I’D LIKE TO explore how federal Labor’s self-positioning will be affected by the ongoing battle that many Tasmanians are fighting to have their views heard on the pulp mill issue, indeed to be represented at all by their ‘paid representatives’.

Here’s a view of the forestry industry as it exists in Tasmania today.

“The logging industry in Tasmania is a self-policing, self-regulating monopsony (monopoly buyer) (1) that profits from removal of public resources but is exempt from resource, planning and accountability laws that apply to everyone else, thereby helping them to dominate any competition for scarce resources. This same industry sits on panels that control the use of those resources, gets control of land ‘in perpetuity’, hears and judges public cases against itself, and has enormous impacts on water supplies but is unaccountable for them.

The industry currently costs the public an average of $280 million per year (Tas) in mixed subsidies, cost relief and exclusions, but only returns some $70 million as profits to it’s shareholders (2). Their activities include clear felling Tasmania’s forests, napalming and poisoning wildlife, releasing large amounts of carbon, converting scarce food producing land to trees, contaminating water supplies and increasing road risks.

In Tasmania, the logging industry is effectively a law unto itself.

The industry’s activities are now set to be massively expanded following the approval of a ‘world scale’ pulp mill in a process that excluded public inputs. New requirements, such as water, are also to be subsidised, raising the total recurrent costs to around $350 million each year, and placing other industries that rely on the same resources (land, fresh water, forests and sea) into unknown jeopardy. The actual ‘approval’ process used did not assess the socio-economic impacts of the proposal, instead a pulp mill supplier, associated with the project (Sweco Pic), was paid to ‘approve’ the mill” (3).

This is pretty scary stuff and it’s hardly surprising that severe problems have developed between the forestry industry and everyone else who relies on the same resources that forestry activities impact.

The most alarming oversight has been the sheer quantity of impacts left from State government consideration while Paul Lennon diverted taxpayer’s funds to market the proposal. All opposing or differing views were ignored and the proponent, Gunns, was the sole group charged with identifying adverse community impacts. As you’d expect, they chose to ignore many of the mill’s impacts (e.g. by declaring them irrelevant) and the government placidly accepted their IIS as definitive.

In Oct/Nov 2006, RPDC consultants CSIRO, Beca Amec and Uniquest described the IIS as variously ‘overly simplistic’ and ‘severely flawed’ that failed to deal with health, odour and pollution risks (4). At about the same time log trucks were reported to be unstable and Tasmania’s roads too narrow for their safe operation. Shortly thereafter 2 RPDC commissioners were induced to resign by the government. Gunns then refused to supply requested information to the RPDC after Justice Wright was made Commissioner. After being told by the Premier’s Dept of a withheld RPDC letter telling Gunns that their proposal was ‘critically non-compliant’ (e.g. for the reasons mentioned earlier by consultants), Gunns ‘withdrew’ from the process. This was facilitated by the Premier who created a truncated process (apparently with Gunns help) that eliminated any much feared public hearings.

Both major political parties, at State and Federal levels, supported the proposal before it had been evaluated (I believe this was a critical mistake). Although state Liberals and Labor had stated they’d support a mill conditional on it meeting the Guidelines, the government and opposition approved the mill even though it had failed to meet 8-13 of the Guidelines (Sweco & Martin/Miotti) and despite massive community opposition.

The problem with all of this was that large numbers of impacts were left from everyone’s consideration. They were neither named, studied nor discussed, yet they represented over 70% of all of the probable impacts on Tasmania. It is this omission that presents massive risks to everyone, not least Gunns and the federal government.

For tiresomely predictable reasons, the entire episode was marred by the artificial division of Green/conservationist vs pro development/jobs as if this was the full spectrum of issues. Perhaps as a consequence, politicians came to believe that once the federal government approved the proposal (i.e. Malcolm’s credibility hari kiri), the issue was settled.
Sadly, that view won’t work for the tens of thousands who will be impacted in their homes, workplaces, lifestyles and futures.

Where Rudd comes in

With a sigh of relief in November, we changed our federal government and sent John Howard a message that he couldn’t spin out of. PM Kevin Rudd rocketed in to present his clean and clever image of a focussed Mr No-nonsense. He defined 10 key issues facing the nation, 7 of which were:

• Future directions for the economy
• Population, sustainability, climate change, water
• Rural industries and communities
• National health strategy
• Families, communities and social inclusion
• Democracy, open government…citizens’ rights and responsibilities
• Future security and prosperity

Unfortunately for him, the items excluded from consideration all have severe negative impacts on every single one of those 7 issues, either directly (e.g. the impact of clear felling and burning on climate), or indirectly by transferring monies from essential services (e.g. health & education) into the pulp mill. They also impact on Australia’s strategic capacities. It’s clear that if rain patterns continue to be disrupted, Australia should protect its food production capabilities instead of delivering them to forestry ‘in perpetuity’ courtesy of tax incentives. Who knows where, when and how much the next rains will bring? We can neither move or eat trees but we can move our food crops!

The problem for Rudd, is that neither he, nor his Cabinet, nor his politicians, is aware of any of this (5). They don’t know about impacts on agriculture, about the insane levels of subsidy or indeed about any of the non-environmental impacts (2). They just hope that Paul Lennon has been telling them the truth (!). That’s the trouble with leaving things out of consideration holus bolus, you end up not knowing what you’re doing.

Let’s check the list

Social inclusion? The continued isolation of huge numbers of Tasmanians from any form of representation in this matter still stands as a testament against Rudd’s claims of social inclusion – in fact the entire mess looks more like ritual exclusion.

Climate change?  Anyone with a brain can tell that cutting down our forests to create pulp, and burning the residues in a power station, is going to release massive amounts of sequestered carbon. How will that help? Deforestation has been identified as a major problem everywhere except Tasmania, where we’re forced to subsidise it.

Health? Not only have doctors and professional engineers stated that the mill is a threat to the health of Tamar residents, but our hospitals are being chronically under funded while hundreds of millions of dollars are going to help forestry – new highways, new railways, cheap water and so on. Pollution of rural water supplies with biocides used by forestry is another health threat amplified by this proposal (6). If Mr. Rudd wants a national health strategy, one important initiative could be to stop poisoning taxpayers!  Continued support for this mill will imply that Rudd is prepared to force taxpayers to subsidise more threats to their own health.

Rural industries & communities? The detrimental impacts of tree plantations on rural communities have been remarked upon extensively, while conflicted forestry spokes creatures claim we’ll all be better off with a mantra of ‘what’s good for forestry is good for Tasmania’. As rural incomes fall, and tourists go where they can still see the scenery and not be threatened by hurtling log trucks, so rural industries start to pack up and leave. Water catchments dry up as plantations suck up any water available. Rudd will have a hard time explaining how he’s helping rural industries and communities in that environment. 

Future security and prosperity? This proposal looks like it will cost taxpayers some $350 million per year, each and every year for decades. If things go as many experts forecast, and similar to other pulp mills around the world, total costs including opportunity costs, could balloon to over $15 billion in the first 2 decades of operation alone! How does that connect to future security and prosperity? How does losing most of Tasmania’s food production capacities enhance security in any way?

Sustainability? Water? Democracy? Open government? I’ll leave you to figure these out as I’m sure you can by now.

The long and short of this is that if federal Labor continues to commit to this project it could brand them as hypocrites forever, and set those in the community who suffer adverse effects against Labor for a very long time.

Of course, the state Labor governments have their own agendas and are likely to act to sideline Rudd wherever his ideas are a threat to them. In this case that means pretending that there are no other serious impacts, that a bonanza of benefits is all that we’ll see, that farmers shouldn’t be allowed to live on their own land and that trees are an agricultural crop (i.e. PAL Act).

Overall, the big problem for the federal Labor party is that this project exposes them in ways that are pretty much indefensible. The community is clearly coming from the high moral ground when they demand representation, inclusion in planning, pure drinking water and support for food producers. The government only has the support of the forestry industry as its higher purpose. Tough to defend I’d say.

On the media front, the mill proposal threatens the lives of tens of thousands of Tasmanians in their very homes! This is not some remote wilderness, it’s a battle about people’s livelihoods and futures.

It’s ‘The Castle’ writ large. (7)

There is no regulatory control against offensive mill odours that can hang in the air for weeks (8). If that happens in the Tamar as independent experts have forecast, people aren’t going to forget the role that Labor played in their misery.

It is, and always has been, a serious mistake to underestimate the problems from continuing to ignore the socio economic impacts of a proposal of this magnitude.
Now, it is the ignoring itself that has become the defining issue.

One thing is for sure, mill proponents aren’t going to want to give up the gravy train easily so whatever happens, it’ll be interesting.

Which is it to be for Australia - Labor run on Rudd’s principles or dump those principles and cosy up to corporate mates?

Watch this space.

(1) Forest actuary’s report to the RPDC http://www.justice.tas.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0004/69214/114_Naomi_Edwards.pdf
(2) Tasmanian Times readers and journalists total for logging subsidies http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/mill-doing-the-sums/
(3) Sweco Pic Oy report Page 12 shows missing considerations http://www.justice.tas.gov.au/justice/pulpmillassessment/sweco_pic_report
(4) http://www.rpdc.tas.gov.au/poss/pulp/whatsnew
(5) http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/rudds-blinded-by-minders-go-james-go-james-you-little-rippa-xxx/
(6) http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/forest-practices-and-water-quality/
(7) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118826/
(8) No requirement to act to eliminate odours see D.5.15 http://www.rpdc.tas.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0016/66310/Final_Report_Vol2.pdf

Mike Bolan

Mike is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator and executive and management coach.


Mike Bolan

Overall, the big problem for the Federal Labor party is that this project exposes them in ways that are pretty much indefensible. The community is clearly coming from the high moral ground when they demand representation, inclusion in planning, pure drinking water and support for food producers. The government only has the support of the forestry industry as its higher purpose. Tough to defend I’d say.

On the media front, the mill proposal threatens the lives of tens of thousands of Tasmanians in their very homes! This is not some remote wilderness, it’s a battle about people’s livelihoods and futures.

It’s ‘The Castle’ writ large.