Lennon Leaves a Bitter Legacy


"My decision today is my desire for generational change", said Tasmania’s deeply unpopular Premier, Paul Lennon, yesterday, announcing his retirement from a parliamentary career which began in 1990.

But Lennon’s credibility has long gone. Not many Tasmanians will give much credence to anything he says about the reasons for and the timing of his resignation.

It was only last week that Lennon was adamant that he would lead the ALP to the next State election in 2010, a statement made in the aftermath of a poll which showed his approval rating at a Nelson-esque 17 per cent, his Party trailing the poorly performing Liberal Opposition by a large margin for the first time in years, and both the Liberal and Greens leaders out-polling him as preferred Premier in the Hobart urban area.

There is little doubt that Lennon lost the support of a majority of the parliamentary Labor Party when it was made obvious that their leader was not merely unpopular but strongly distrusted and despised by whole sectors of the Tasmanian community. By the end of last week these caucus-bound self-seekers were looking to shore up their own shaky political careers after supinely supporting all Lennon’s measures which tore at the norms of democratic conventions and good governance, including derelictions of due process and failure of proper political representation.

Lennon’s successor – at just 40 years old and after only four years in Parliament – the newly installed Deputy Premier Davis Bartlett, is certainly a generational change. But he has never been Lennon’s preferred nominee for a "smooth transitional leadership change". Far from it. Lennon would much rather have seen one of his two former deputies, Bryan Green or Steve Kons, take the top job – but they have their own credibility problems, Kons for lying to Parliament, and Green after being prosecuted twice on the same criminal charge, which produced two hung juries.

Herein lies the problem for Bartlett. He inherits a parliamentary Party which is tainted. It is not simply that Lennon, as leader, set the tone and the benchmark for ministerial conduct, which often fell far short of the standards necessary for good governance in a parliamentary democracy. But all members of the current parliamentary Labor Party, including Bartlett, did not question Lennon’s policy priorities and methods, especially the one at the centre of political controversy in Tasmania for most of Lennon’s premiership: Gunns’ proposed pulp mill in the Tamar Valley.

Lennon thinks his greatest achievements have been his "economic record" and "reconciliation with Tasmania’s Aboriginal people". Unfortunately for him, it was his predecessor Jim Bacon who pursued the issue of reconciliation with vigour. The plaudits cannot be claimed by Lennon.

As far as his "economic record" is concerned, Lennon is not likely to be judged in the way he would like. He has shown little interest in any policy areas outside the parameters of forestry, gaming and sport. These have all included close, cosy and often secret alliances with corporate interests.

Infrastructure languishes and deteriorates, except where it is has some link with the maintenance of these alliances. Under Lennon’s watch, more effort and energy have been directed to the creation of a first-class racing venue in Hobart and a first-class football stadium in Launceston than they have been to ensuring first-class public education infrastructure and adequate health facilities.

Under his watch more money has flowed to an AFL football club to play four games in Launceston every year than it has to try to save endangered species threatened by human activity in their habitats – the iconic Tasmanian devil being the most well-known example.

Essential services outside the areas of health and education have also often been attended by the same kind of indifference and tokenism. Across the whole spectrum of State-defined responsibilities, from public housing to children at risk, from water quality to nursing shortages, from fire fighters wages and conditions to the provision of ambulance services, a tardy and reluctant interest from the Government has only been roused at the point of adverse publicity, human tragedy or direct action.

Lennon’s legacy is a failure to consider diversity as a strength in Tasmania’s economic and social future. It is a failure to consider the health and welfare of local communities. It is a failure to heed disinterested "frank and fearless advice" about basic issues, ranging from ethical standards of political behaviour to Australian Medical Association concerns about the health risks of important Government policies.

Paul Lennon would have us believe that he goes into retirement leaving Tasmania stronger than when he became Premier in 2004. In reality he leaves an extremely divided society, reminiscent of the worst divisions in Tasmania since Federation, such as during the conscription issue of World War I, the social conflicts of the Vietnam War, and the Franklin River controversy of Robin Gray’s premiership.

Gray’s infamous comment that the Franklin is a "leech ridden ditch", well exemplifies Lennon’s view about the Tasmanian rural environment in general. As Premier he has encouraged the establishment of Managed Investment Scheme (MIS) plantations on prime agricultural land, promoted the destruction of rural communities through corporate-assisted agricultural schemes and the deliberate encroachment of timber plantations on town boundaries.

It is difficult to know what is the most pressing of concerns in the current Tasmanian political reality. On the one hand, people and communities and businesses are on hold, waiting to see if they have a future. One of the best examples of this is in the rich and attractive Tamar Valley, where investment has stalled. Gunns now boasts it controls over 40 per cent of viticulture in the region. This is purely MIS. The potential for diverse and sustainable growth is huge in this region – in fishing, tourism and agriculture – but all this is under threat.

The Tamar Valley is the Tasmanian rural economy writ large. The ramifications of Lennon’s industry policy are all-encompassing. To travel anywhere in Tasmania now is to encounter trucks loaded with huge old-growth logs, swathes of former prime agricultural land in mono-cultural timber plantations, and vast areas of clear-felled land exposed to the worst effects of soil erosion. Just as serious is the evidence of contaminated river systems, extending throughout the east of the State into the midlands and into important supplies for towns, including Launceston.

From an urban perspective, if a pulp mill is built, (using 26 gigalitres of water every year, compared with the greater northern Tasmanian usage of 29 gigalitres for all domestic and industrial purposes,) what are the rights of Launceston’s residential and other water users? No one knows, because no one has been told.

This is a very obvious question, as are questions about the indiscriminate use of herbicides and pesticides in timber plantations in water catchments throughout Tasmania, and their impacts on long-term human health.

On the other hand, the culture of political intimidation, vilification of dissent and the undermining of fundamental democratic processes has become entrenched as a standard part of Tasmania’s political culture.

Lennon’s fast-tracking of legislation for Gunns’ pulp mill exposed all the elements of this culture. Three chairmen of Tasmania’s Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC) came into direct conflict with Lennon during 2007 about Gunns’ failures to comply with guidelines. The criticism by the last of these three, Simon Cooper, resulted in him losing his appointment as a magistrate, and the subsequent attempted Government cover-up, resulting in the "shreddergate" scandal and the fall of David Bartlett’s immediate predecessor as Deputy Premier, Steve Kons.

Other critics fared similarly. One-time RPDC member, then CSIRO scientist Warwick Raverty, was vilified when he became an outspoken opponent of the whole pulp mill proposal, as was the ALP politician Terry Martin, the only Labor parliamentarian to break ranks and vote against the mill legislation.

But it was the sidelining of the RPDC from the whole assessment and approval process which laid bare the full extent of the subversion of well established democratic processes and important parliamentary functions. Parliament became both the planning and legislative authority for the pulp mill, working to a truncated time-frame to meet Gunns’ specified requirements, and then approving the Pulp Mill Assessment Act (PMAA) which had been written in collaboration with Gunns, ignoring all independent advice about possible adverse affects of the mill, and including the appallingly anti-democratic statute bar which prevented access to the court system by the people if the pulp mill adversely affected them.

It was the complete contempt which Lennon showed for the fundamental democratic rights of people, so well exemplified by the PMAA and the methods used for its enactment, which shifted whole sections of the Tasmanian community against him.

According to his generational colleague and Tasmanian Treasurer Michael Aird, Lennon’s "achievements will be talked about for a long time". Aird might be right, but not in the sense that he means.

Lennon leaves behind increasing public pressure for the establishment of an anti-corruption watchdog, a political ethics commission and a charter of rights. He leaves behind a proliferation of increasingly well-organised and community-based civic action groups created in opposition to interlocking Government policies and created from the void of disenfranchisement from mainstream political representation.

It remains to be seen whether this kind of decentralised direct democracy will now increase in confidence and pace in Tasmania, and the trend to shape and support more localised forms of power builds in strength, as can already be seen in the "greening" of many municipal councils, including Hobart, Launceston, the Bass Strait Islands and elsewhere.

Unfortunately, Lennon’s legacy also includes a highly politicised bureaucracy, top-heavy with former slash-and-burn forestry apparatchiks. There are also plenty of old-guard ALP stalwarts still in the Tasmanian parliament unlikely to change their attitudes and outlook.

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.