Well, one has to give the politicians and the others involved in this de facto extension of the pulpmill permit credit for a fair degree of rat cunning.
As it came down to the wire on the expiration of the pulp mill permit, none of our Dear Leaders seemed to know or to have bothered to determine what “substantial commencement” meant even though they’ve known it was a problem for at least two years. Much umm-ing and ah-ing, proclamations of ignorance, shifting of responsibility to “independent authorities” , arguments that the “courts must decide”, flippant answers to reporters’ questions, and so on. I saw this as chaos and confusion then, as I think we were intended to do, but now regard it as a great job of acting.
Meanwhile, Gunns puts work on the start of construction out to tender, and is then told by the EPA, as the deadline looms, that it can do this construction after the permit has expired and can continue with it until a decision is made on what the criteria are for assessing “substantial commencement”.
Consider the timing. Preparing tender documents and moving through the tendering process is not something done in a day or two, but generally requires weeks or months, especially on a large project. It makes me suspect that Gunns had known for some time that one way or another they would be given, in effect, an extension on the permit and allowed extra time to undertake initial construction.
Also, if determination of what “substantial commencement” means goes to the courts this could take considerable time—court cases can last from months to years. A great deal of progress on the pulp mill’s construction can be done in that time (at least until Gunns goes bust; for their sakes, I hope the contractors have demanded up-front payment).
If this work is then assessed as “substantial commencement”, as in my view it likely will be, this commencement would effectively have been retrospective. I can’t help but see this as a neat trick and nice twist of logic, contriving to commence construction before commencing it. One would normally expect this sort of thing to attract litigation regarding its legitimacy in relation to the legislation, but then the legislation itself precludes such litigation. How very convenient.
When was all this cooked up? I personally suspect quite some time ago, and that it was intended all along to get around the end-of-August deadline and allow Gunns to proceed with construction even though the deadline had passed. It is also a maneuver that has the advantage of avoiding additional legislation, hence saving it from open debate and detailed scrutiny in Parliament
The whole pulpmill approval process has been corrupted from the beginning, and in my opinion this business, including Shaap’s rulings, only add to it. This is not going to earn Gunns any kind of social licence—quite the contrary. As I see it, it is only going to compound their problems and earn them and the politicians all the more opprobrium for some very shoddy dealings.
The politicians complain that they don’t get enough respect. They really should get more, at least for their manipulative ability and deviousness, something they seem to excel at.