Image for Zombie politics, the self-perpetuating mediocracy

Speech made on 29 January, 2010, Hobart, on ending of the Gunns 20 writ

I WANT today to say simple things. That those individuals who formed part of the Gunns 20 are for me heroes.

When things were at their worst here in Tasmania, when darkness was all around us, it was they — who with their disrupted lives and tormented minds, with their cruelly wounded souls that had merely wished to stop the destruction of wonder—it was they who were the ones who stood firm, who continued to stand up for a Tasmania not run by greed and corrupted power.

Words are easy, but the example of lives under such adversity are everything.

Let us remember the terrible days that followed in the wake of the writ, when fear seeped like some terrible poison through our island, the anguish that was so widespread, the terrible, crippling silence that for a time befell this society, with so many too frightened to speak or act for fear of the consequences. And let us remember the part the Tasmanian government played in all this, actively attacking those who expressed an opinion at odds with Gunns, seeking to divide us with hate, encouraging a culture of fear and of violence, whilst cravenly supporting Gunns in all things with our money.

Let us remember too defendant No. 13, Ben Morrow, who believed the legal hell around the Gunns 20 case led to the cancer that took that good young man from us.

I will always remember on a late winter’s day meeting a friend of Ben’s around the back of Mt Wellington. He had just learnt Ben had cancer and was in complete despair about his friend, and about Tasmania’s future.

I want today to say simple things, because in the end this is a simple story. It is about how power and money can intimidate, can awe, can destroy and even rule. But it cannot prevail against the force of the truth, backed by the example of just one life.

Four years after Gunns threw their initial writ, Ben Morrow died. Five years after Gunns threw their writ, and I wish Ben Morrow was here to hear these words,  Gunns have lost. Their legal strategy has proven a legal catastrophe, a commercial disaster and a public relations nightmare. They do not do not have the pulp mill. Five years after Gunns threw their writ, the environment movement is not crushed, but renascent. Gunns have lost not only their mill, but worse, they have lost the people of Tasmania, and the people of Australia.

And five years after Gunns supporters had the vanity of thinking that there now remained no check nor balance on what Gunns could do with the Tasmanian forests, it is becoming clear that Gunns cannot have their pulp mill unless they renounce native forest logging. Their name has become a byword around Australia and beyond for a rogue corporation without respect for either the environment nor democracy.

And yet, on reflecting on where we have come in the last five years it has struck me that we are wrong to focus on Gunns. It is after all a company, and the job of a company is to make money. If a company is given large tracts of wild land that belong to the people and then paid massive amounts of taxpayers money to destroy those wildlands, why would they not do it?

Ultimately the problem we have in Tasmania is not Gunns. It is the complete failure of our government over the last eleven years. At our centre we have not governance by people with ideals and values, with ideas, with a desire to make a better world.

What we have instead is zombie politics, a government run by people without heart, head, or direction—zombies.  Zombie politics is what you get when a party ceases to represent anything other than the ambition of its own miniscule clique and its cronies. They are a self perpetuating mediocracy of people without character, without ability, without integrity, and less than surprisingly, now also without credibility.

Jim Bacon brought the BLF model to Tasmanian governance, a combination of working class rhetoric camouflaging a cosying up to a handful of big businesses. To enforce what was increasingly unacceptable to the people of Tasmania the old BLF tactics of intimidation, threats and purging were introduced, and any criticism of the governemnt was punished.

It was the Labor government who failed Tasmania, who did not rein in this company, who let their people’s treasures be trashed, who allowed their people to be poisoned, and who acted as little more than standover men for Gunns. They stood rock solid with Gunns over this writ and to this day not one has ever publicly condemned Gunns action.

Not the least irony today is that if the Labor government had listened to conservationists five years ago, if the govt had then insisted that the industry meet FSC standards, we would today have a much better, more vibrant forest industry employing more people, and our native forest would be safe.

The Gunns 20 case did something remarkable. That the moment when that writ was thrown which seemed the lowest was, in hindsight, the turning point. Through the courage of those being sued, a great crime came to be unmasked, a complex web of money and power was revealed, and the terrible cost to a society of destroying its sacred places was finally revealed.

The time has now come to move forward, to recognise, as with all crime, that change must follow to ensure the crime is not repeated.

We are rapidly approaching a turning in Tasmanian history. The end is coming to the present forest debate, but if we are to have a hopeful new beginning that leads to a sustainable, prosperous and cohesive future, we need to recognise change will not come through seeking to appease a corrupted clique. It is understandable that some in the conservation movements still operate out of the mentality of fear and despair, and look to appease Labor and the forest industry.

Instead, we must demand better of some of our key institutions. Forestry Tasmania must be brought to heel, and those who have abused their positions there to wage a political battle, who identified their role with protecting Gunns profits rather than managaing our forests, should be sacked. Senior bureaucrats in those various department who prospered by prosecuting pro-Gunns agendas that were at odds with their trusts as public servants, who abused their public positions by persecuting those who disagreed with government forestry policy, who gave public moneys to forestry companies even when it conflicted with their own department’s needs and priorities, need to be replaced.

And the Labor Party must change and recognise that it exists for something more than its own self interest. It must learn that it can no longer subtly promote hate and violence in the hope of fostering division that benefits it electorally.  It must become once more part of Tasmanian society, rather than a closed privileged caste separate of it and it has to once more embrace ideas, difference and the future, or it will be condemned to the past.

For the time has come to reinvent Tasmania. We need to bring our community back together. We need leaders in all parties who will unite us, who will respect disagreement and dissent as the necessary check on power rather than condemning it as treachery.

We do not need a different vision of Tasmania. It is here all around us—in our people, in our land and our love of it, in our creativity, in the example of those like the Gunns 20. What we need is a real governemnt—and I don’t care if its a Liberal or Labor or Green govt or any combination thereof—but a govt committed to remaking Tasmania in that image of its people’s achievements and dreams.

We should be seeking to make Hobart and Launceston model environmental cities that lead the way forward. That have the most sustainable buildings. That is food secure. That seek to end over time their dependence on oil. That have new forms of public transport. We should aim to make Tasmania the green battery of Australia, with a whole variety of truly green energy sources. We should have corporations coming here to trial new forms of building, energy, transport.

And here’s an idea—let’s keep our forests as forests and turn our food bowl in northern Tasmania into a sustainable high quality organic food bowl, not an atrazine bombed plantation. We can do all this, here, now. We just have to believe that we are better than division, than hate, than destruction. That we are not medriocre and nor any longer needs to be our politics and our governemnt.

All we need is to build on the courage of the Gunns 20. All we need to do is remember Ben Morrow. It’s a very simple story, and I believe, if we come together, it can be a beautiful one.

Thank you.

Restrospective:
Speech made at rally for democracy, Franklin Square, 15 December 2004

YESTERDAY morning a writ was lodged in the Supreme Court of Victoria by Gunns Ltd, the largest hardwood woodchip exporter in the world, claiming $6.3 million in damages from 16 individuals and four groups—the Gunns Twenty.

If succesful this legal action would effectively make corporations above the law. One would not be able to criticise, question or campiagn against a corporation for risk of being bankrupted in legal proceedings brought against ordinary Australians by the richest and most powerful in our society.

Unions would not be able to campaign without running the risk of being found guilty of corporate vilification. There could be no campaigning against the high pricing of petrol in Tasmania by oil companies by the RACT. There could be no questioning of the price of groceries in Woolworths or Coles for risk of being sued for corporate vilification.

There could be no questioning of banks or Telstra, because there would be removed the most fundamental check on the power of corporations, the right of Australians to criticise, question, organise and campaign. No matter how a corporation makes it money, be it from tobacco or asbestos or poisoning communities, all will effectively be removed from the realm of public life.

There is now fear abroad in Tasmania. Who is to get the next writ? Who is next to have their lives destroyed because they cared enough about their beautiful island home to say something, to do something. Make no mistake, this writ, were it to succeed, is the path to tyranny. Where freedom of expression is denied, where freedom of association is a sueable offence, freedom dies.

If you think this rhetoric ponder how democracy was so effectively denied in Singapore using a similar tactic of legal actions. This is how the rich and powerful defend their interests in a number of undemocratic third world countries, because ordinary citizens cannot afford to defend such claims. Thye are bankrupted, broken and sometimes imprisoned, with the law being used as the scourge.

The perversity of this action is staggering: with the immense fortune they have made out of destroying our forests, Gunns have launched an action that will have the effect of destroying vital aspects of our freedom as Australians.

Their writ redefines the practice of democracy as the crime of conspiracy.

This is not about conservation, nor is it about Tasmania. It is a fundamental assault on our liberties as Australians and we ought be frightened by what it speaks of, and be prepared to fight it and to fight it, and to never give up fighting it.

Today we are here for a silent vigil. In amoment I will introduce the Gunns Twenty as they are named in the writ, and they will come forward and be gagged, because the effect of this writ, if succesful, is to silence dissent in our country.

These are people with homes and mortages and partners and families. Their life is to be made a hell. They will suffer enormously for the crime of caring about their world and trying in their different ways and actions to make this island abetter place.

Once the Gunns Twenty are before us, we will have a minute silent vigil for democracy. At the end of that minute I would ask that you to take your keys out of your pockets and jangle them in the air, as in Prague in 1989 Czechs and Slovaks denied their voice rallied in silence jangling keys, as a symbol of their desire to open the door to a different future.

I want you to jangle them so that they can hear us in the Gunns boardroom in Launceston, in the barristers’ chambers in Melbourne, so that they know we have had enough of lies and intimidation and fear.So that they know this is our island home and we will not allow it to be taken from us by liars and thieves and vandals. So that they know we want to open the door to a better, freer and less fearful Tasmania where Tasmanians are respected and not destroyed for taking part in public life.

When you leave here today, don’t be despairing. Democracy is something we must assert day afterday in our actions. Write to the paper. Ring politicians. Tell people in your workplace, over Xmas bbqs and drinks that this is wrong and that it must be stopped. Like the people in Prague who had been gagged for so long, we can make our own future. Gunns only kill democracy if we give up.

First published on Tasmanian Times Jurassic: HERE