Recent rumblings in Tasmania have revealed a chasm of accountability and due process so vast you could push a $1.5-2 billion pulp mill through it.

This chasm will soon hit the Federal election radar, but for the moment, the main players have taken three relatively complicit positions. Tasmania’s Labor Government, led by Premier Paul Lennon, has chosen the NAP position ‘not any problem.’ Federal Environment Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is invoking NMP ‘not my problem.’ And the Federal ALP have decided to go for NOPE ‘not our problem either.’

The story begins in 2004, when timber behemoth Gunns Ltd first proposed building a pulp mill on the banks of the Tamar River, in northern Tasmania. The Tasmanian Resource Planning and Development Commission (established to be independent and free of political interference) deployed an expert panel to begin setting guidelines and assess the proposal in January 2005.

In December 2006, CSIRO scientist and pulp mill expert Dr Warwick Raverty was advised to resign from the expert panel to avoid the perception of bias. Tasmanian Planning Minister, Steve Kons initially said this was because Raverty had previously advised Gunns on a ‘separate issue.’ Raverty, however, turned whistleblower and accused Premier Lennon’s Pulp Mill Task Force of political interference.

Raverty’s resignation was followed by a cascade of others. Panel Chairman and RPDC Executive Director Julian Green resigned and/or was pushed, to be replaced by interim head, Simon Cooper, a lawyer with strong family connections to the Tasmanian ALP. The head of Lennon’s Pulp Mill Task Force, Bob Gordon, was reassigned to run Forestry Tasmania, Gunns’s major supply partner. And retired Supreme Court judge, Christopher Wright, was appointed as Chair of the RPDC mill assessment panel.

But then on 14 March 2007, Gunns withdrew its pulp mill proposal from the RPDC process, which was due to conclude in November, and threatened to abandon the project unless it could be guaranteed a decision (one way or the other) before July.

The Lennon Government immediately responded with the Pulp Mill Assessment Bill fast-tracking the assessment of the pulp mill’s environmental impacts which first passed the Tasmanian Lower House a mere nine days after Gunns had spat the dummy. Christine Milne, Federal Greens Senator from Tasmania, said at the time:

Malcolm Turnbull has to conduct an assessment and that has to include the impacts on listed threatened species on the forests, as well as [on]the marine environment. That is likely to take much longer than the three months that is Gunns’s ultimatum. The cronyism and secrecy that has gone on in Tasmania and the complete abrogation of proper process means that it’s now fairly and squarely a Federal election issue.

The preceding day, 22 March, Chair of the mill assessment panel, Christopher Wright released a statutory declaration contradicting statements by Lennon, and detailing a meeting with Lennon on 27 February during which Lennon allegedly pressured Wright to abandon further public hearings and complete the assessment by 31 July. Wright said that Lennon threatened to legislatively accelerate the process.

Tasmanian Upper House President Don Wing refers to the new law, which was duly passed by Parliament on 14 April, as ‘The Gunns Dream Act.’ It calls for an ‘independent consultant’ to review Gunns’s 10,000 page draft Integrated Impact Statement (IIS) using general guidelines which were never intended for the Tamar River’s specific issues. A draft report must be given to Planning Minister Steve Kons by 30 June, and State MPs will make a final determination by late August.

When the Finnish-based multinational SWECO PIC was announced as the Government’s independent consultant of choice, Raverty commented:

I’ve not heard of them before. None of my colleagues at the CSIRO have heard of them before. Their reference list for the pulp and paper industry seems to be mainly around paper and cardboard manufacturing. They’ve been involved in a minor way with four pulp mills, [but]as far as I can see, [they’ve not been involved in] providing this sort of information on environmental suitability.

The Weld Angel. Image thanks to Matthew Newton

Federally, Minister Turnbull must sign off on matters potentially affected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 ( EPBC Act) and Australia’s obligations as a signatory to the Stockholm Convention. He was seen by many in Tasmania as the final hope in a process gone pear-shaped.

The pulp mill will process 4 million tonnes of wood annually, with about 80 per cent coming from native forests. But Turnbull has excluded forests from his deliberations. His spokesperson defined his role as limited to determining the impacts on ‘threatened species, migratory species, and the Commonwealth marine area,’ with forest impacts, apparently, being adequately considered by the State’s assessment.

But rather than applying the highest level of assessment possible under the EPBC Act (notwithstanding its being effectively gutted by 300 amendments in late 2006), Turnbull opted instead for a desktop analysis of the Gunns IIS. According to Turnbull’s spokesperson,

The pulp mill will be assessed on the existing documentation developed by Gunns over the past year and will also include a public consultation period. This level of assessment is no less rigorous than an Environmental Impact Statement.

The RPDC panel has described Gunns’s documentation as inadequate, and peer reviews by respected independent consultancies characterise it as misleading and incomplete.

As for ‘a public consultation period,’ Turnbull’s in-tray quietly accepted submissions for 10 working days before closing on 18 April. The public can still comment to Gunns. Tasmania’s largest single landholder will duly summarise these comments and then report to the Minister.

Turnbull has stated a desire to conclude deliberations by late August, not only coinciding with the final decision date legislated by Lennon but also ensuring that a deal is signed, sealed and delivered just months, maybe weeks, before a Federal election.

Near the end of the last Federal election campaign, Mark Latham famously went ‘Green’ and promised to protect more Tasmanian forests, only to be trumped by Howard’s doing a spectacular deal with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). Will the Liberals disenfranchise their unlikely CFMEU concubines by rejecting the pulp mill proposal? Will the Federal ALP ever again risk distinguishing itself on a matter of Tasmanian forestry?

The signs are not good. According to Senator Milne, Peter Garrett had his wings clipped on entering the Shadow Environment portfolio, when responsibility for forests policy was shifted to pro-logging Tasmanian Senator Kerry O’Brien. Garrett’s office did not respond to this accusation, but pulp mill related releases on his website do come from O’Brien.

Since Rudd’s closed-door discussions with Lennon at the recent ALP National Conference, the Tasmanian Premier has launched more public criticism of the Howard Government than at any time since 2004. Can Rudd avoid jeopardising Lennon’s newfound loyalty without Garrett looking hogtied on native forests? And what about the obvious links to greenhouse emissions, let alone the threats to endangered species? And then there’s the vexed matter of Greens preferences.

The situation is still extremely volatile. On 2 May, Les Baker, General Manager of the Gunns Pulp Mill Project, let slip on a Christian website that ANZ will be securing finance for the mill. There is speculation that this would conflict with ANZ’s obligations as a signatory to the Equator Principles. And on 17 May, the Wilderness Society (TWS) launched a Federal Court action  against Turnbull and Gunns. Led by a highly experienced legal team, TWS’s challenge alleges Governmental bias, abrogation of due process, and seeks delay of the current process until its legality can be determined.

Meanwhile, Gunns just keeps rolling along. It recently announced a $332 million takeover bid for South Australian and Victorian pine products company, Auspine. If successful, the bid would secure an increased supply for Gunns of pine for pulping alongside native forests, while increasing its massive landholdings, and introducing its political influence to mainland electorates. On Tuesday 22 May, Gunns announced it would be ‘ happy to discuss a pulp mill proposal for Victoria’s south-west,’ as well as a ‘second pulp mill’ in Tasmania around 2012 or 2105.

Almost lost in all of this, are the voices of ordinary Tasmanians.

Despite heavy media purchasing by Gunns in Tasmania, polling shows an increasing groundswell of popular opposition to the pulp mill project. Despite all the current focus in Canberra on education, industrial relations and economic reliability, it is likely that both Labor and the Liberals are going to have to secure Tasmania   a State where the politics, like the climate, can prove unforgiving.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.