Premier Lennon may have breached the RPDC act - a Criminal offence.
With Lennon’s Labor colleague, Attorney General Steve Kons bizarrely dismissing the whole issue as “media spin” and refusing to refer the matter to the DPP, the Premier walked away from the incident without sanction. Steve Kons would soon be promoted to Deputy Premier after the demotion of the disgraced Bryan Green. However Kons would later be sacked from this office for lying to the Parliament.
The whole incident was enormously damaging for the Premier.
Mr Lennon’s public clash with the distinguished and long-serving former Supreme Court Judge over the Gunns Pulp Mill, further enhanced the public perception of Paul Lennon as subservient to John Gay.
That the Premier continued to disagree with Wright’s version of the February 27 meeting and that Tasmania’s chief law officer Steve Kons refused to refer the controversy to the DPP inferred that the former Supreme Court Judge was an unreliable witness. An appalling position for Mr Kons and Mr Lennon.
John Gay also publicly blamed the former judge for Gunns’ withdrawal from the RPDC, bizarrely citing Mr Wright’s “unrealistic legal approach” and “a lack of experience in planning and development as well as business” as reasons.
It seemed that everyone and everything was expendable for Gunns Pulp Mill Juggernaut.
Why withhold the letter?
What the Premier knew but failed to tell the Parliament or his own Cabinet upon introducing the new fast-track legislation into the lower house, was the Premier’s department’s knowledge that the RPDC had found serious deficiencies in Gunns’ project submission and that the Mill was unlikely to be approved.
The RPDC had indeed written to Gunns on 2 March 2007 warning them that the supplementary information the company had submitted was “critically deficient…constituting a major non-compliance”. The letter was to be sent to Gunns on 9 March 2007 but the Premier’s department intervened to stop the damning letter.
The existence of the letter was only made public on 13 June 2007; three months after the Parliament debated the new fast-track legislation.
The Premier had allowed the parliament to consider and vote on one of the most controversial and potentially important pieces of legislation in the state’s history without the highly admissible letter from the expert planning body which had overseen and assessed the pulp mill project for over 2 years.
Paul Lennon in fact swore that he had no knowledge of the RPDC letter until 23 March 2007.
However his former head of department Linda Hornsey who had intervened to stop the letter, contradicted this when she appeared before the Legislative Council Select Committee on Public Sector Executive Appointments in 2008. When asked by MLC Terry Martin “So it would be fair to assume that sometime before 16 March, a week before the Premier claims to have had any knowledge of this critical non-compliance, the Premier would have known about the RPDC draft letter to Gunns and that you had stopped it from being sent?”. Hornsey replied “It is a fair assumption, that is true”. Ms Hornsey also conceded that she “may have informed Premier Lennon as early as Friday 9 March of her discussions with Mr Cooper relating to the critical non-compliance letter”.
For critics the withholding of the RPDC letter was another Smoking Gun - further evidence of collusion between the Premier and Gunns … further evidence that their Premier was prepared to mislead Tasmanians.
The inconsistent public statements by Gunns, DPAC’s suppression of the damning RPDC letter and the Premier’s failure to pass the RPDC letter on to the parliament created more than a whiff of suspicion. Sceptics - and now there were many - argued that blocking the RPDC letter was meant to prevent Gunns appearing to have withdrawn from the RPDC because it knew it could never meet the ‘tough requirements’ of the RPDC assessment process.
Indeed, former Commissioner of the RPDC Simon Cooper swore before the Legislative Council Select Committee on public sector executive appointments “that holding off on sending the letter allowed Gunns to withdraw from the process without the deficiencies being highlighted.”
It was later revealed that Gunns had actually known by 8 March about the RPDC’s concerns. The secretary of DPAC Linda Hornsey had contacted Gunns and informed them. Curiously, after Gunns withdrew from the RPDC six days later, John Gay was reported in the media as saying Gunns had “heard nothing from the commission”.
Then on the same day (March 8) The Examiner reported John Gay saying the mill was “hanging on thin threads and it has all to do with negativity about the project; it has gone too far to redeem it”.
Yet one day later on March 9 Gunns told the ASX they were “confident the necessary approvals will be obtained within a timeframe which maintains the commercial value of the project”.
Five days later Gunns withdrew from the assessment process.
On the day Gunns announced its withdrawal from the RPDC John Gay presented the image of a CEO who had just sustained a major loss saying it was “a sad day for Gunns, sad day for Tasmania and it’s a sad day for all the forestry workers in Tasmania”.
However very few observers bought this.
Many questioned the credibility of the notion that John Gay would pull the pin on his life-long dream – a project Gunns had invested 30 million dollars in over four years, without the assurance of an alternative approvals process.
The Australian’s Matt Denholm: “were Gunns really willing to gamble a $2billion project on the chance that Lennon would come to the rescue? Was the need for haste a confection to hide the mill’s failings, which were known at the time by the RPDC, the government and Gunns, but not by the public or the parliament?” If Lennon did know of Gunns’ intention to quit the RPDC two days beforehand, what indication had he given to the company, if any, that he would respond by creating an alternative assessment process? Both he and Gunns deny any prearranged understanding”.
That Premier Lennon had contrived to give John Gay the watered-down assessment Gunns wanted was well and truly entrenched in the minds of Tasmanians.
In the space of a few months the likelihood of the pulp mill’s approval increased dramatically whilst public support for the project and the Premier rapidly disappeared.
The media and opposition parties were circling with repeated calls for the Premier to resign for misleading the parliament and the public.
Whilst the Premier had avoided a court of law he could not avoid the court of public opinion.
The events of 14 March 2007 had as the vanquisher of Wesley Vale, Christine Milne predicted, become the catalyst for a procession of government scandals which would lead to an irreconcilable breakdown in the relationship between the Tasmanian people and the Premier.
In an interview with Airlie Ward on ABC’s Stateline program in 2005 Christine Milne prophesised “I think the community will really respond to this because there’s been the big fight over the forests for the last decade. People want a resolution. They want the protection of native forests. They also want democracy…I now have exactly the same feeling about the Tasmanian community. I think this is the beginning of the end of the Lennon government. Gray was so arrogant he didn’t care about public opinion. Lennon’s government is so arrogant that they’re actually managing information, putting out this massive PR effort that everybody can see is complete schmaltz and PR, and I think we’ll see a reaction…”
More Money for Gunns?
In early 2008, a journalist asked Paul Lennon if the government was considering using tax-payer’s money to fund the Gunns Pulp Mill water and effluent pipeline. Mercury Journalist Sue Neales wrote “Premier Paul Lennon has confirmed he has asked Infrastructure Minister Steve Kons to investigate all ‘community benefits’ that would flow from state ownership of the mill’s water and effluent pipelines”.
The Premier had now admitted to actions that had previously been dismissed by his government as a ‘conspiracy theory’. Indeed, it would soon emerge that the Tasmanian Government in fact had a secret and well-advanced proposal for taxpayers to own and subsidise the pulp mill as well as “an explicit arrangement with Gunns to prevent the public release of information relating to the proposed taxpayer role and that a draft proposal was due to go to cabinet” (Matthew Denholm, The Australian, 2 May 2008).
Critics argued that Paul Lennon’s interest in ‘investing’ public money into Gunns’ water and effluent pipeline was another expression of his reckless obsession with seeing his pet project realised. The Lennon Government was accused of trying to help reduce the Pulp Mill’s capital costs, therefore enhancing Gunns’ prospects of gaining project finance as well as assisting Gunns by compulsory acquiring the elusive corridor of land for the pipeline from recalcitrant landowners.
Once again talkback radio and newspapers were swamped with outraged respondents.
Not long after, in April 2008 ‘Shredder-gate’ broke.
In August 2007 then Attorney-General Steve Kons had signed a Cabinet document recommending RPDC Chief Simon Cooper be made a magistrate. Cooper was never appointed after Mr Kons shredded the document after a phone call from The Premier’s Department Head Linda Hornsey.
Steve Kons who was now Deputy Premier stood before the parliament and denied ever having wanted to appoint Mr Cooper as a magistrate. However Greens Bass MHA Kim Booth produced a copy of the aforementioned document reconstructed from shreddings, containing Mr Kons’ signed approval and handwritten note.
The parliament erupted and both Steve Kons and Paul Lennon were left stunned.
Mr Kons’ illegal shredding of a signed Cabinet document became labelled ‘shredder gate’.
Deputy Premier Steve Kons was forced to resign as a minister for lying to parliament…the second Deputy Premier lost to a scandal during Paul Lennon’s rule.
On the back of the shredder-gate scandal Public anger was being harnessed and a new movement calling for an independent commission against corruption had spun into action. Landmark public meetings in Hobart and Launceston called for an anti-corruption watchdog to be established in Tasmania. The meeting in rural Launceston attracted 700 people on a cold mid-week night.
If there was any question about the primacy of Gunns pulp mill in public concerns about corruption, then the massive turn-out in the host town of the proposed mill dispelled that.
ANZ rejects the Mill and Lennon resigns
On 29 May 2008 the ‘Business Spectator’ reported that Gunns’ own bank - the ANZ declined funding for the Pulp Mill. This was a massive and embarrassing blow for Gunns.
Critics once again looked to the Tasmanian government and questioned why a banking corporation was more in step with the public and independent planning system than their Government was.
It was all too much for a government in crisis.
A little over a year after intervening to rescue the Gunns Pulp Mill and with an approval rating languishing at 17%, Paul Lennon resigned as the Premier of Tasmania.
Mr Lennon argued that it was his own decision to resign and that he wasn’t pushed despite the fact that it was later revealed that Federal Labor that commissioned the fatal opinion poll.
Legislative Council Committee Hears Evidence
One of the first acts of Lennon’s replacement, David Bartlett was to announce that there would be no more public money for the pulp mill. This statement was clearly in response to renewed public outrage triggered by the former Premier’s plans to use tax-payer dollars for Gunns pipeline.
David Bartlett also attempted to appease the public’s cries for an anti-corruption watchdog by announcing the formation of a parliamentary select committee into ethics. This would soon be followed by a Legislative Council’s Select Committee examining Public Sector Executive Appointments, which was set up in response to public outrage over the shredder-gate scandal.
Mike Hawkes, a former ministerial driver and confidant for then Deputy Premier Steve Kons, gave sworn evidence to the Legislative Council select committee that after a meeting with the Premier at Mr Lennon’s Broadmarsh home on February 4, Mr Kons told him “The pulp mill will be approved by the end of May 2007.”
However more damning evidence was to come in the surprising form of Labor friend and RPDC commissioner Simon Cooper. Under oath, Cooper refuted the former Premier’s claim of first knowing of Gunns’ decision to quit the RPDC on 14 March 2007. Cooper began by telling the Legislative Council committee that “based on his recollection and extensive notes taken at the time”, Paul Lennon did know prior to March 14 that Gunns were going to pull their project from the RPDC.
Mr Cooper told the committee in-camera. “He (Lennon) telephoned me on Monday, 12 March, and my note says ‘Gunns to pull the pin this Wednesday’”.
Simon Cooper told the committee that he was so concerned about contradicting Mr Lennon’s story that he asked for advice from DPP Tim Ellis SC, who advised him to “tell the truth”.
The final report by Legislative Council Select Committee on Public Sector Executive Appointments made damning findings against Mr Lennon and some senior bureaucrats. The committee found that Mr Lennon had given evidence “inconsistent with a number of witnesses” about whether he had inside knowledge ahead of Gunns quitting the planning system. The committee recommended parliamentary privileges determine whether Mr Lennon had committed contempt of parliament. It also recommended a judicial inquiry into the conduct of senior bureaucrats and referred evidence about Gunns’ conduct to market regulators.
Respected Tasmanian political scientist Richard Herr appeared before the parliamentary committee on executive appointments and ethics. Professor Herr, normally moderate in his public utterances, delivered a scathing assessment of the Tasmanian government’s handling of the pulp mill. An unusually animated and angry Professor Herr stared down members of the Ethics Committee including Liberal Jeremy Rockcliff and Labor Brenton Best saying he could not forgive the Parliament for the ‘poor professionalism’ it showed when dealing with the pulp mill.
Herr argued that the Tasmanian Parliament appeared to have acted on information that was probably misleading. Herr scolded the lobbyists who sold the parliament the idea of an urgent need for a decision on the mill arguing that they should now explain themselves to the parliament. Herr said the Parliament should demand answers as to whether it has been misled, by referring the issue to an inquiry by committee or by bringing key players, such as Lennon and Gay, before the bar of the House of Assembly to answer questions.
Professor Herr called for a commission of inquiry to investigate.
Questions to be Answered
The manipulation of the assessment process by the Lennon Government will be remembered as a low point for representative democracy in Tasmania. Corporate deference by government to the point of legislatively incorporating and bullet-proofing a private logging company’s project was uderstandably seen by the public as an abuse of power.
Terry Martin a member of the upper house crossed the floor to vote against the Government’s Pulp Mill Assessment Act (PMAA) and was subsequently expelled from the Parliamentary Labor Party.
“Ordinary Tasmanians who are not necessarily conservationists or for that matter, necessarily pro-development or anti-development, they are simply disgusted and appalled at what they see as this attack on democracy. This is what this bill means to these people. For many they believe there is a stench about this issue and irrespective of what the truth is and the varying accounts of events leading up to this bill, the reality is that there is an overwhelming perception, that has been created for many good ordinary Tasmanians, that something shonky has taken place”. Terry Martin, 29 March 2007
Tasmanians do deserve a thorough investigation into the Gunns Pulp Mill.
Questions need to be answered, as Professor Herr argued “to the satisfaction of the public, not to the convenience of the parties”. If the issue continues to be sidestepped and swept under the carpet, Tasmania will continue to pay the price. It will, as Dr Herr suggested “overhang the political process for a very long time”.
Questions for Gunns
On 14 March 2007 when Gunns withdrew from the RDPC assessment process it told the ASX “the indefinite timeline for the assessment and approvals process has placed the company in an untenable position. The lack of certainty over an end date for a final recommendation has imposed a significant impact on the financial risk of the project”.
Premier Paul Lennon echoed this line to the Tasmanian Parliament on March 21 saying “I want members of parliament and the general public of Tasmania to understand that the financial pressures on this project are considerable. They are real and cannot be ignored … the project itself was in grave danger of being lost to Tasmania, I believe, without even being assessed. A great tragedy would have befallen Tasmania had I not tried to do something about getting a defined time line”.
However at Gunns’ October 2008 AGM Mr Gay said “Gunns will wait as long as it takes to get the money it needs to build the mill”.
Again John Gay boasted in early 2009 that although “the global economic crisis had effectively put the proposal on hold indefinitely he would pursue the project - for as long as it takes”.
The Australian Newspaper’s Tasmanian correspondent Matt Denholm observed “Delays once claimed to be fatal and counted in days, now with federal and state approvals in the bag—were not such a problem”.
A seemingly callous attitude from a company who for six months in 2007 stood by and watched the Tasmanian parliament and government departments turned upside down to deliver them a friendly legislative framework and timely approval.
All based on a ruse?
Where to now?
Enough evidence exists for any reasonable observer to conclude that the former Premier, Paul Lennon and Gunns CEO John Gay misled Tasmanians.
The body of evidence put forward by journalists Matt Denholm, Sue Neales, the Tasmanian Greens, two parliamentary committees, eminent figures like Simon Cooper and Christopher Wright and Dr.Warwick Raverty is supportive of the wider community position as reflected in opinion polls since Gunns withdrew from the RPDC. That is that Gunns and the former Premier Lennon colluded and took advantage of the public’s trust and abused their own power and sphere of inflence to keep a pulp mill alive that was - in the words of RPDC body – “critically deficient…constituting a major non-compliance”.
Remember Julian Green’s view of the Gunns project back in December 2006 - “the RPDC had bent over backwards to help Gunns … it was only because Gunns were a Tasmanian company that the project had not been thrown out already”?
The testimonies of Mike Hawkes and Simon Cooper coupled with the Premier’s admission that he did ask Christopher Wright to remove public hearings, casts serious doubt over the credibility of Mr Lennon’s claims of having no prior knowledge of Gunns RPDC withdrawal.
When Matt Denholm put the question directly to the Premier in March 2008 two months prior to his resignation Mr Lennon dodged the question.
“I try to get Lennon to answer the big unanswered question: did he, at any time before Gunns withdrew from the RPDC process, discuss with the company an alternative fast-track process? In other words, was Gunns able to take the apparently high risk of withdrawing from the planning process because it had an understanding Lennon would fast-track the mill via a different route? Lennon avoids a direct answer, despite persistent questioning” Matt Denholm.
The evidence of Simon Cooper, Justice Wright, Mike Hawkes and Linda Hornsey all directly contradict claims made by the former Premier denying his prior knowledge of Gunns’ withdrawal from the RPDC and when Mr Lennon first knew of the RPDC’s damning letter to Gunns.
Each of the contradictions made by highly plausible witnesses are acutely damaging to Paul Lennon’s believability as a witness to the events in question.
In relation to Mr Lennon’s claim that he did not know about Gunns’ RPDC pull-out until 14 March 2007, the evidence of Simon Cooper is key. Cooper was Labor stock, a respected member of the Tasmanian legal fraternity with a reputation for integrity, professionalism and attention to detail. Cooper is a highly credible witness.
If the evidence of Cooper and Mike Hawkes is to be accepted (and there is no good reason to doubt it) then Premier Lennon - as most Tasmanians have long believed - knew in advance that Gunns would withdraw from the RPDC and was in fact preparing in advance to fast-track the pulp mill project through the parliament.
The Secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet Linda Hornsey was clear in her evidence to the Legislative Council’s Select Committee examining Public Sector Executive Appointments, about the details of preparations that were being made within DPAC prior to Gunns’ withdrawal from the RPDC.
That Gunns would not have at the very least understood Mr Lennon’s alleged intentions and co-operated is highly implausible.
That the Premier of Tasmania would risk his personal and political reputation and his party’s future in Government. That Mr Lennon would alienate a distinguished and long-serving former Supreme Court Judge and ostracise a highly respected member of the PLP – Terry Martin.
That the Liberal opposition would be so meek in their opposition and easily acquiesce to the Government line in the face of such highly suspicious circumstances and massive public outrage is a testament to the power and influence of the Gunns logging company in Tasmania.
Tasmanians were surely justified in wondering where private enterprise ended and representative government began. Today Gunns and the Tasmanian Government face an almost impossible task in winning back the trust of the Tasmanian people.
For the 100,000 people in the proposed mill’s host town – Launceston and the Tamar Valley, they are well justified in asking why they should trust Gunns and the Tasmanian Government to operate one of the largest Pulp and Chemical plants in the world in their hometown. Particularly when both Government and proponent clearly showed such wilful disregard and at times contempt for proper process and public opinion during the assessment.
The absolute determination of the Tasmanian Government to realise the Gunns Pulp Mill and the contempt Liberal and Labor politicians so often show towards opponents of the project is symptomatic of the culture of hatred and fear of Green party power in Tasmania. Tasmanians may wonder whether good planning and good governance was lost in renowned green-hater Paul Lennon’s determination not to be beaten by the Greens on a pet project. The frustration for many Tasmanians who have been deeply mistrustful of the mill project’s credentials is seeing the bitter division that has developed in the community and institutions like the RPDC and people like Dr. Raverty and Christopher Wright sacrificed because of Lennon’s war on the Tasmanian Greens.
The Legislative Council committee examining senior government appointments interim report recommended Paul Lennon, former Deputy Premier Steve Kons and two senior bureaucrats face a powerful Upper House privileges committee.
A decision on this has been delayed till early October.
However the case for a commission of inquiry into the Tasmanian Government’s involvement in the Gunns Pulp Mill is now also too compelling to ignore.
At the very least the Gunns Pulp Mill saga has highlighted the need for Tasmania to have an anti-corruption body.
Labor cast-out – now independent MLC Terry Martin - recently told the upper house “Madam President, I believe there is now so much doubt, so many unanswered questions about what transpired between those two dates (25 February and 14 March 2007) between Gunns and the Government that I really would think that the whole issue should be the subject of the first referral to the Tasmanian integrity commission when it gets up and running”.
It would be a safe bet that most Tasmanians would agree.
A pulp mill is a political process. Whatever the guidelines are, they’re subject to political change ... When North ran into a problem, they got Robin Gray to just bring a doubts removal bill into the parliament to give the company everything it wanted, and that is what John Gay will do with Robin Gray influencing Paul Lennon.
So, whatever the guidelines are, what will happen at the end of the day is that John Gay will say “jump” and Paul Lennon will say “how high” Senator Christine Milne - ABC Stateline on the future of the RPDC Gunns Pulp Mill assessment - February 2005