Don't Look Now: Garrett And The Gunns Mill


Look away! Look away! Look away!

"Look away", the embodiment of political cynicism, is the bleak and stark reality of political practice in Tasmania now, and nowhere is this more apparent than when there is clear and obvious conflict between the public interest and corporate-private sector interests, and nowhere is this more clear than in the on-going and on-going Gunns’ Tamar Valley pulp mill saga.

"Look away", in its most usual modern meaning, signifies to know and understand but to pretend not to for whatever reasons, or to carefully and deliberately avoid seeing a nasty or uncomfortable reality, to affect obliviousness to what is happening, to ignore it, to put it beyond the realm of consciousness.

It’s a bit like saying, as Naomi Klein writes in the The Shock Doctrine "we did not know what nobody could deny". But to "look away" carries a range and depth of moral ambiguities, of degrees of seriousness in human frailty, well exemplified by reference to perhaps the most well-known use of the phrase in Daniel Emmett’s famous 1859 song Dixie. Emmett meant to convey a yearning for home from a distant place, a looking away from the here and now to a place well-known and loved, but that meaning was politicised and demeaned almost as soon as his song was written.

"If I had known to what use they were going to put my song I will be damned if I’d have written it", was Emmett’s response to its use by the Confederate forces in the American Civil War as a rallying call, to promote the retention of slavery as intrinsic to the political, economic and social system of the southern states.

The point is that when a political system "looks away", when that becomes the shared preference, the shared group agreement, the rationalised majority opinion and the articulated propaganda for action, injustice has become institutionalised.

That is what has happened in the Tasmanian polity, throughout the parliamentary Labor and Liberal parties and among like-minded independent politicians.

This has now been given (yet further) damning illumination by Environment Minister Peter Garrett’s decision last week to approve construction of the pulp mill and give Gunns until March 2011 to meet environmental conditions. Public consensus for some months now — at least since Garrett provided Gunns with an extension from the earlier deadline of 30 September 2008 to complete the 12 outstanding planning modules (of 16) required for federal approval of the Tasmanian pulp mill project — has been that Garrett would either grant another extension or approve the project.

Garrett did both, while successfully creating the impression that he was concerned about the impact of effluent from the mill on the marine environment. He did this by approving nine of the remaining modules, which Gunns gushed as the green light to begin construction any time soon, but gave Gunns a two-year extension to complete hydro-dynamic modelling for the disposal of waste in Commonwealth waters in Bass Strait.

Garrett’s decision was a surprise to the mainstream media (with the exception of The Australian‘s Matthew Denholm), which led most commentary to construe it as a major setback for the company.

To the contrary. Garrett has provided Gunns with cover for over two more years for its continued posturing about seeking finance, which is very convenient for them. They have, in effect, been given an extended timetable to tackle obstacles that still exist. Apart from providing valuable extra time to pursue joint-venture partners if and when more favourable economic circumstances emerge, or to sell the whole project to foreign interests, they have been gifted an indefinite period to avoid adding the $100 million (their stated amount) already spent to their balance sheet.

The company also has more time to find a solution to the problems associated with building a pipeline from Trevallyn dam to the Bell Bay site, and to build arguments for extra tax-payer subsidies, both of which have already begun, as is clear from media reports in the last few days.

Another clear benefit of the extra time is to await extensions of MIS plantation schemes, in the process of being ramped up by the Rudd Government, and to see where the Tasmanian Government’s dip into the federal infrastructure fund helps logging-transport arrangements to Bell Bay, and perhaps most significantly, the upgrading of the Bell Bay port itself.

Strange how all these synergies have come together at the beginning of 2009. Wouldn’t you just love to be a fly on the wall while all the toing-and-froing between Gunns CEO John Gay’s office and Garrett’s office took place in all those weeks and months leading up to the orchestrated public pronouncements and media releases on 5 January? How intriguing it would have been to hear Gunns propose ways and means of avoiding having to shut the mill down if effluent discharges into Bass Strait exceeded the stipulated pollutant limits. Peter Garrett applauded their initiative in such matters on ABC radio last week.

But let’s face it folks. Most of the social, environmental and any other impacts are not within Garrett’s scope of reference, as he has been at pains to make clear whenever he is interviewed. All of that is covered by the "fast-tracked" Tasmanian Pulp Mill Assessment Act — Pulp Mill Permit (PMAA-PMP).

The Tasmanian Parliament, in their manifest wisdom, needed to approve the PMAA "as fast-tracked as possible" (now there’s a great weasel phrase — aftap instead of asap!) in 2007 to avoid company expenses, running at one million dollars a day at the time.

And weren’t the law-makers keen? Duty called in a way it had never done before, as far as I know. Politicians spent days on end without sleep to meet Gunn’s deadlines and Gunns demanded nothing less than ensuring the Tasmanian Parliament understood the importance of its timelines. All other business was of no comparable significance. Is there any other occasion, even during wartime, when this kind of parliamentary action has been deemed necessary, since Federation in 1901? If so, it would make an interesting comparison.

Whichever way you look at it, this is Tasmanian democracy in action, at its best, at its purest – because we were provided with a clear view, stripped to the essentials, of how the current Tasmanian Parliament sees itself, its role, its institutional authority, and its responsibility to the people. Collectively, and unambiguously they see themselves (with some admirable and courageous exceptions) as the representatives of corporate power, not of their constituents.

When one MLC was asked whether she had sought independent legal advice about the meaning of section 11 of the PMAA — which states that "a person is not entitled to appeal to a body or other person, court or tribunal … in respect of any action, decision, process, matter or thing arising out of or relating to any assessment or approval of the project under this Act" — she said that she "didn’t have time". If any confirmation was needed that the whole Parliament (bar the reviled Greens, and the more reviled Terry Martin, and a few independent MLCs) gave no thought at all to the interests of people who could be adversely affected by the mill, then "didn’t have time" sums it up perfectly.

Then, like a magic potion, "fast-tracking" evaporated, never to be seen again. Fast tracking of the pulp mill was fast tracked into oblivion. The hare turned into a tortoise.

So it really should be no surprise to the people of the Tamar Valley to have a further extension to their life of uncertainty until sometime into 2011. That said, it would be unwise to place any bets on that as a final deadline. Deadlines in relation to Gunns are like Premier David Bartlett’s "line in the sand" and all his other statements about withdrawing support for the pulp mill — empty, meaningless and false.

However, there is one interesting issue that has been raised by Garrett’s decision, and that relates to the apparent contradictions in the conditions he has applied to impacts on the marine environment in Commonwealth waters and the conditions applied by the Tasmanian PMAA-PMP in relation to the adjacent marine environment in Tasmanian waters.

In explaining his decision last week, Garrett implicitly (but presumably unintentionally?) rejected the whole basis of the Tasmanian approval process for the pulp mill. He said he would not grant approval until detailed studies on the potential marine impacts had been completed. "That includes having a thorough understanding of the potential impacts of the mill’s effluent discharge on Commonwealth marine waters and absolute confidence in the proposed management and response strategies that are proposed to put in place to protect the environment," he said.

That is certainly a real contrast with what happened in Tasmania’s Parliament, is it not? None of the Tasmanian politicians who voted in support of the PMAA-PMP sought a "thorough understanding of the potential impacts of the mill’s effluent discharge on" Tasmanian waters, whether in the Tamar estuary or Bass Strait.

They looked away completely. They refused to consider any and all independent scientific advice about the potential dangers to the marine environment. The most striking example of this was their deliberate refusal to consider the highly relevant advice of Chilean scientist Dr Eduardo Jaramillo, who had direct experience in complicated studies about the impacts of pulp mill effluent on marine environments in Chile. He was ignored by Tasmanian Labor and Liberal politicians.

To make matters even worse, they gave approval to a much less stringent set of conditions included in the Tasmanian legislation than those required by Malcolm Turnbull under the federal Act, which was subsequently inherited by Peter Garrett. The only difference between Tasmanian waters and Commonwealth waters in Bass Strait is an arbitrary distance from the coast.

The obvious question which arises from this is why did Tasmanian politicians accept less stringent conditions (including the need for detailed hydro-dynamic modelling) than those which were required to be met under national legislation in an area where state and national jurisdictions overlapped?

The answer is that they were negligent. Were they deliberately negligent? They were not negligent by oversight, or through lack of access to information. Their negligence is more serious.

Dixie was the perfect tune for the Confederate armies. A perfectly tragic metaphor of denial, obliterating the humane, denying the fundamental elements of social justice, and transforming indefensible motives for war into a defense of something else, of a particular type of political "freedom", of political "sovereignty", a "way of life" and a "law of the land".

As I said at the outset, "look away" embodies degrees of seriousness. But in a so-called democratic political system it cannot be justified or tolerated, because it denies the precautionary requirements essential to good governance. The Tasmanian PMAA-PMP does not meet those standards, and was never intended to.

It is an unjust law in all its fundamental premises and must be repealed.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.