Drumming Out A Failed Government

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People call Tasmania inward-looking. But having recently returned here to live I find the "clean, green island" is a microcosm of the political turmoil shaking our nation and world. As our federal MPs debate the pros and cons of an emissions trading scheme and world leaders meet to address climate change, the people — that is, us — continue to grapple with the everyday effects created when societies’ deepening environmental values find increasing expression in the political sphere.

These values are transforming political, legal and social institutions in places all around the world. In Chile — not known for its high environmental standards — pulp mill executives can now be prosecuted and convicted for environmental crime, and in the UK, climate change activists have argued in the courts that their actions have been necessary to prevent a greater crime, thereby avoiding or reducing their punishment.

Tasmania often feels far away from these changes, yet on Sunday 4 October, I attended a rally in the small gold mining town of Beaconsfield where such values were very much in evidence. The protest was against the extraordinary support the ALP state Government is still providing for the Gunns Limited proposal to operate a bleached kraft pulp mill in northern Tasmania.

It was one of the more creative rallies on this issue. The protest had primarily been organised by a group known as TAP (Tap into a Better Future), who are described by member Sandra Murray as a group of grey-haired retirees supportive of sustainable development. For many of them, the personal involvement in environmental politics dates back to their participation in the Tasmanian Franklin Dam protests.

The way they had chosen to express their frustration at being continually ignored by their elected representatives was to "drum them out", bringing pots and pans from their homes to bang loudly, in a form of expression that has helped bring down failed governments in Argentina, Ecuador, Spain and Iceland. The protest had been organised to coincide with what is known as a "travelling Cabinet". This involves the Cabinet visiting different parts of the state, holding interviews with constituents. Ostensibly a form of community participation, the cabinet members are supposed to be in town to listen to concerns of constituents. Pointedly, however, the majority of the Cabinet members arrived through the back door and meetings were by appointment only. Those residents with appointments sedately wove their way between the protestors wielding pots and pans to meet their Premier.

There were some 500 people lining the street banging drums, whistling and chanting. Protestors had been told by TAP spokesperson Bob McMahon to "bring their rage".

For many of these residents, the struggle to participate effectively in the pulp mill assessment process has been going on since 24 February 2005, when Gunns Ltd announced that Long Reach, on the Tamar River (near George Town) was its preferred site for a pulp mill.

Over this time, Tasmanians have learned that the output of the mill would be in the range of 500,000 to 1,300,000 air-dried tonnes of pulp per annum. The external factors include, among others: 64,000 tonnes of effluent pumped into the Bass Straight and into the pathway of endangered migrating humpback whales, annual consumption of 4.5 million tonnes of native and plantation wood, 26 to 40 billion litres of fresh water annually, 287,244 extra log trucks on Tasmanian roads and a drifting rotten egg smell with the subsequent compounded health problems.

The considerable size and investment of the proposed mill took the proposal outside regular planning processes and required that the Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC) undertake an independent assessment of the project.

To many observers, at that stage it looked like the process was working. The RPDC has a statutory obligation to encourage public involvement. The former ALP Premier Paul Lennon said the independent assessment would provide the Tasmanian community "unfettered public and parliamentary scrutiny".

However in 2007, after many accusations of political interference, Gunns Ltd decided to pull out from the RPDC process. Their withdrawal came before the public release of the report written by the head of RPDC Simon Cooper who had written to the then premier advising that the pulp mill was "critically non-compliant".

Rather than demanding Gunns Ltd comply with due process, the Tasmanian state government passed the Pulp Mill Assessment Bill 2007 — one day after Gunns announced its withdrawal.

This is the part that has many Tasmanians really angry. With Gunns Ltd’s withdrawal from formal RPDC process, its fast-tracking support through Parliament and the profound silence from the federal government, opposition to the mill might have been expected to collapse. But the behaviour of the government led to cries that democracy had failed and the voices of the Launceston community got louder.

In the time since, it has become clear to me that the failures of Tasmania’s government have actually forced its democracy to gain strength.

Three months after the passing of the Pulp Mill Assessment Act, 10,000 people marched down Launceston streets. Anyone who has visited Launceston knows that for a protest to happen in our streets then it must be a pretty big issue. For it to be 10 per cent of the population means it’s huge.

The problem for the Government, and for Gunns, is that this insistence by the people that their representatives respect due process and pay attention to their wishes is not going away. Sunday’s protest in Beaconsfield confirmed for me that what is under threat is not our democracy but a government unable to cope with the demands of an environmentally complex democratic constituency.

One of the groups represented at the protest was a recently formed organisation called "Pulp The Mill". According to their spokesperson, Tamar Valley organic walnut farmer, Lucy Landon-Lane, this group arose from the need its members saw for people to undertake civil disobedience.

Pulp the Mill member David Godfrey-Smith explained that while he is "not a protestor … this is the only option left for us to show our depth of feeling this issue". The 21 people who chose to be arrested along with Godfrey-Smith for breaking the exclusion zone stood silently as they awaited police, dressed in white and holding signs calling for a Royal Commission into the corruption surrounding the mill proposal.

One of the group’s aims is to demonstrate to a historically cowed Tasmanian community that protests are not necessarily violent and being arrested does not make you a criminal. This type of protest is critical, as the grip of Gunns Ltd on the social, cultural and political fabric of Tasmania has meant, in Richard Flanagan’s words, that to "question, to comment adversely, is to invite the possibility of ostracism and unemployment … a subtle fear has entered Tasmanian public life; it stifles dissent, avoids truth".

In the short time that I’ve been back, I can already understand the importance of the group’s objective in opening people’s minds to the legitimacy of dissent. Handing out postcards in the Launceston mall, the reactions of the community are fascinating. Those who are not against the mill will say so in loud voices, with comments like: "I would sign that love … but I’m all for it!" Those who do sign, will usually do it in a conspiring manner, with whispered confessions that they’ve never been arrested before, but on this one — well, they’re ready.

Harder for environmentalists like myself, are comments like those made by a lady haggard with daily worries who said I ought to be "ashamed" to be anti-pulp mill when men like her husband are "struggling to find work". It is this sort of comment that makes you realise that while the pulp mill debate is apparently about jobs it is actually about vulnerabilities: often those who see a need for the mill are some of the most economically vulnerable in the local community.

Having to protest is not ideal — being arrested even less so. However, there is more to these protests than just stopping the pulp mill. Indeed, the sidelining of the RPDC and the subsequent limitations on the formal participation of ordinary people and community groups have forced Tasmanians to become more politically active and much savvier.

TAP member, Sandra Murray explains that the protests are testimony to the strengthening of a community that "does what it needs to do. It’s not anarchy but the use of might". Moreover, after Gunns withdrew from the RPDC process, TAP membership grew, and now there are "those of us who truly don’t want it to be there (and) those who have come on board because they want to ensure that we are a democracy".

These are the concerns that have caused people like scallop fisherman John Hammond to reassess environmental issues in democratic rather than conservationist terms. As he said, speaking at a rally held after the RPDC abandonment, "if being a ‘greenie’ is wanting clean air and clean water, then count me in".

The inability of the ALP Government to democratically acknowledge deepening environmental values has contributed to its fall in support. Meanwhile, protests like Beaconsfield’s prove that the Government faces a choice over the pulp mill: respect legal avenues for democratic participation, or deal with protesters who will break the law rather than be silenced.

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