Image for Tasmanian Election 2010:  The Main Issue

As the blue-grey smoke silted the air-shed of the Tamar valley, and of the north east and of the north west regions of Tasmania on Wednesday 17 March, and the smell of the napalm-induced hot furnace sterilization Forestry Tasmania burns of the day before joined forces in the atmosphere with private industry burns (and perhaps with the product of a divine wind from Victoria), invading and permeating everyone’s nasal passages and lungs, the symbolic contempt it carried with it was almost palpable.

Look at the sky and see the power, suck in the contaminated air produced for us, and feel deep within our bodies what can be done according to the laws of the land written by a legislature mandated at election after election by us.  A set of laws in the interests of corporate wealth, which we elect governments in Tasmania to enact.  The law of our land, ceding control of our land for mere profit accrued in the hands of a few.  The laws of our land making us extraneous to our laws, and making the permanent transformation of our land part and parcel of that. 

So, one day out from the Tasmanian election, are we willing to accept that what we now see with our eyes in the atmosphere, what we smell and breathe right now, define for us our future?  Can we abide this as Tasmania’s future direction? 

That should be the main issue of this election campaign. 

Does Tasmania’s future direction lie in having an annual woodchip harvest of up to 7 million tonnes annually from a combination of native forest clear felling and huge monocultural plantations across the landscape, spread throughout the major water catchments, along the banks and hinterlands of our main rivers and streams, and taking over rich tracts of agricultural land wherever you care to go?   

That should be the main issue of this election campaign, because all the associated issues of what that means for Tasmania’s future direction impinge on every other possible alternative, in social, environmental and economic terms.  And in terms of our fundamental legal and democratic rights.

The only reason that it is not the main issue of the campaign is because both the Labor and Liberal parties and their lapdog local media ciphers are all so closely wedded to the capital interest. 

Large scale burn-offs in trashed forestry coupes will always give the lie to any pretence of concern with matters health within the ranks of the Labor-Liberal accord. This, together with the breaking story of Gunns’ own internal conflicts, ensures now that the main issue about Tasmania’s future is at the forefront of the election campaign, where it should be.

The Tasmanian election campaign should never have been about a contest to buy votes with vauous promises which will never come to fruition. Tasmania’s future direction cannot be defined by narrowly truncated silos of competing interests, each promised heaps of cash, separated from each other for the purposes of social division and regional differentiation.  Nor can it be defined by unintegrated single policy splurges in education, health and infrastructure (like a sports-centred high school, for ridiculous’ sake). 

As (HERE and Bob Burton, HERE)Bob Burton has explained so clearly and articulately in one very important way, Tasmania’s future direction is now well and truly on the line.  Do we vote for a Tasmanian Detroit, where a single outmoded industry refused to reform, where its collective failure of corporate greed, insularity, exploitation and sheer stupidity (among other things), finally created a socio-economic wasteland of empty and deserted suburbs?

Or do we vote for a new direction while we still have time?

There is no particular difficulty in seeing the idiocy of Tasmania as “Plantation Isle”, or “Smoky Isle”, of a place which considers it acceptable to clear fell in its water catchments, firebomb them, spray them, silt and contaminate them, poison all the life, animal and plant, expand monocultural nitens plantations across hundreds of thousands of hectares.

This is the stuff of human stupidity to rival any other you might wish to name in the long saga of man’s propensity to wreck that which is most valuable to his survival.  In fact, worst than most, because most such calamities occurred in the context of ignorance of the lessons that might have been learned from the human experience in other places and other times.

But this issue extends further than the obvious one of how best to utilize our resources, and how best to ensure the holistic health of Tasmania’s future, both internally and in response to external and global influences and imperatives, including a rapidly changing industrial world.

It also extends to questions of law and justice.  The recent open letter of Pierre Slicer and 25 Tasmanian academics (HERE) dispassionately summarizes some of the main elements in the Tasmanian statute book which show how the law is bent against the interests of the people when it comes to the timber industry.  It reads like an inventory from a Third World country.

Just by coincidence, as if to remind us where we stand in relation to “the law”, Tony Fitzgerald has just reminded us that our “anachronistic, rudimentary political system” (he is writing of Australia, but Tasmania is worse) provides no safeguards, by way of constitutional protection, or human rights enactments, to invalidate statute laws “if they are contrary to the public interest or unjust”.

Some time ago, when the ramifications of the Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007 (PMAA) were becoming understood in relation to depriving people of their rights under common law, I used a quote from a public speech given by Julian Burnside to highlight the issue in an article about the unjust nature of section 11 of the PMAA - “When law and justice part company, we are betrayed; when Parliament makes unjust laws, we are betrayed; when justice is promised but is placed beyond reach, democracy fails.”

This is just as applicable now to the current state of affairs in Tasmania, as it was when the PMAA was enacted nearly three years ago.  Perhaps more so, because in the intervening period many Tasmanians have acquired much more information about Tasmanian forestry practices, about aerial spraying of plantations, about the dangers of using triazines, about the permanent damage to the health of water catchments and degradation of essential water supplies, and most recently, the likely toxicity of large-scale nitens plantations.

There are now many laws in Tasmania which have been designed to ensure that justice will be denied to people if their health and their well being is adversely affected by corporate activity.  Section 11 of the PMAA is just the most notorious and best known.     

While section 11 of the PMAA still remains a graphic demonstration of the truth of Burnside’s comment that “the time has passed when we could safely assume that parliament would never pass laws which offend decent values”, there is no doubt that local communities across Tasmania, from Upper Blessington to Preolenna, and from Pyengana to Bruny Island, are being denied “right or justice” by interlocking government policies, without any hope of compensation for loss, while the largest process of land enclosure in Tasmania’s history proceeds unabated, under the auspices of enabling legislation, such the PAL policy, and MIS schemes.

In late 2007 the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute recommended that Tasmania should have a charter of rights to protect the community when law and justice parted company.  Some of the rights the Institute specifically recommended were -

“The right to equality before the law and to equal protection of the law;
Freedom from discrimination;
The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health;
The right not to be deprived of property except on just terms;
The right to a safe environment and the protection of the environment from pollution and ecological degradation.”

All of these rights should fall within the umbrella of natural justice, or be accessible through the courts under common law, but in Tasmania they have been systematically abrogated by statute law.  We are now at the point where “the rule of law” excludes these rights, and where these rights are beyond our reach.

When the Tasmanian Law Reform Commission presented its report to the Tasmanian government nearly three years ago, there was some hope that its recommendations would be implemented.  In retrospect, that hope now seems rather silly, a kind of absurd flirt with fantasy.

Even so, Tasmanians do have an unusual opportunity on Saturday.  It is not often that a community has the chance, through the ballot box, to shift a political axis in a way which could be very important in shaping the overall health of its holistic future. 

Usually, societies facing the forces of change are persuaded by those in power to resist any encroachments on the status quo by appealing to all kinds of conformist attitudes about “stability”.  Most significant change in human history has not occurred through incrementalism, but by sharp and disastrous shocks imposed rather than controlled.

As already mentioned, you don’t have to be a genius to understand that Tasmania’s current direction is not sustainable, but is required to change, either by decisions made by Tasmanians themselves or by shocks imposed from elsewhere.

How Tasmanians vote on Saturday will determine, in part, how the changes occur, through the shock of the new, with commensurate Detroit-like wreckage in its wake, or by ways and means controlled to some extent by Tasmanians themselves.

The main issue in this election campaign may remain hidden in the half-light by the Labor-Liberal accord, and may be ignored by the electorate, but it won’t go away.  Its social, environmental, economic, legal and democratic manifestations can either be confronted or ignored, but they clothe the very lineaments of our collective future lives in Tasmania.

That is the nature of the main issue, and that, irrevocably, is how our future and our legacy will be determined and defined.  It is that simple.