HOW TO TELL the federal government that 50,000 or more of their constituents are having a serious problem?

It is becoming increasingly apparent that there is a severe flaw in the Federal/State project review structure that, coupled with flaws in the standards required of government, can put much of a population at risk and affect Australia’s strategic flexibility.

The flaws allow massive socio-economic impacts to go unnoticed, allow a subsidised industry to dominate state planning decisions, and allow particular projects to be approved with the government remaining institutionally ignorant of the risks. One result is that flows of public money are diverted from critical uses such as hospitals/schools and into favoured industries even though returns from that source are significantly less than the supposed investment.

The pulp mill proposal has been evaluated federally on environmental grounds, but none of the impacts on other areas (health, food production, tourism etc.) were evaluated at all by anyone at the federal level. This happened apparently because only the federal environment portfolio requires the Minister to act, there is no requirement for anyone else to review the impacts.

Now, if one writes to one of the other Ministers about significant potential pulp mill impacts in their portfolio, the letter is forwarded to the environment Minister by federal bureaucrats and minders. In this way, the elected representatives remain ignorant of the full spectrum of impacts from such proposals.

Taxpayer protection and inclusion? Not with a system like this!

With this method, a project with a mixed set of impacts that cross multiple portfolios may be assessed by only one portfolio while all other impacts are institutionally ignored. Anyone who tries to raise the alert is diverted to Mr Garrett, who cannot help because the issue raised is not in his portfolio.

It seems that the mill has become Garrett’s own personal tar baby along with the dredging Port Phillip Bay and something about plastic bags - his reward for ignoring our needs and not visiting the impacted sites or communities.

In Tasmania, LGA rules about personal disclosure by Council Aldermen are not enforced, so councils can provide no guarantee that decisions are not influenced by Alderman with a conflict of interest.

It seems that councils can be riddled with conflicts of interest so no-one can know whether planning and other decisions made are impartial. Consequently the many decisions made that blatantly favour forestry fuel a climate of suspicion about corruption and special deals.

To prepare for the RPDC process, the State Government conferred onto the proponent for the pulp mill (who has an obvious conflict of interest), the sole ability to define the impacts of their project on the community. The subsequent IIS missed, or minimised, most of those impacts (e.g. by declaring them irrelevant) and from that time anyone with concerns about the project has been effectively disenfranchised. Because the State government refused to conduct any impartial tests, and refused to assist taxpayers to prepare their case, the mill proposal was never properly tested. This leaves those whose voices were never heard, left unprotected to risks should any of their concerns eventuate.

The forestry industry itself has many planning exemptions already, they have relief from many laws, land use granted in perpetuity and is self-policing. The public has no recourse when forestry actions disadvantage them, except to appeal to boards and tribunals controlled by forestry. As a consequence, it’s hardly surprising that people are deeply suspicious!

It’s literally one law for forestry, a totally different set of laws for everyone else.

Around $200 million per year is provided to forestry in mixed subsidies and cost relief by state and federal governments, yet only a profit of around $70 million is achieved. This is such a poor investment that people are rightly concerned about what influence the industry must wield in order to obtain those monies, particularly when critical services such as schools and health are suffering severe budget cuts. Small wonder that so many seek an independent inquiry into the entire relationship between the state government and the forestry industry.

The net result of these flaws is that the needs and views of tens of thousands of Tasmanians can be left from all consideration by government, while the economy and strategic position of Australia are placed at risk.

In the process, taxpayers are becoming cynical and disenchanted with the whole political system and have lost faith in those members of the political classes who won’t listen to them.

The situation now is that governments have no plan to mitigate any mill risks because they don’t know what they are, nor is there any mechanism to deal with the real concerns of the population. If past practice is anything to go by, attempts by the community to raise the alarm will all be sent to the environment Minister who will tell us that he’s done his best for the environment – end of story.

Where to from here

There’s a community based petition to the federal Senate (see above) that calls upon the federal government to break through its own bureaucracy and study the full spectrum of mill impacts.  We’re asking them to inform themselves.

If there could be deleterious impacts from a ‘world scale’ pulp mill managed by industrial novices upwind and close to a major population centre, then surely governments need to know what those impacts could be so that they can plan to deal with them effectively.

For example, nowhere in the review process were the impacts of chemical spills considered, yet many centres along the various transport routes could find themselves trying to deal with toxic or explosive situations for which they are not equipped or trained.

Alex Wadsley rightly pointed out that had the RPDC process been allowed to complete, then Gunns could have a mill right now, and public concern could have been put at rest from guarantees of appropriate safeguards which would also facilitate Gunns acquisition of finance.

Throwing out informed oversight is a dreadful idea when our industrial outputs can kill, maim and poison, particularly when large populations are involved and live in close proximity.

Our politicians cannot make valid decisions in a vacuum. If they are unaware of problems, then their decisions could easily cause needless harm.

If they are aware, then they can act accordingly.

If you care about the quality of governance in this country, I suggest that you sign the petition so that the federal government can be informed of potential problems and can thus plan to mitigate them. Better yet, print it off and get a whole load of your friends and acquaintances to sign them too.

Until the federal government wakes up and realises how its own systems are leaving our leaders blind to the needs of the electorate, we are all at risk.

Mike Bolan
http://www.abetteraustralia.com
Mike is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator and executive and management coach.

Mike Bolan

Around $200 million per year is provided to forestry in mixed subsidies and cost relief by state and federal governments, yet only a profit of around $70 million is achieved. This is such a poor investment that people are rightly concerned about what influence the industry must wield in order to obtain those monies, particularly when critical services such as schools and health are suffering severe budget cuts. Small wonder that so many seek an independent inquiry into the entire relationship between the state government and the forestry industry.

The net result of these flaws is that the needs and views of tens of thousands of Tasmanians can be left from all consideration by government, while the economy and strategic position of Australia are placed at risk.