Image for Cause and effect of Gunnerment

In 2007 Steve Kons MP was caught lying to the Tasmanian Parliament, and the next day one Tasmanian woke up and realised this was one step too far for her to accept. To realise the significance of his dishonest act, it is necessary to review events.


The saga of “Gunnerment”, the joint rule of Tasmania by government and Gunns Ltd, was born in 2003 when Paul Lennon, MP, and John Gay, company director & chairman, gave birth to the idea of a pulp mill to be based on Tasmania’s native forests. The forests were considered a cheap and renewable resource of never ending supply and available for the government to grant to any they chose without being subject to the stakeholders (the public) or the inhabitants (native wildlife).


Paul Lennon was handed leadership of state government by his friend Jim Bacon who retired due to ill health. In 2004 “best practice” guidelines were drawn up by the Regional Planning and Development Commission, which was quickly followed by Gunns’ request for the project to be declared a Project of State Significance, i.e. to be assessed by the RPDC.


Tasmania’s 2006 state election returned the Labor government with Paul Lennon as Premier. Gunns complained of ongoing costs caused by delays in the assessment process, citing too many requests from Executive Commissioner Julian Green for more information on many of the specifics of the project and expected impacts. A government-funded Pulp Mill Task Force was created to spruik the project, and the benefits of the (by then) chosen site at Bell Bay, using CSIRO information. [1] This sparked a claim of “apprehended bias” due to the presence of Warwick Raverty, CSIRO’s pulp mill expert, on the panel. [2] Warwick Raverty’s resignation followed, with Julian Green’s shortly after, both citing political interference. [3]  Green was replaced by retired Supreme Court Judge, Christopher Wright, who also failed to appreciate Gunns’ sense of urgency for approval of the project. Premier Lennon met with John Gay, closely followed by a meeting with Christopher Wright, which Wright perceived as an attempt to pressure him to ignore due process with the aim of achieving Gunns desired approval deadline of June 2007.


This is when facts become extremely murky, not just because they are hard to unravel but also due to ongoing secrecy and a political smokescreen.


Wright gave his verbal resignation to Linda Hornsey, Secretary of Premier and Cabinet, and drafted a letter to Gunns Ltd to follow. This was not sent because Linda Hornsey assured Wright that the RPDC process would continue. [4] Shortly after, on 9th March 2007, the acting Executive Commissioner of the RPDC Simon Cooper wrote to Hornsey stating that the proposal was in “critical non-compliance” with its requirements. Linda Hornsey again requested no letter be sent but it is widely accepted that she informed Gunns of the contents. On 14 March Gunns withdrew from the RPDC process, citing ‘the lack of certainty over when a final decision will be delivered’ which had ‘placed the company in an untenable position and imposed a significant impact on the financial risk of the project’ [5]. Public opinion holds Gunns culpable for much of the delay due to the company’s reluctance to provide full and adequate information in response to RPDC requests. This could have been due to the company’s realisation of the unpalatable nature of much of the information, particularly in view of recently released emails from 2005 and 2006 between Les Baker, (General Manager of the project), Jakka Poyry (construction company) and Gavin Anderson (public relations) [6].

Gunns’ departure from the pulp mill assessment process caused consternation in many areas, increasing the division in Tasmanian communities. From the beginning, supporters of the project were led by Liberal and Labor and detractors by the Greens and Wilderness Society, with academia driven to add their measure to the discontent due to misuse and abuse of governance in the approval process.


Nine days after Gunns withdrew from the RPDC process, Tasmania’s House of Assembly passed the Pulp Mill Assessment Bill 2007, with the full support of Liberal and Labor except for Terry Martin who was subsequently ejected from the Labor party, by his leader Paul Lennon, to become Independent. [7] About this time Premier Lennon presented an “Open Letter to Tasmanian Businesses” in which he failed to point out that Sweco Pic’s investigations found eight areas which were “non-compliant with the guidelines”. [8]


In 2007 Attorney General Steve Kons had supported the appointment of Simon Cooper as magistrate, apparently under the instruction of the Premier [9] in order to remove him from the RPDC, but instead Glenn Hay was appointed. Linda Hornsey may have just been passing on a message from the Premier, but it seems that subsequent to Simon Cooper’s letter stating the pulp mill’s “critical non-compliance”, Steve Kons received a call from her which caused him to immediately shred the signed Cabinet Brief giving his recommendation of Simon Cooper for the appointment. Steven Kons’ actions alarmed his staffer Nigel Burch sufficiently for him to bag the contents of the shredder and pass it on to the Greens. Reconstruction of the document and questions in parliament led to Steve Kons’ “inaccurate statements” [10] to parliament when he denied knowledge of the document and of Linda Hornsey’s involvement.


And so we come to the birth of Tasmanians for a Healthy Democracy, which received such strong public support at its inception due to public opinion that Gunns had undue influence in government. Marion Nicklason was MC at the inaugural forum on 19 May 2008 to promote healthy democracy for Tasmania [11] attended by about 400 people. A similarly successful event was subsequently held in Launceston. Marion held the position of convenor for two years, subsequently held by Peter Brenner for a brief period.

Tasmanians for a Healthy Democracy began with a vision for Tasmania’s future:


• Open, honest, responsive state and local governments, bureaucracies, and regulatory bodies.


• Transparent, interactive, accountable, consistent, rigorously evaluated decision-making and policy implementation.


• An educated public participating in a vibrant civil dialogue on the reform, renewal, and transformation of Tasmania’s governance systems to carry the state forward through the challenges of the 21st century.


Unfortunately, that vision now needs to be pursued by others, as THD was formally closed at its AGM on Sunday 11th September 2011, an event forced by the diminishing number of members.


As part of an Alliance for Healthy Governance, THD successfully lobbied government to extend the submission period for the review of ethical conduct, standards and integrity of elected Parliamentary representatives and servants of the State [12]. The group took part in other forums and events [13]  including making representation to the Prime Minister.


Years of political turbulence has followed for Tasmania; social division, preferential treatment, and substantial assistance to Gunns in spite of their troubled finances and the increasing public opposition to the pulp mill project. The Liberal claim that Labor has gone off track, and is now tainted by Greens in parliament, with changing to Liberal government apparently the only way to get Tasmania back to good governance, ignores the sorry tale of an unwritten but very strong Liberal Labor alliance when it comes to certain issues: particularly forestry, and especially Gunns pulp mill. Both major political parties blithely accepted, and still support, a “benefits-only” assessment which ignored critical impacts, risks and all environmental and financial costs. [14]

So much of the history behind political decisions is shrouded in secrecy supported by traditions of parliamentary privilege, political nondisclosure and claims of commercial in confidence which give sufficient laxity for major issues of concern to be swept out of sight. The public expectation was that the new Integrity Commission, now 12 months old, would examine and uncover issues that deserved the light of day. Chief Commissioner Murray Kellam said “Our key challenges are to prevent misconduct in the first place and to enhance community trust and confidence in Tasmanian public authorities and our system of democracy.” [15] More than 100 submissions to the commission at its inception suggest there is justification for its existence, but there have been few outcomes so far, with none announced on issues around the pulp mill.

How many other government documents may now be shredded, how many issues have been swept under the carpet, adding to the confusion and cover-ups that muddy Tasmania’s recent history? With so much bad feeling and loss of public confidence in state government competence and conduct it seems increasingly unlikely that there can be a truly peaceful resolution to an issue that has contributed to the downfall of at least one premier, corrupted Tasmania’s governance, created community division, caused health problems and financial hardship for a large percentage of the population and consumed an inordinate amount of human resources.


The impact of this as yet unbuilt project on Tasmania’s society could be compared to that of a major disaster. So many of those who are suffering due to job loss, mortgage failure, bankruptcy, mental stress, loss of retirement security, or the heavy handed attitude of one corporation to anyone who gets in their way, can justifiably blame the special dispensations to one company which distorted the market, put the government budget into deficit and disaffected a large percentage of the population. The money and hours spent by both sides in this wasteful conflict could have been so much more profitably used. Tasmania needs a government capable of rebuilding damaged communities, promoting confidence, ensuring financial responsibility and reforming processes to attain probity in governance.


However the chances of improvement in the near future seem remote as the need for a strong public voice on democracy and governance has only increased since May 2008. The likely candidates for the next election don’t offer much promise, with a dependence on current practices to ensure the past remains undisturbed and the present vested interests are preserved.


Refs:

[1] Tasmania’s Tamar Valley Pulp Mill: A Comparison of Planning Processes Using a Good Environmental Governance Framework: F Gale 2008 : http://eprints.utas.edu.au/6923/

[2] Gunns, State seek advice Legal doubts over mill approval process : http://www.examiner.com.au/news/local/news/politics/gunns-state-seek-advice-brlegal-doubts-over-mill-approval-process/899826.aspx

[3] Probity Issues Connected with the Tasmanian Pulp Mill : http://www.apsac.com.au/2011conference/pdf/papers09/Day2_30July09/StreamA2/ProbityIssuesTasmanianPulpMill_Baxter_Browne.pdf

[4] Good Environmental Governance and the Tamar Valley Pulp Mill: A Comparative Analysis of the RPDC and PMAA Processes: F Gale : http://tasmaniantimes.com/images/uploads/env_gov.pdf

[5] & [7] Tasmania’s Tamar Valley Pulp Mill: A Comparison of Planning Processes Using a Good Environmental Governance Framework : http://eprints.utas.edu.au/6923/1/GoodEnvironmentalGovernance-Gale.pdf

[6] Gunns: Do they deserve public funds? : http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/gunns-do-they-deserve-public-funds/

[8] The Guardian 18 July, 2007 Premier pushes outright lie on pulp mill : http://www.cpa.org.au/z-archive/g2007/1328mill.html

[9] What Nigel Burch said : http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/weblog/article/what-nigel-burch-said/

[10] The Australian : http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/tasmanias-deputy-premier-quits/story-e6frg6ox-1111116011213

[11] Youtube : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1AzO9kdi1uo

[12] See their submission

[13] Tasmanians for a Healthy Democracy: an update : http://www.tasmaniantimes.com/index.php/article/marion

[14] It’s time to stop and get off the Gunns pulp mill merry-go-round : http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/its-time-to-stop-and-get-off-the-gunns-pulp-mill-merrygoround-20090107-7byn.html?page=-1

[15] (Government News : http://www.governmentnews.com.au/2010/10/08/article/Tasmanias-new-corruption-watchdog-open-for-business/JYMQAKZZVQ.html

Satire: Karl Stevens: HERE