Another Labor Premier Dies By The Gunn


Seven months out from the next Tasmanian election, a poll of voter intentions shows the Bartlett Labor Government is losing its grip on power.

The quarterly survey by pollster EMRS shows government support down two points to 33 per cent, Liberals up 3 to 44 per cent, and the Greens steady on 21 per cent. As preferred Premier, Liberal leader Will Hodgman heads Premier David Bartlett 40 per cent to 28 per cent.

The news could not be worse for Bartlett, who promised so much when he inherited the top job from the controversial former premier Paul Lennon.

Before he resigned in May 2008, the pro-logging premier Lennon self-destructed in one of the most scandal ridden periods in the state’s history. The fall of Paul Lennon could be linked to a number of issues, but most Tasmanians would concede that it was Lennon’s personal obsession with the Gunns pulp mill that killed his political career.

As a consequence of that scandal and a lack of community support, Gunns’ own bank, ANZ, refused to finance the pulp mill project. Today Gunns is yet to secure project finance because of the serious PR problem that follows the pulp mill in the national and international finance world. Domestically the mill project has no social licence and serious doubt remains over whether it will ever be built.

After Lennon resigned, with an approval rating of 17 per cent, the new Premier David Bartlett immediately set about winning over a jaded public by distancing himself from the former premier — and from Gunns.

At his first media conference as Premier, Bartlett declared "I accept that recent events in the Tasmanian political scene have led to a degradation of trust in our democracy and anything we can do to reconnect with the Tasmanian people and continue to build their trust will be absolutely vital."

Bartlett had seen the risks of tying one’s political fortunes too closely to Gunns and seemed determined not to sacrifice himself for Tasmania’s most powerful company.

"I believe that this Parliament and, therefore the Government have done pretty much all we can [for Gunns pulp mill]and some would say too much … we have drawn a line in the sand regarding any future government involvement in the pulp mill project."

Through a series of rosy public statements, including twice personally telling Tamar Valley residents he didn’t think the project "would get finance or go ahead," Bartlett led Tasmanians to believe that his Government would resolve the pulp mill debate and give Tasmanians closure on the mill issue by Christmas 2008.

To the relief of the Tasmanian people, the new Premier set a time frame for the pulp mill "to live or die by" declaring that "from 30 November 2008, government permits and involvement in the project would end unless Gunns had achieved real finance and real progress on construction".

In declaring "the Tasmanian people have a right to say enough is enough" and finally recognising the rights of other stakeholders, the new Premier appeared dangerously out of step with Tasmania’s powerfully connected silvertails.

In 2009, however, Tasmanians have watched in horror as Premier Bartlett has performed one of the most spectacular political backflips since John Howard’s GST.

David Bartlett did not deliver on his promise that by 30 November 2008 his Government would withdraw permits and involvement in the project unless Gunns had settled questions of finance. A year on, with Gunns yet to meet Bartlett’s conditions, the "line in the sand" has been well and truly washed away.

To make matters worse, after claiming it had been informed of a potential legal problem with expiring State Pulp Mill permits, the Bartlett Government quickly moved to draft the ‘Pulp Mill Clarification Bill’ — yes, another special law for Gunns which extended the pulp mill permit until late 2011. (For a comprehensive overview of the special treatment given to Gunns by successive Tasmanian governments, see here.)

When questioned about this, Energy and Resources Minister David Llewellyn said "The pulp mill is the biggest thing for Tasmania; it is essential for the Tasmanian economy."

Yet Llewellyn’s statement directly contradicted state Treasurer Michael Aird who recently talked down the planned pulp mill’s importance to Tasmania’s economy, saying that if the pulp mill did not go ahead, it "would have only a marginal impact on the government’s finances". 

Despite the best efforts of Bartlett’s bloated and expensive army of spin doctors, Tasmanians have woken up to the double game underway.

In September this year it was revealed that the Premier had secretly re-focused his Government as willing lobbyists for the pulp mill via a secret letter written to the Gunns boss, John Gay, in May 2008.

Soon after, Gunns also blew the whistle on the Tasmanian treasurer Michael Aird when the company put out a media release "thanking" Aird for "agreeing to lobby a prospective pulp mill partner" during a $50,000 taxpayer-funded trip to Europe. Aird had only recently vowed that "the State Government would not interfere on behalf of Gunns".

In a startling turnaround, the Treasurer was forced to admit to a stunned Tasmanian public that he was travelling to Europe to help Gunns secure project finance. Even after intense scrutiny from political opponents and media, Aird withheld the details of his taxpayer-funded trip.

It later came to light that Aird and John Gay travelled together in Scandinavia, visiting various European pulp mills and attending several meetings to attempt to finalise finance for the mill project.

Tasmanians are almost — but not quite — desensitised to being conned by their political leaders over the Gunns pulp mill.

Respected Tasmanian political scientist Richard Herr, who is normally moderate in his public utterances, has been scathing about the Tasmanian Government’s treatment of the public on the mill issue, saying: "Parliament took the stance ‘if we shove the legislation through quickly no-one will notice’ … but the people did notice and will not forget."

Reconnecting with Tasmanians has been a consistent theme in the Bartlett rhetoric during his short tenure but now voters are asking why they should trust the operation and regulation of the world’s fourth largest pulp mill to a man who has so consistently failed to deliver on his word?

Bartlett promised to heal community divisions when he took on the job of premier but his backflip on Gunns has served rather to exacerbate what he referred to as "the degradation of trust in democracy".

As a consequence, the Bartlett-led ALP Government faces an almost impossible task: to win back the trust of the Tasmanian people — again — before the 2010 election.

When asked about the recent EMRS opinion poll disaster Bartlett conceded he may have blown his big chance to restore trust in the Government: "I understand that there is anger in the community … we have not demonstrated to them that we care and we have not demonstrated to the Tasmanian community that we are listening, and we need to do more of both."

Bartlett may well be right. According to Tasmanian psephologist Kevin Bonham, "Labor can forget about climbing the mountain … their challenge now is to avoid falling off the cliff … Labor now has no realistic chance of retaining its majority (with the usual proviso that extraordinary events sometimes change things). The question is whether it can contain the swing to the loss of a few seats, or whether things will just keep getting worse."

Tasmanian voters were optimistic about a seemingly capable and intelligent young Premier but this optimism has been overtaken by the realisation that Bartlett was never going to be bigger than the party. In the end he was just a new head on an old body.

While the Premier will be praying for a voter backflip before Tasmanians go to the polls, re-election seems increasingly unlikely. An 11 per cent deficit for a government on a downward trajectory will take a miracle to turn around.

The Bartlett Government has run out of excuses. And now it is running out of time.

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.