TASMANIANS should be under no illusions about their future direction whichever version of the Labor-Liberal accord has the numbers in the Tasmanian Parliament into the indefinite future. The direction is locked in irrespective of which individuals occupy the treasury benches. It is immaterial whether Bartlett or Hodgman or Aird or Gutwein or Giddings or Rockliffe can say that they are the “inner cabinet” or the “government”.
This is the case, in the words of John Cain (premier of Victoria 1982-90), because “what has happened in Australia in recent years is that political parties are in decline – they are unable to behave as the system requires. They are no longer in the policy ideas and development business. They prefer to play the role of empty vessels waiting to be filled… (by) self-serving interest groups and lobbyists”. (The Age, 16/5/09)
The Tasmanian election of 2010 is a battle between a small group of individuals seeking ego-fuelling status in an interlocking and entwined power hegemony across a few key corporate players, a few key union players, the top echelons of the bureaucracy, politically appointed highly paid “advisers” within government departments (all jockeying for position within a very hierarchical structure) and bosses of some powerful pseudo-independent non-government organizations (NGOs).
It is a battle to see which of them can be called Premier or Treasurer within a wider group in unelected positions, who hold the real policy-making power and share control, or strong influence, in how public funds are distributed. The central factor in this hegemony is the position that pro-forestry appointees hold across the grid, and Parliament is only one part of this grid. To be Premier or Treasurer of Tasmania provides greater access and engagement with this grid.
There are clear patterns of people moving sideways across the top level of this grid, which can be discerned most easily among former Labor-Liberal politicians, simply because their names are more familiar to the general public. Within this wider system former politicians and machine-party operatives hold important positions, on corporate boards, on semi-government authorities, within the bureaucracy and as “advisers”, consultants and so on.
There is nothing secretive about this, nor about the gravy train to get family members and friends “nice” and “interesting” jobs. This is all well-known and incontrovertible. “Jobs for the boys” is part of the political wallpaper, a cultural tradition. The terminology is outdated, of course, and needs to be replaced by “jobs for the boys, their wives and the kids as well”. These things are entitlements, defended on the basis of “meritocracy” if defence becomes necessary, which it usually isn’t.
The significant dangers of these inter-relationships at the heart of Tasmania’s strategic decision-making processes and policy directions should be an important part of public debate in Tasmania, actively promoted as an essential professional purpose (responsibility, in fact) of any self-respecting free press. In northern Tasmania this is neglected completely by the mainstream press.
This failure has not prevented a large section of the Tasmanian community from understanding how the broader system of decision-making and policy formulation has been carried out during the last few years in Tasmania, especially in the time since Paul Lennon became Premier.
Some events of the last few weeks bring a sharper clarity to the workings of this system, and to how Tasmania’s direction into the future is being locked in.
One place to begin is with Julian Amos’s letter to Frank Nicklason earlier this month. Amos is currently chairman of the Forestry Industries Association of Tasmania (FIAT), senior ALP apparatchik, power-broker and head kicker, and former parliamentarian and government minister.
The grist of Amos’s letter is that (American scientist) Tyron Hayes’ conclusions about the threat of triazines to human health have not been endorsed by independent scientific research, and that Hayes’ warnings about triazine contamination “at such low levels can be a trigger for endocrine disruption seem extraordinary to me”.
Amos’s assertions were demolished in all respects by both Frank Nicklason and Andrew Lohrey, Nicklason in relation to Amos’s lack of knowledge of scientific research and understandings of the issue, and Lohrey in relation to Amos “pushing an industry line which is dangerous to public health but financially worthwhile to industry”.
But the letter encapsulates, in microcosm and in summary, how the interlocking web of corporate-government-party political-bureaucratic-union-pseudo independent NGO (such as FT and FIAT) careerism across the whole Tasmanian forestry behemoth promotes an unhealthy culture immune to fundamentally important social considerations.
The key element is a refusal to consider strong (even overwhelming) evidence and independent advice which warns of social costs. In relation to FIAT’s position on triazines, for example, the highly relevant and highly visible work of Tasmanian medical GP, Alison Bleaney, on this issue renders Amos’s assertions as absurd.
This kind of refusal permeates the decision-making processes across the board in the forestry industry in Tasmania, and can be exhaustively demonstrated. The only point at which there is any thought of social costs is the point at which inaction becomes a threat in itself to the interests of the power elite.
In similar vein to the FIAT letter of Amos is Forestry Tasmania heavyweight Hans Drielsma’s contemptuous dismissal of questions about the need to monitor pollution emissions from the widespread forestry “regeneration burns” (an unacceptable and totally misleading description) at the recent Senate committee hearing in Hobart. We also know of national CFMEU boss Michael O’Connor seeking to raise money from foreign sources to fund Gunns’ pulp mill construction. In both cases, there is absolutely no interest from either Forestry Tasmania or the CFMEU to take any notice of any independent scientific, medical, economic, environmental or any other professionally-based warnings about the costs of their actions.
Another aspect of the way the system “is” relates to the farcical, incoherent and blatantly false rhetoric of jobs.
Forestry Tasmania has recently been recruiting in South Africa instead of locally, while maintaining the mantra of local jobs flowing for a pulp mill. The mantra is identical at the State political level, in the bureaucracy, at the top of the CFMEU, in FT and FIAT. But not one of these incestuously interlocking centres of power and influence paid anything more than lip-service regret as jobs have been increasingly and unremittingly shed by Gunns, both in Tasmania and elsewhere.
Not one of these interlocking centres of interchangeable politicians, ex-politicians, party-union mates and other apparatchiks, has provided reliable information to the public about the long-term employment at Gunns’ pulp mill. Not one of them has provided information about the prospects of the Burnie and Wesley Vale operations, including their employees, once (or before) the Bell Bay mill is operating. Or will the jobs for Gunns’ mill come from the closure of the north west operations?
The web of decision-making in Tasmania in relation to forestry has nothing to do with maintaining jobs or with the creation of jobs. It has nothing to do with creating a skilled workforce. It has nothing to do with narrowing the income gap between corporate bosses and workers. If that was the case so-called “business unit” loggers would not be on contracts that required them to work from before dawn until after dusk to make a living, working conditions which trash the hard-fought victories of workers decades ago (when unions were unions) at the most basic level of hours worked.
Unions which once claimed victory for a universal 40-hour week are now “working for the Man” rather than working for the worker. As a self-described “humble working man” informed us in a Tasmanian Times letter last week, he earned just over $18 an hour working in a Gunns mill in the Scottsdale area. If this is a wage level “won” by the CFMEU for its members it is hardly a victory for labour and jobs in the forestry industry, especially given that the salary package of several of Gunns’ senior managers exceeds that of Kevin Rudd.
Therein lies the bind between the Labor-Liberal politicians, FIAT, FT and the unions involved in forestry. They’re all “working for the Man”, they’re all working for the corporate interest. They are all “empty vessels waiting to be filled”, to return to John Cain’s analogy.
If any of them were working for workers, or working for the people, or working for their constituents, they would not allow clear-felling in water catchments, they would not allow aerial spraying of poisons in catchments, they would prevent the aerial poisoning of people, they would not allow dioxins to enter the food chain, they would not allow huge amounts of taxpayers money to be diverted from health (especially hospital care, provision for the elderly, adequate regional services and so on) into assistance for shareholders and management of private corporations, and they would not allow the pulp mill to be built in the Tamar Valley.
Through the voices of the CFMEU leadership, the FT leadership, the FIAT leadership, the Bartlett government, the Hodgman opposition and the top levels of the politicized bureaucracy, is a consistent and unified compliance with Gunns, whatever Gunns sees as its interests, short term or long term or any term.
Paul Lennon made no secret of this when he stated, without equivocation, that Gunns was building the pulp mill in the Tamar Valley for purely commercial considerations to do with access to timber in the north east and to do with the suitability of the port at Bell Bay for exporting pulp.
The Tamar Valley is dispensable, in much the same way that the Hunter Valley in NSW, section by section, and town by town, has been seen as dispensable in the interests of the coal industry, and irrespective of the interests of anyone or anything else.
Many of the links across the grid have been exposed through the sequence of events we all know about – the activities of The Pulp Mill Task Force, the RPDC fiascos, the fast-tracking PMAA farce based on “deadlines” such as “a million dollars a day”, the shreddergate scandal, the low cost (or no cost?) wood supply agreement, the legislative exemptions for forestry operations in relation to protection of wildlife and habitat, the water agreements, the infrastructure subsidies, the corporatisation of FT to remove it from the routine scrutiny of parliamentary processes… and much else… and now the emerging Swico Pic controversy, and the closing down of DEPHA.
As large forestry “regeneration” burns occur across Tasmania, UTAS academic Michael Stokes’ claims surrounding Swico Pic’s report have prompted David Bartlett to say, and Will Hodgman to echo, “My message now to Gunns is to get on with the project”. Whether Bartlett’s comment reflects discussions behind closed doors with those in the loop is immaterial. It simply indicates the entrenched culture that pervades the institutional centres or power. Bartlett is their current spokesman, whether as puppet or active player, as Lennon was before him, and as the next Premier will be, whatever his name.
The Labor-Liberal accord is enmeshed and committed to Gunns’ corporate agenda as the basic direction for Tasmania’s future, a future guaranteed to provide plenty of wasted opportunities, a future guaranteed to prevent Tasmania’s participation in the changes that are needed – changes that will occur with or without our participation.
The inescapable truism of significant economic dislocation, of the destruction of jobs and businesses during times of recession-depression, is that change occurs in a much shorter time-frame than during periods of stability. This provides opportunities for constructive change and it provides opportunities for retreat into the past.
Tasmania is now being locked into the past, into a dead end, into a future which will encourage our youth, our brightest and boldest, to flee. Those of us who would not encourage them to spread their wings would be acting irresponsibly, confining them to a narrowly-based, inward-looking and backward-looking social and economic environment, restricting their opportunities for growth, stultifying their future.
The transparent political expediency in closing down DEPHA cannot be camouflaged by the rhetoric of economic exigencies. Nor can the transparently political commitment of police in large numbers to arrest people protecting old-growth forest be seen other than a training ground for the implementation of broader exclusion zones, and the use of state force and “the law” in the interests of corporate power.
In 1649 England, a certain Robert Coster asked “whether the Lords of the mannors, do not hold their Right and Title to the Commons, merely from the Kings Will… and whether the strongest point in their Law for the keeping of their Title, be not, Take him, Jaylor?”
From the perspective of those in positions of authority in Tasmania, there is a shared understanding, in the words of Roy Orbison:
“Cause I’m working for the Man, working for the Man
Gotta make him a hand, a’working for the Man.”
“Cause your working for the Man, a’working for the Man
You gotta make him a hand when you’re working for the Man.” (Roy Orbison)