Gunns 20

Pussain Images‘Tasmania first suffered disconnection from the mainland, which left its landscape buckled and eruptive; then it was singled out as a place of penance and the site for an experiment in genocide. The settlers pathetically strove to reconcile Arcady with Alcatraz; since then, the spoliation of mountains and the damming of wild rivers hint at a desire to punish the unyielding place into subservience.’ Peter Conrad in Down Home: Revisiting Tasmania

Tasmania is certainly different; the rest of Australia knows that, but just how different is the real question! Very late last year – just before Christmas to be exact – a writ was taken out by Gunns Ltd and others on twenty citizens and organisations. The Plaintiffs claimed monetary damages amounting to $6.36 million. A sizable chunk of news, one would think, but then came the Asian Tsunami, appeals, grandstanding, and a vast human tragedy and the writ, though an enormous threat to dissent in Tasmania (let alone to the pockets of the unpowerful) slipped from the news pages.

Gunns was established in 1875, and today, as Tasmania’s largest corporation by sales, profits and employees, it is thirteen times larger than the nearest local business. 5.5 million tons of woodchips are created for export in a year. In 2000, Gunns bought out Boral’s woodchipping interests with a $250 million loan from the ANZ Bank – a bank which prides itself on its environmental credentials. The latest Gunns venture, which is not surprising given the links between Gunns and Government, is to take over the lease of Entally House Estate at Hadspen from the impecunious National Trust (Tas Branch) in order to establish a winery and, of course, to keep it open as a gesture to the public just as their PR department will make sure that any AFL team going to Tas will be properly backed.

Its shareholders include the Commonwealth Bank, Perpetual Trustee and AMP and its CEO is John Gay whom Channel Nine has helped to make famous with this snatch of conversation with Graham Davis on their Sunday program:

Davis: Is it acceptable to knock off all the wildlife in the surrounding area so that you can plant your tree seedlings?

Gay: Yes.

Gay said later that he had been tricked into answering the question and that the program was run ‘so as to damage (your) shareholding.’

Back in 1989 the then Chairman of Gunns Kiln-Dried Timbers and a substantial shareholder of The Examiner, E. A. Rouse, decided to end a political impasse with a bribe. There appeared to be an immediate danger that the Greens might have disrupted the orderly status of Tasmanian politics. The 1991 Royal Commission that followed resulted in Rouse’s jailing but it also saw the end of the Labor-Greens Accord. Labor, backed by big industry and big unions (a combination we saw go into action quite recently at the Federal level) effectively passed control of Tasmania’s forests from the parliament to the woodchippers. In the strange negotiations that followed between putative premiers Gray and Field the go-between was none other than the Secretary of the Tasmanian Trades and Labor Council, the late Jim Bacon. Shades of a future.

Under the new Liberal Premier (Groom) the Forestry Commission became a government business enterprise and the FOI legislation passed under the Accord was diluted. Both the dying major (The Hydro) and the new major (Forestry Tasmania (FT)) were cleared of all FOI commitments. It might be wise to note that in this area Tasmania is not alone and Governments, of both persuasions, are getting judicial backing to keep many of their documents secret.

Bob Brown, in his Memo for a Saner World, wrote, ‘with the end of dam building (the Government) saw woodchipping as the pivot of state development’ and thus the State, the CFMEU and the Woodchippers became an indissoluble mix. What better group could you get to keep a watching brief on the ecology of the State.

Martin Flanagan summed the situation up well when he said, ‘In Shakespearean terms, Tasmania is the Play within the Play; it always has been. Tasmania is a corporate state. It has a supine government and an opposition in name alone.’ The Age, 16 December.

Today Gunns Pty Ltd is the world’s biggest hardwood woodchipper and Forestry Tasmania, acting almost as an extension service or as a seemingly collaborative business enterprise, assists in the maintenance of Gunns’ profits; profits, which in 2004, reached $105 million.

In 2002, plantation area totalled 207 300 hectares of which 60 per cent was on private forest land. Hence the wide farmer support for the chipper. One area where Gunns is involved is the ‘ought to be heritage listed’ Recherche Bay where D’Entrecastreaux drew water, planted and talked to the Palawa people in 1792-93 and which is now privately owned.

Between 1999 and 2003, 80 000 hectares of native forests were clear felled and FT had all the legislative backing it needed from both State and Federal Parliament. The Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement (RFA) (Commonwealth Legislation) was signed into law by Howard. Enabling legislation exempts forestry operations authorised under the RFA from any requirements to obtain environmental approval and regulations which exempt all Tasmanian woodchips and processed wood products from export controls. And to top it off, the junta have the assurance under Clause 8 of the RFA that, if any Commonwealth Government moved to protect further forest areas, compensation must be paid. In the era of free trade agreements what more protection could you possibly ask for?

Forestry Tasmania is the organisation that so concerned the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee during its deliberations on Plantation Forestry that their final report (and remember that Senator Bill Heffernan, that ally of John Winston’s was Deputy Chair and an extremely knowlegeable one too). He was extremely critical of the monitoring of operations, the poor enforcement of the Forest Practices Code, was aware of serious allegations about management, the effect of plantations on water and water catchments, the large scale clearing of native forests and the impact of chemical use.

A former officer of FT, Bill Manning, gave evidence alleging a weak practice code, a poor internal audit system and a forestry culture of ‘bullying, secrets and lies’. Allegations could not be put in writing because whistleblower legislation which had already been passed in the Tasmanian Parliament was somehow still waiting for the Governor’s signature’

Senator Heffernan: Do you think they were trying to set you up?

Manning: They were trying to set me up. Yes!

The witness is no longer in the Forest Practice Code section. But the other active witnesses to this sorry state of affairs are now the defendants to the Gunns writ – 219 pages of it prepared in the offices of EMA Legal in Melbourne. It claims that four areas of protesters’ campaign activity (logging operations disruption, corporate vilification, against overseas customers and those targeting shareholders, investors and banks) constitute a conspiracy to injure Gunns by unlawful means and interference with Gunns’ trade and business by unlawful means.

The major group of defendants are either office bearers or employees (past and present) of the Wilderness Society. The claim against them alone totals $3.5 million. Others include Senator Bob Brown, parliamentarian Peg Putt, environmentalist and writer Helen Gee as well as individuals alleged to have taken part in campaigns and organisations including Huon Valley Environment Centre, Peter Pullinger of the Tarkine National Coalition and Doctors for Forests Inc.

A large corporation has acted with the result that anxiety levels among the defendants are understandably high and valuable working dissenting time is being lost. But nothing has dimmed the rightness of the protesters’ cause. Gunns, who according to Richard Flanagan, ‘want not only our forests but our very silence,’ may have almost unwittingly overreached themselves.

For an ABC Law Report piece on Gunns click here


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