To achieve this, I’d like to restate the situation that began to occur with the pulp mill project, how we tried to understand its impacts on the population and why a different perspective is important.

The problems really started when the Lennon government authorised the project proponent, Gunns, to be the only agent officially reporting on the impacts of their own project.


When I first saw Gunns IIS, 7,000 pages of impenetrable, complex and poorly indexed material, I realised that there was no way that I could ‘analyse’ it short of taking several months to read it – time I did not have. Worse, there was nothing with which to compare Gunns claims.

The IIS was supposed to be an ‘impact statement’, that is it should have reported on all impacts, both positive and negative, of the proposal on the Tasmanian economy, its people and its environment. The RPDC role was to assess those impacts and try to determine whether they’d cause harm, require mitigation and so on, and decide what actions to take in respect of the project.

Unfortunately the IIS did not report on all impacts at all. It only reported positives – anything negative was either dismissed or reduced to nothing by the application of mysterious ‘formulae’ chosen by Gunns consultants.

To assess impacts we decided to visit as many potentially impacted groups as possible to discover, from them, what the full range of impacts of the project was likely to be.

During the course of that study, I listened to hundreds of people in Northern Tasmania, as well as listening to pulp mill experts and scientists explain more about pulp mills than I ever wanted to know. I met farmers, tourism operators, fishermen, tree changers, councillors and a host of other interested parties.

When the study was complete, my colleague captured the whole thing on one, large sheet of paper  to give us a map of how people saw the proposal.

No upside

As it turned out that most of the impacts were perceived as negative. Even occasional problems like animal deaths due to 1080 poisoning, were seen as negatives because rotting bodies foul the water for animals and humans alike. In addition, for most people there was no compensation for the negatives. For example, if your dream home’s views could be blocked out by thousands of trees, there was no compensating positive whatsoever.


Once we had the map of pros and cons, we could get a feel for the ratio of positive to negative impacts. The totals we found are shown below.

Of course, it’s easy for loggers clearfelling a coupe to ignore the downstream impacts of siltation on the river, they usually don’t experience it and they get paid for their work. But for people relying on that river it’s a different story, there is no compensating positive and clean up costs them money. When farmers found their creeks changing course due to silt, or drying up due to plantations being established upstream, there was no ‘upside’, no benefit that caused them to accept the plantations’ water use as desirable.

The same applied to most of the other issues raised – dangers of log trucks, road damage, drops in property values, asthma, view disruption, fire risks, poisons in water supplies, fencing, pests from plantations eating food crops, food production facilities closed – a whole gamut of concerns and problems raised by the people themselves.

In total there were more than 10 times as many negative impacts as positive.

The implication was that there was a lot of people who would lose if the mill project proceeded as planned by Gunns, and relatively few who would gain. These results were largely borne out by various EMRS opinion polls that show over 60% opposition to the project.

As you might expect, the most vocal project supporters were the people who would gain and were either in the forestry sector or otherwise stood to gain substantially from it, including contractors like Pitt and Sherry.

Unfortunately, instead of recognising peoples’ concerns and attempting to deal with them, government and the forestry industry chose to marginalise those who were concerned, describing them as ‘misinformed’, ‘Greens’ or ‘hysterical’. They also chose to ignore the clearcut conflicts of interest from the industry, treating their statements as more credible than those of independent scientists.

Even worse, the peoples’ paid representatives, politicians, started telling the public that they had it wrong and that a mill would be good for them and for Tasmania.

The predictable result was a growing rift between politicians and industry supporters versus the many communities who were worried about the risks if their concerns were dismissed without due consideration.

You might imagine how you’d feel to be told by your politician that your concerns about your property/water/fencing/access/health etc were all ‘misplaced’, particularly when the politician hadn’t seen the situation or the problem, but had been comprehensively ‘briefed’ by Gunns.

Simple principles

I use the simple principle that if you are Australian and you pay taxes to the government which our politicians access as salaries for representing us, then taxpayers are entitled to have their views heard and considered by those ‘representatives’.

That has not been the case for communities who are concerned about many government policies, whether it’s the PAL Act, how our railways should be run or whether we can accommodate more plantations in food producing areas. Instead our politicians have chosen to tell us how to live and what to do, accuse concerned communities of being ‘misinformed’ and refuse to listen to them. 

Their actions have been the reverse of what we might expect from paid representatives.

I argue that it is the job of representatives to understand the disparate needs of the people and, wherever possible, work with all parties to reach an approach that suits as many as possible while creating the least damage.

Many of the negative impacts of forestry described by Tasmanians have never been reported or costed by anyone, let alone forestry. The health impacts of toxins in the waterways, losses of productivity produced by smoke from ‘regeneration burns’, and the losses of productivity of food producers as their water catchments are drained by thousands of hectares of trees are but a few examples.

It doesn’t occur to our politicians and bureaucrats that the people living in an area might know more than them. Look at this from a report on the Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission.

The CFA seems genuinely bamboozled that a handful of head office executives did not prove to be wiser than its thousands of volunteers who have intimate knowledge of local roads, properties and personalities.        Australian (link altered)

And in the matter of the train wreck that is Conroy’s internet censorship we read in NewMatilda ... (link altered)

This lesson (on internet censorship) for the Rudd Government is a straightforward one: Authoritarian imposition of top-down policy has had its day. Citizens know more about their own communities than bureaucrats, and more about society than politicians. This age of ever-increasing connectivity obliges the Government to interact constructively with the community before and during policy development, rather than continuing the practice of dreaming policies up behind closed doors and only releasing them for public comment after the decision to implement them has been made. 

Unfortunately Labor has a global history of wanting to engage in ‘social engineering’ which stimulated this article by author/adventurer/photog Bob McMahon.

As I have repeatedly said from the early stages of this pulp mill saga, the Gunns mill proposal was never about private enterprise hitting its straps. It was always a state sponsored project on the Soviet model (and scale).                                                    Tasmanian Times, (links never altered)   

So who IS right?

Whenever suffering is involved, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb to assume that the sufferer is actually suffering. If there’s evidence to the contrary all well and good. Otherwise believe the sufferer.

It usually serves no-one to simply deny the problem. After all, how would it be if you told your doctor that your foot hurt and she simply said – ‘no it doesn’t’ – or ‘your nervous system is misinforming you’? Or if your GP just focussed on positive ‘your arms look fine to me’.

When experts and report writers start to differ from the reports of other supposed experts we can use several criteria to help resolve any impasse.

Understand which parties (if any) have a conflict of interest and treat any conflicted information accordingly.

Acknowledge that different communities of interest will produce different ‘facts’.

Acccept that those expressing concern may have valid reasons for their concerns.

Try to resolve ambiguities with independent and unbiased reports and studies.

When communities express concern about new industrial proposals, it pays to listen because they deliver information that can help reduce risks to everyone.

The basic rules for an evaluation process might look like this:

The community/group/individual expresses pain, hope, concern etc

Independent experts and others may disclose further facts or information

Experts may offer potential solutions to the pain/hope/concern etc

The community determines whether the expert views and ideas are valid for their situation.

As it stands, the way that the mill project was hustled through without looking at risks, is virtually guaranteed to produce major community discontent with Labor at all levels of government.

To now have a lawyer in Canberra (Burke) telling people in Tasmania that he supports a mill is just another signal that Labor neither understands, nor cares about, the issues affecting real people distant from Canberra, neither do they care about managing or reducing the risks.

They act as if they believe that they should be the key determinant for action.

All of which raises more questions than are answered

If Labor does subsidise the mill, what will that mean for the prompt regulation and limiting of potentially dangerous emissions?

How responsive will the government be to community complaints if government is a party to the mill project?

How much subsidy will be paid if the project loses money each year? What are the limits?

Why is government picking ‘winners’ instead of leaving business to free markets?

Who are they working for?

We’ve seen Labor again (Austrlain link altered) giving our money to subsidise a forestry industry that has only recently lost billions of dollars for tree MIS investors.

We’ve seen governments ignore the protests of the public when objectionable proposals are approved.

More than 10,000 people gathered in City Park to oppose the controversial $1.5 billion proposal for the Tamar Valley.                                Mercury 17 June 2007

Rallies of that scale just haven’t been seen in Tasmania. Did they influence Labor policy?

Not at all.

Pouring our money into the pockets of industries that create huge losses and problems, coupled with the institutional ignoring of the needs and protests of the people raises a very interesting question ‘Who is Labor really working for’?

Does the net provide better information?

I Googled News and Web for ‘pulp mill Tasmania protest’ and found that there was very little information reported except for minor protests and a report of the pro-pulp mill protest (?). The impression that I got from reviewing the Google returns was completely different to my memory and records of what happened.

So it’s possible for the internet to deliver an entirely biased impression simply by swamping real stories in similar but irrelevant stories, or by removing or hiding stories about key events.

Of course, to do this someone would actually have to censor the internet ...and who would want to do that?

Watch this space.

From the Sweco Pic Pulp Mill assessment page 12 (linnk altered)
The assessment of the project…does not include wider matters such as noise emissions, impacts on surface or estuarine waters, effects on flora and fauna, transport implications and social and economic effects, and does not include construction impacts and does not include impacts from off-site infrastructure development such as the raw water supply pipeline, effluent pipeline or quarry.

Mike Bolan

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


With different reports from Brucey and Graeme delivering quite different perceptions of the value of forestry subsidies( All links, Here  ), it might be worthwhile to clarify whose voice should be heard.