The Guardian 2 February, 2005

Gunning for super profits

Peter Mac

The tsunami tragedy has eclipsed one very disturbing Australian legal case with potentially terrible implications for the natural environment and the rights of expression of ordinary Australians.

Just before Christmas, the giant Tasmanian timber firm Gunns Ltd served writs for damages on 20 critics of its industrial practices.

The company is claiming a total of $6,360,483 in damages, which it says resulted from campaigns waged by the defendants over recent years. The campaigns were aimed at blocking and/or highlighting aspects of Gunns' activities, including their policy of clear felling massive areas of native forest to gain timber (only a small percentage of which is actually used) for woodchipping, as well as the ruthless and systematic destruction of wildlife in these areas.

The company alleges it suffered because of unlawful "conspiracies" by the defendants, and because of their unlawful interference in its legitimate business operations, in particular from:

  • disruption to logging operations at Lucaston, Hampshire, Triabunna and the Styx Valley,

  • vilification of the company regarding its Burnie woodchip site,

  • Tasmania's Banksia environmental awards (the company was excluded from the awards short list!), and campaigns aimed at Gunns' Japanese and Belgian customers, and

  • campaigns involving the company's shareholders, investors and banks.

    The 20 defendants include the Wilderness Society, Doctors for Forests, the Huon Valley Environment Centre, Peg Putt (MHA), and Greens Senator Bob Brown.

    Gunns Ltd is Australia's biggest native forest logging company and the world's biggest hardwood-chip company. It is determined to maintain its logging practices, and is willing to savagely prosecute opponents.

    Former state premier Robin Gray is adviser to its executive chairman, John Gay. In the 1970s Gray planned construction of a dam that would have permanently flooded the exquisite Gordon and Franklin Rivers. The plan was bitterly opposed by conservationists and was finally blocked by federal government intervention.

    Some 15 years ago the company's then chairman, Edward Rouse, was jailed for 18 months for attempting to bribe a Labor MP to take action which would have deprived Tasmanian Greens of the balance of power in state parliament. David McQuentin, a former Rouse company executive, is now an assistant to John Gay.

    Gunns' policies and practices have been supported by conservative state and federal governments, including the present Tasmanian Labor government.

    The company's legal attack against the conservationists has been criticised as extremely dangerous for those who speak out against environmental vandalism.

    Some have drawn comparisons to the "McLibel" case in Britain, where two poorly paid but courageous workers were sued by the McDonalds restaurant chain for publicly claiming that the company's practices resulted in rainforest destruction, consumer disease, and third world starvation.

    The case backfired against the company. The judge's ruling that some of the defendants' allegations had been proven resulted in extremely bad publicity for the company.

    However, the Gunns case is fundamentally different because the company is not arguing the truth or otherwise of the conservationists' statements. Rather, it is alleging that their actions and statements resulted in financial hardship for the company.

    Moreover, the current case could set a precedent in an even wider context. The environmental implications of the Gunns case are serious enough, in a period when the safety of millions of people is jeopardised by environmental changes.

    However, a victory by Gunns would, by implication, threaten the right of any citizen to speak out or take peaceful protest action because of the financial harm it might cause the company concerned.

    It could set a legal precedent for the banning of protest action by unions, community groups and even small shareholders, over any unpopular action or proposed action, by the company concerned. It could, in short, usher in the iron-fisted rule of unbridled capital.

    The defendants in this case have vowed not to yield to the company's pressure. Senator Brown, who is due to visit Japan next month to publicise the case, last week declared angrily:

    "I, for one, will never be cowed by John Gay, Robin Gray, their wealth or their power of destruction. They will not stop me from campaigning to save Australia's heritage even if it means losing every penny, every home comfort, and every peaceful night's sleep life offers."

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