ON APRIL 29, 2008 the ‘Healthy Democracy’ public meeting was held in the Tamar Valley. This meeting followed on from a similar meeting in Hobart a week prior.
The Tuesday evening meeting held at Riverside’s Tailrace centre attracted an incredible 700 people. Organisers asked the Tailrace centre to put out all available seats - 640. All seats were taken with more people standing around the room against the walls. The start was delayed by 20 minutes because the centre’s car parking had filled and people were forced to park down the road and walk up to the centre.
The Tamar Valley is anti-pulp mill heartland - a ‘place’ where the majority of residents although united in their opposition to the private Gunns Pulp Mill project feel deeply that they have abandoned by their elected representatives in favour of one corporation’s interests. The overwhelming majority of people in this region if not opposed to a pulp mill per se, are convinced that the assessment process was corrupted by an axis of pro-pulp mill stakeholders led by the Premier, the corporation and aided by meek and aquiescent Liberal opposition. Many locals will tell you that they believe that Gunns has too much power in the state of Tasmania, the Premier is a mate and this is what enabled the pulp mill its approval.
When a public meeting on the issue of corruption is held in the the Tamar Valley then it is highly likely that the pulp mill issue is going to take front and centre. That this should come as a surprise to people including the leader of the opposition perhaps betrays a disconnection to the ongoing painful journey of the Tamar Valley community.
The role that the pulp mill issue has had in highlighting the need for an anti-corruption watchdog in Tasmania cannot be understated.
In terms of the connection between the pulp mill issue and calls for an ICAC, the Tasmanian government’s conduct and assessment of the private Gunns pulp mill proposal has in the last few years, more than any other issue, become the catalyst for the tarnishing of Tasmania’s reputation in the eyes of the nation, the widespread decline in local support for an “on the nose” Premier - Paul Lennon, and of course the wave of community unrest and escalating calls for an anti-corruption watchdog in Tasmania.
Since December 2006 Tasmania began to wake up - via, the embarrassing resignations of Julian Green and Dr. Warwick Raverty, to the ugly behind the scenes government fiddling, interference and heavy handedness of the Lennon and Gordon led pro pulp mill-axis camp into a statuatory RPDC P&A process which had been sold to the community as independent, democratic and free of interference.
Tasmanians smelt a rat.
Most Tasmanians and an even higher percentage of Tamar Valley locals believe the behaviour of Gunns and the Tasmanian government throughout this process was neither fair, independent, or free of interference.
As Dr. Warwick Raverty stated in his article “Jumping The Gunns”: “Gunns unilaterally withdrew from the RPDC assessment process in March 2007. Rather than rejecting the proposal at this point, the Tasmanian Government invited Gunns’s lawyers to assist in drafting legislation for a ‘fast-track approval process’ that failed to assess many of the important factors, bad smells among them, associated with kraft mills. Overnight, the Tasmanian Parliament became the State’s peak planning authority.
Deeply suspicious of this peculiar Government-Gunns relationship, the majority of Tasmanians who had been happy became very unhappy”
It is very important to acknowledge that the inappropriately labelled “green front group’ attending the April 29th public meeting have in relation to the Pulp Mill Assessment (PMA) faithfully and diligently registered their voices in every poll, submission, petition, rally, email, phone call, conversation, meeting, and political briefing available to them. They have poured themselves out in the vain hope that the corporation and the government might recognise and perhaps respect the community’s overwhelming lack of consent to host one of the largest heavy industrial projects in the southern hemisphere ... a project that the community will have to live with for the term of their natural lives ... even if it falters.
Yet despite the support of a majority of the local and national community (according to almost the entire body of polling on the issue - and record turnouts in public demonstrations) and a sympathetic national media, the Tamar Valley communities’ concerns have been glossed over, and in many cases ignored - at times cruelly mocked and vilified by elected representatives on both sides of politics. Described as Nimbys locals have effectively been told to support the project or shut up. “The police will deal with you if you attempt to obstruct the progress of Gunns pulp mill”.
Again Dr Warwick Raverty once stated “shoe-horning one of the biggest pulp mills in the world, to be operated by the least experienced pulp mill operator in the world who doesn’t know pine from eucalypt, into one of the most prosperous and densely populated valleys in Tasmania without an adequate assessment is NO WAY TO MANAGE RISK”.
It would seem that the Tamar Valley community by highlighting percieved risks and in wanting to create and direct its own future has deeply offended the Lennon Labor Government much like former PLP member and current MLC Terry Martin did when he dissented from the government line and for this has incurred the disapproval, suspicion and a long time diplomatic boycott by the PLP. Many people in the Tamar Valley community believe they have been all but excised in the minds of the majority of parliamentarians from any notion of what constitutes the mainstream Tasmanian community. “Politicians don’t come here and talk to us anymore,” they say. “If they do they won’t talk about the pulp mill. Just look at Jodie Campbell and Dick Adams”
Indeed, one of most injurious and unpardonable acts of government has been their unwillingness to face the people of the Tamar Valley (except for Bell Bay residents) and their apparent indifference towards the community’s painful and frustrating journey - the many serious and ongoing issues confronting residents and business people in a post pulp mill Tamar Valley. The community’s reaction to this has been a measure of their courage and strength. Whilst rejected by the polity the Tamar Valley community has refused to be shut out of the pulp mill debate and moved quickly to regain control over the enormously impacting imposition the axis of government and corporation is attempting to impose on their “place”.
Locals have given up their spare time, money and in some cases their jobs to fight for the future of their community. They have become practiced in attending public meetings and rallies. Petitioning in the streets and lobbying via the print and electronic media has become routine. Last year an unprecedented 10-12,000 locals marched through Launceston against the pulp mill. Launceston will probably never ever see a protest march of this size again.
And so it was that speakers at Tuesday’s public meeting were faced with a gathering of broken and hurting Tamar Valley locals.
This was the context, the mood, the audience that the previously absent Deputy Liberal Leader Jeremy Rockliff faced on April 29 2008.
What did Rockliff and other critics of this meeting expect from this community? Politeness?
Many observers believe that the Tasmanian Government (and opposition) would not be dealing with a community revolt and cries for ICACs if, at the outset of the RPDC pulp mill assessment process, they had gone to their employers - the Tasmanian electors - with the two options of Hampshire and Longreach.
The Premier being the assertive and decisive leader he is could have chosen to advocate very strongly and to facilitate a way that the proponent comply with the community’s choice.
The Premier could have insisted that Gunns comply with and complete the Statutory RPDC pulp mill assessment process, because as he well knew, withdrawal by the proponent did not (under the act) bring the RPDC assessment to an end. At the end of that process prior to the commission handing down its decision, the government could have gone back to the Tasmanian community with a second referendum asking if they approved of the project as it stood.
The results of these two special referendums for a project that the Government has described as a ‘once in a generation opportunity’ could and should have played an important role in the overall assessment particularly ensuring that the if the project were to go ahead it would be seen as a legitimate and democratic development. A development welcomed and supported by the local community like other successful industrial developments around the world. It would have mitigated community backlash and negated the need for Gunns to spend an inordinate sum on propoganda and more importantly served the same purpose for the stewards of the people’s taxes.
That it seems naieve and even fantastic to contemplate that government would make advocacy on behalf of local communities a priority when planning and assessing large private projects, is surely a sad indictment on Paul Lennon’s brand of democracy.
History will surely show that the Gunns Tamar Valley pulp mill project warranted a referendum. It is after all the single largest, most expensive, socially, environmentally and economically impacting infrastructure in the state’s history. Like its parent, the Tasmanian logging and woodchip industry it effects are far reaching impacting on air, local water, forests, roads, food production, real estate prices etc etc and therefore local communities. It must be remembered, and at times beacuse of the inappropriately closeness to the project of the Lennon led government it has been easy to forget, that the Gunns pulp mill is a development proposed by a private corporation and is in fact not essential infrastructure like a taxpayer funded hospital, educational facility or power generating plant. How much more important then that the elected representatives in government sought the community’s consent before allowing such a significant private project to be imposed upon them? The great failing and shame of the Lennon government was that it was exposed as never having a sincere interest in seeking a social licence from the community. “We havent seen him in years” say locals. “And we dont expect to.”
Indeed neither the Government, Liberal opposition, Forest industry or the Proponent ever conducted (or at least not released the results of) a single poll on the pulp mill issue let alone contemplate or support the idea of a democratic referendum. Sadly it would seem that the reason these democratic instruments have been avoided is because this axis camp of pulp mill supporters knew that the results would not have suited their agendas. Tasmanians suspect that this pathological aversion to project opposition is why the pulp mill project was pulled from the RPDC by Gunns and the Premier. Not getting this pulp mill approved was seen as a bitter defeat (partly attributable to the Greens) that the axis camp were not prepared to swallow. So instead the Tasmanian government and the proponent’s approach to community consulation was to embark on an expensive program of taxpayer funded propoganda.
This has proven to be a disaster.
I don’t believe it is in the nature of Australians to be polite when they smell bullshit. And let’s face it, at Tuesday night’s meeting in the Tamar Valley Jeremy Rockliff didn’t deal well with the predictable bollocking he received. In his first meeting with this community Rockliff actually yelled at the audience with real venom as they cried foul over his support for Paul Lennon and John Gay’s pulp mill ruse and Rockliff’s irreconcilable politically opportunist calls for an anti-corruption watchdog.
As Rockliff stood and berated the audience like John Howard did the Aboriginal community a few years back, I wondered whether Rockliff like many of his parliamentary compatriots had been building up animosity towards this anti-pulp mill community for some time. Rockliff’s opinion in regards to the pulp mill seemed to reflect a long held view propogated by a minority of powerfully bound and well-connected Tasmanian business and poitical mates that Tasmanian communities like the Tamar Valley should be grateful that corporations like Gunns are willing to allow them to host their big heavy industrial projects.
This is a line of thinking that has prevailed amongst Tasmanias business and political elite for a long time in the State of Tasmania.
No doubt the Liberal party complained to Tasmanians for a Healthy Democracy (THD) about the criticism and intense questioning of Jeremy Rockliff at the April 29 meeting. However, whilst it is useful for THD to retain the patronage of Liberal Party it would be a mistake if this new group attempted to protect the Parliamenatry Liberals from the inevitable community backlash they are likely to encounter along the way for their sin of neglecting to make any substantial contribution to Tasmanian democracy during this latest term in opposition. In particular, in the matter of the Gunns Pulp Mill. As chief reporter for the Mercury Sue Neales argued last year:
“The role of the Liberals has been under fire this year in particular because of their utter acquiescence and silence on one of the most divisive issues to rip Tasmania apart in years—the ongoing pulp mill controversy. It is an issue that has dominated local politics in 2007, just as the Bryan Green and Tasmanian Compliance Corporation scandal did in 2006. It has resonated not just within the sandstone walls of Hobart’s Parliament House, but out in the wider Tasmanian community”.
If THD is to be more than a Hobart based operation then it must continue to go out into Tasmanian communities, particularly those who have felt the wrong end of the Premier’s style of democracy. In taking its forums to these communities, THD and its speakers must especially in the context of a movement that is calling for a better democracy, facilitate open and uncensored forums. It must not shy away from these disaffected communities and the hot potato issues for fear of a backlash from the fragile egos of any of Tasmania’s business and political elite who may patronise THD public meetings. THD is in a strong position in that the Liberals cannot afford to pass up the opportunity to hitch itself to the vote-winning anti-Lennon/Labor mood that permeates this current anti-corruption, pro-democracy movement.
What the Liberals do need to understand however is that the political party of the people - the Tasmanian community - are not in this campaign to win votes. They merely want an anti-corruption watchdog that has the powers to investigate crime and corruption in Government - and that includes if neccessary, Jeremy Rockliff and Will Hodgman’s Parliamentary Liberals.
Continuing to participate in THD’s public forums might prove to be a rocky road for the Liberal Party in that they may have to face similar audiences to that of the Tamar valley community on April 29, but if they keep fronting up they will inevitably win back some points and perhaps some lost votes foir having the courage to face the community.
Rick Pilkington would like to say thank you to the organisers of the April 29 Public meeting who he knows extended Mr Rockliff the utmost respect. He wishes to salute his community - his friends for the restraint they exercised on the night and congratulate those tired beaten-down souls who had the courage to take up the microphone and once again martyr themsleves in public. Well done. I see your pain. I feel your pain. You are my heroes and my friends and we will stand together all the way until we are free of the great hoodwinking of Tasmania that is the Gunns Tamar Valley Pulp Mill.
I don’t believe it is in the nature of Australians to be polite when they smell bullshit. And let’s face it, at Tuesday night’s meeting in the Tamar Valley Jeremy Rockliff didn’t deal well with the predictable bollocking he received. In his first meeting with this community Rockliff actually yelled at the audience with real venom as they cried foul over his support for Paul Lennon and John Gay’s pulp mill ruse and Rockliff’s irreconcilable politically opportunist calls for an anti-corruption watchdog. As Rockliff stood and berated the audience like John Howard did the Aboriginal community a few years back, I wondered whether Rockliff like many of his parliamentary compatriots had been building up animosity towards this anti-pulp mill community for some time. Rockliff’s opinion in regards to the pulp mill seemed to reflect a long held view propogated by a minority of powerfully bound and well-connected Tasmanian business and poitical mates that Tasmanian communities like the Tamar Valley should be grateful that corporations like Gunns are willing to allow them to host their big heavy industrial projects. This is a line of thinking that has prevailed amongst Tasmanias business and political elite for a long time in the State of Tasmania.