NOW THAT the Mercury has run with the Bass Strait pipeline story ( Here ), first released by this writer on Tasmanian Times last week ( Here ), there needs to be a wider public debate about the whole issue.  This is too important for that not to take place.

Much of the discussion must focus squarely on the highly flawed decision-making processes of the Tasmanian Government, because the current processes inherently stultify clear policy formulation and strategic planning, inevitably produce community distrust and social division, and most important of all, take little or no account of the public interest. 

This applies to all areas of State Government responsibility, bar none.  Whether it be in health, education, infrastructure, housing, tourism, transport or something else, the Government is always caught out, in paralysis under the spotlight, with nowhere to turn.

This is why, as I predicted when I wrote about some details of the proposal for a Bass Strait pipeline last week (after Ken Davidson of The Age had revealed serious negotiations were occurring between a consortium and the Bartlett Government ( Here ), there has been an instant negative response within Tasmania. 

It is why, at a time when official reports show that poor quality drinking water is now the norm in a significant number of Tasmanian towns, notably in the north-east, the Huon Valley, the Fingal Valley, the Meander Valley and elsewhere, such as Lilydale, Poatina, Gretna and Flinders Island, the notion that large volumes of pristine water, unavailable to the Tasmanian public, would be piped across Bass Strait, is likely to be greeted with public incredulity, derision and cynicism.

In a water policy vacuum, the black humour of Tasmanian towns on permanent boil water alerts while 350 gigalitres flows from Turners Beach to Victoria, is likely to resonate with even the most apathetic of Tasmanians, that broad section of the Launceston community who sit idly by as their own long-term water supply is gradually but increasingly contaminated, and as Gunns tries to negotiate an agreement with Tamar Valley farmers that will see at least 26 gigalitres pumped from Launceston’s main water storage for a pulp mill.

That is obviously one reason why David Bartlett’s office belatedly released a statement, over Water Minister David Llewellyn’s signature, dated July 8, one day after Ken Davidson’s article in The Age, saying that the “first priority will always be to ensure that Tasmania’s water needs are met – both now and in the future”.

It is very difficult to take Llewellyn’s statement seriously.  In the first place, the State Labor Government has had a decade in office and has watched from the sidelines as more and more evidence of contaminated and poisoned water infiltrating communities’ water systems has accumulated.

The current Government has always been, and still is, more interested in giving water away in important catchments in the interests of intensive forestry operations than in trying to ensure clean water for people.  The obvious question that needs an answer in relation to those towns in the north east and elsewhere in the State whose water supplies have been unsafe without boiling is this: to what extent is poor water quality attributable to current forestry practices, such as clearfelling and the use of herbicides and pesticides?  Anecdotal evidence is widespread and independent scientific and medical evidence is compelling.

Secondly, in a very immediate context, there is the amazing situation of Gunns offering East Tamar farmers access to cheap irrigation water if they will sign up to easements for the pulp mill’s pipeline through their property, while the Tasmanian Government looks on.  In other words, are we to believe that the 72 million litres per day that has already been allocated for the pulp mill from Trevallyn dam is only part of the story?  How much more can Gunns take, on the basis of their private arrangements with East Tamar landowners, to sell on for irrigation?

Is this what David Llewellyn means by a “first priority”?  The Minister for Water clearly has some explaining to do.  How much water will Gunns be able to take?  As much as is needed for the pulp mill and any other purpose the company decides?  The Minister needs to explain how it is that Gunns can offer water “at cost” to third parties taken from a public resource facility.

All this is indicative of a most glaring problem.  The problem, as I stated it at the outset, while not new, should be of major concern to all Tasmanians, because it relates to how policy is made in Tasmania, and how it is implemented, a modus operandi which became deeply entrenched under Paul Lennon’s stewardship.  But what David Llewellyn said in his July 8 statement shows that the Government has learned nothing from the scandal-ridden Lennon years.  Llewellyn said this:

“Several proponents have publicly raised the possibility of commercial arrangements for the import of bulk water supplies from Tasmania. To date, none of these proponents has advanced investigation to a point that would warrant the Government’s formal consideration. Such discussions as have occurred with Hydro Tasmania have been based on very early investigations of feasibility.  There is certainly no concrete proposal before Government. Before we would be prepared to even consider any such proposal, we would need to be convinced that the quantity of water to be taken would not adversely impact on the long-term water needs of Tasmanians or the aquatic environment.”

A cursory examination of this statement indicates the Government’s view of strategic policy creation.  It relies on external proposals, sometimes sought (as in the Hobart wharf development issue), but at other times initiated elsewhere, and always beyond public view. Whatever the case, policy frameworks and processes are so loose, or absent, that proponents’ proposals become the strategy and the policy.  This is a recipe for disaster, as has been seen with the pulp mill proposal and with the Brooke Street wharf issue, because such decision-making processes exclude public participation and discount the public interest.

In relation to the Bass Strait pipeline proposal, the fundamental starting point for such negotiations should be a water policy framework which requires that proponents’ proposals meet the parameters of the policy, rather than negotiations framed around a consortium’s or corporation’s own plans. 

The policy should drive the outcome, not the other way around.  If the basis of water policy is water security into the future for Tasmania, and there are potential long-term benefits for the State in a scheme which exports water as part of a broader plan to save the Murray system, the Government should be driving the search for commercial proposals which incorporate plans for “drought-proofing” other parts of the State.

It is one thing for the Government to say that it will only look at proposals which would be of “significant economic benefit to the Tasmanian community”, but it is a completely different strategic approach to actively seek out proposals which could assist is developing the strength and long-term stability of Tasmania’s food-producing future and provision of clean drinking water, while at the same time contributing to a broader water plan involving Victoria and South Australia.

Llewellyn’s statement reflects policy inertia, a paralysis of vision.  In essence it is failure of leadership, a purely reactive management approach to government and governance, with no notion of how to set a policy framework and explain it to the people.

So David Llewellyn finds it frustrating that Ken Davidson has claimed serious negotiations are occurring.  But it is significantly more frustrating - in fact grotesquely and ironically so - that he and his cabinet colleagues have not found an opportunity to say, openly and with a deliberate attempt to take the Tasmanian people with them, that the Government is actively and purposefully investigating the feasibility of cooperating with the South Australian Government ( that would seem the most useful initial avenue) and a cashed-up private consortium to help save the Murray, and provide long-term water security for regional Tasmania.

It is indeed unfortunate that the consortium has not included a proposal that would supply water to other parts of Tasmania, but in the context of the way that the Tasmanian Government is seen to form policy, why would they?

The other issue is forestry.  From one perspective, the prospect of clean water being exported from Tasmania at a price which brings significant cash flows into the Tasmanian economy far beyond anything that intensive forestry can ever hope to generate, exposes even more dramatically the deleterious effects of clear felling in water catchments and the use of chemicals in mono-cultural replacement plantations.

Herein lies another dilemma for the Tasmanian Government and in particular for the Minister for Primary Industries and Water.  At the end of the financial year 2007-8 MIS schemes in agriculture were closed off.  No more tax-free benefits for investors in Timbercorp olives and Gunns Tamar Ridge wines.  To the chagrin of these corporations, even with their massive and disproportionate advantages of scale, independent and quality-committed smaller food producers’ market niches are now more likely to survive.

But as pristine water becomes a more highly valuable commodity, in effect a strategic resource in the Tasmanian economy - and increasingly so with time –  and MIS plantation schemes remain as the single option for tax-free investment, what does that mean for the future of Tasmania as a food-producing bowl?

This is where the current model of strategic policy formulation in Tasmania faces its most crucial test, and potentially its most disastrous outcomes, outcomes of dimensions which could make or break the future economic and social future of Tasmania.  As in water policy, so too in agriculture and associated food industries - no clarity of policy, no clarity of vision, public uncertainty and cynicism.

Given the entrenched cultural corporate influence in policy formulation and implementation, and the weird bipartisan agreement that policy is best left that way, it is time that Tasmanians - however apathetic and complacent they might be - started to think about the future for the sake of their children and grandchildren.

Tasmanians have shown, in relation to the pulp mill, and now in relation to the Brooke Street wharf farce, that they can demand better outcomes, and that they can demand government and corporate accountability in the public interest.

But the crises won’t go away until Tasmanian political leadership has the perception and the will to break the fundamentally flawed decision-making processes which are miring all our futures.

The indications are that most Tasmanian politicians are so inured to the prevailing culture, so glued to their comfort zones, that they simply don’t understand anything else.  That is not good news for Tasmania.

So where do we go from here in relation to water policy?  It is a matter of crucial importance. It demands to be more than just a question that irks the Minister for Water, and which prompts inane political opportunism from the Liberal Opposition.

Peter Henning

Peter Henning

It is why, at a time when official reports show that poor quality drinking water is now the norm in a significant number of Tasmanian towns, notably in the north-east, the Huon Valley, the Fingal Valley, the Meander Valley and elsewhere, such as Lilydale, Poatina, Gretna and Flinders Island, the notion that large volumes of pristine water, unavailable to the Tasmanian public, would be piped across Bass Strait, is likely to be greeted with public incredulity, derision and cynicism. In a water policy vacuum, the black humour of Tasmanian towns on permanent boil water alerts while 350 gigalitres flows from Turners Beach to Victoria, is likely to resonate with even the most apathetic of Tasmanians, that broad section of the Launceston community who sit idly by as their own long-term water supply is gradually but increasingly contaminated, and as Gunns tries to negotiate an agreement with Tamar Valley farmers that will see at least 26 gigalitres pumped from Launceston’s main water storage for a pulp mill.