Lennon's Brutopia


On 2 April, 2008, Environment Minister Peter Garrett gave
the green light to Gunns to start bulk earthwork operations on the site of
their proposed pulp mill in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley

This has occurred amid new revelations that millions of dollars of extra public money may be funnelled into essential infrastructure for the mill, and soon after the first anniversary of Gunns withdrawing from the legislatively defined planning processes in Tasmania.

It has occurred just one month after a senior Tasmanian official of the CMFEU, speaking on behalf of his union on national television, described opponents of the pulp mill as "terrorists", who should be subject to the full force of the law, by which he clearly meant John Howard’s anti-terrorist legislation.

During 2007 the standard term used by Premier Paul Lennon for opponents of the mill, whoever they were, became simply "extremists". The position now taken by the leadership of the CMFEU is a step made possible by this groundwork.

The Premier of Tasmania is a keen apprentice of John Howard, especially in the politics of division as a means to implement a neo-liberal agenda in the interests of corporate power. How better to do that than by putting all dissent into the "extremist" tray, courting the "battlers" in true Howard fashion, and leaving the Liberals me-tooing about the main game of all-and-everything for the big end of town – or in this case, the biggest end of town: Gunns.

There is a political-corporate-union alliance in Tasmania when it comes to the pulp mill, involving both main parties, Gunns, employer groups and the union. Lennon Labor, Hodgman Liberal, the CMFEU, the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Gunns are all cosily arm-in-arm. It is in the context of this odd and unhealthy alliance that a judgment can be made about the statement of mill opponents as "terrorists", and perhaps equally significantly, of the silence that has greeted this pronouncement in the main corridors of power.

Just over one year ago, soon after Tasmania’s independent planning authority, the RPDC, informed the Premier’s Department that Gunns’ plans for the pulp mill in the Tamar Valley were still critically deficient in some key environmental areas, Gunns withdrew from the assessment process, and Lennon quickly established a special fast-track process, designed specifically for Gunns. The outstanding issues identified by the RPDC were not pursued.

Lennon then turned the Tasmanian parliament into a "planning" authority to replace the RPDC as both the recommending authority and the decision-making body, and all politicians of both main parties – and a majority of "independent" upper house members – agreed to pass legislation, already perused by Gunns, in a very tight time framework mandated to suit Gunns’ stated timetable.

The Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007 became law in Tasmania in July last year. Section 11 of the Act, headed "Limitation of rights of appeal", stipulates that no appeal can be made by any person about "any
action, decision, process, matter or thing" relating to the assessment and/or
approval of the pulp mill project.

The legislation shows clearly how the majority of Tasmanian politicians perceive their roles as "representatives" of their constituents.

This was the mark of the New Tasmania, where as Paul Lennon indicated on 14 March 2008, "the Tamar Valley became a site where the numbers stacked up the best", and those opposed to the market fundamentalism of this economic logic on any other grounds at all – "most people in Launceston", according to Lennon – could safely be described as a NIMBY (not in my backyard) lot.

Lennon is not alone in this conviction in the Tasmanian Parliament, so that those with alternative views (and with no vested interests) and those who might be adversely affected by the mill, have all, in their diversity, been cast adrift en bloc, as political outsiders. In the New Tasmania the politically invisible inhabit a new kind of terra nullius, their voices not only unheard but unwanted, their rights to fair and equal representation seen as unwarranted and barred by legislation.

Terra nullius? The notion of terra nullius or "land without owners", was, is and always will be, a neo-liberal’s dream come true. It is a pure alliance between political power and the interests of capital. An alliance between government and defined sectional interests.

This form of alliance reached its apogee in Van Diemen’s Land during the 1820s and 1830s, resulting in the complete dispossession of the Aborigines in favour of wealthy sheep farmers. For a small British elite in Van Diemen’s Land-Tasmania during the 19th century, the consequences of the implementation of the notion of terra nullius were economic wealth beyond their dreams, control of the pastoral economy for generations and political and social power.

But in Lennon’s Tasmania, the attempt to exclude, by language and law, is but a narrow definition of the new form of political terra nullius being implemented.

The broader implications are exemplified by a decision, serendipitously only made public due to astute journalism in early March this year, that Tasmanian taxpayers could pay for Gunns’ pulp mill pipelines, to supply annually between 26,000 to 40,000 megalitres of fresh water from Launceston’s main source of supply, the Trevallyn Dam, and to carry mill effluent into Bass Strait.

Firstly, it is already public knowledge that Gunns’ water requirements represent, in current climatic conditions, 45 per cent of available flows into storage. All other annual domestic and industrial usage of water in the greater northern area, including all Launceston and some areas beyond it, is about 29,000 megalitres. Obviously, the water volume Gunns needs for the mill will require curtailing the needs of all others – domestic, agricultural and industrial.

Secondly, the financial cost of the pipeline infrastructure for the mill, probably in excess of $100 million, comes at a time when the Lennon Government "cannot" find adequate funds for its public responsibilities under the Federal system – health, education, housing and every other state-defined area of responsibility, except forestry.

In mid-March the Government was discussing how best to impose an additional tax on Tasmanians to pay for ambulance services, having reluctantly retreated from their natural inclination towards the neo-liberal notion that the "service" should be provided on the same basis as taxis – user pays, and pay at the time.

The "hunters and shepherds" of colonial Tasmania have their modern equivalents. They are now spread more widely in the socio-economic spectrum. There are those, like MIS investors, whose risk capital and tax-free incentives assist corporate acquisition of land, in much the same way as the old land grant scheme worked, and with much the same result: concentrating land ownership in a few hands without much cost to the owners. Then there is the labour force, such as those who have been encouraged to invest heavily in machinery and vehicles, or in narrowly based skills, and have tied themselves to a "contract" relationship which relies almost exclusively on external factors to serve their long-term interests.

There are many other examples which could be detailed to demonstrate how Cicero’s dictum from the last days of the Roman Republic, "the welfare of the people is the ultimate law", is being breached by those holding power and influence in Tasmania.

Less than a century after Cicero was forced to commit suicide by Mark Antony, as military dictatorship ushered in the death blow to any hope for a revival of democracy in the ancient western world, a more cynical and pessimistic Roman voice, of disputed origin, said "what power has law where only money rules".

If viewed as a statement, this kind of power is authoritarian power, where property or people who are in the way can be treated as various types of terra nullius, or simply exploited for purely personal and/or corporate material gain, using state levers for the purpose, including the law, public and private capital, coercive military or police power, propaganda, labour and interlocking government policies.

If viewed as a question – "what power has law where only money rules?" – let the answer lie with some wisdom from the prominent human rights lawyer Julian Burnside, writing in 2006: "If the law is unjust, then access to the law is not access to justice".

The Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007 is an unjust law. It is a law which promotes dispossession. It is a law which fosters a new form of political terra nullius in Tasmania. Section 11 of the Act is abhorrent in its meaning and intent. Those who voted for it do not deserve to be, and cannot claim to be, representatives of the people.

The Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007 should be repealed.

If allowed to continue, Peter Garrett’s systematic approval of Gunns’ pulp mill will increasingly stand as an indictment of his leader, Kevin Rudd, who has forcefully argued against the political "brutopia" of Howard’s Australia, now mirrored by Lennon’s Tasmania.

The pulp mill provides a perfect opportunity for Rudd to abide by his claim that "the country is entitled to a greater vision than one which merely aggregates individual greed and self-interest".

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.