The Guardian 5 September, 2007

More riveting episodes in
"The great Gunns saga"

Peter Mac

The controversy over the huge pulp mill which Gunns Ltd proposes to build in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley shows no sign of abating. Last week Tasmania’s upper house of Parliament approved construction of the mill, and the state Premier, Paul Lennon, claimed that federal Minister for the Environment Malcolm Turnbull has no legal right to delay a decision on approval of the proposal.

In order to force the project through in the shortest possible time Lennon halted the official expert assessment of the project. If construction of the mill proceeds, its operations would result in major pollution in neighbouring areas, Launceston, the Tamar River and Bass Strait. Opposition to the project is widespread; the tourism, wine-growing and fishing industries in Tasmania are vigorously opposed to the project. A poll in the Tamar Valley in the Liberal-held seat of Bass indicates 53 percent of residents are strongly opposed to the project.

Federal hurdle

The Howard Government is primarily responsive to the requirements of big business, and in a typically arrogant move Howard himself has declared that construction of the mill can and will go ahead.

However, as pollution from the mill will affect migratory bird species that are the subject of international agreements to which the Commonwealth is a signatory Federal Ministerial approval is required for the proposal.

Mr Turnbull is much more cautious than the Prime Minister, and has said he will defer his decision for an extra 30 days meaning the announcement wouldn’t be made until in early October. This is despite the Department of the Environment officials supporting Mr Howard and pushing Turnbull to approve the proposal.

However, if Turnbull approves the project, public opposition to it will turn even more sharply against the government in the coming elections.

Turnbull’s dilemma

Turnbull’s 30-day delay means that a decision on the proposal may not be made until after the announcement of the election date. During the election period the Howard Government would be in caretaker mode, and according to convention could not grant approval without bipartisan support from the ALP opposition.

Given the strength of public opposition to the proposal, the Government and the opposition would be far less likely to support it, because of the risk of losing votes in the election frenzy. The decision could even be deferred until after the election, when the Greens may have extra Senate numbers and more influence on a new ALP government.

Desperate to remove all obstacles to commencement of the project, Lennon now maintains that Turnbull has not complied with the Environment Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act, because he did not notify Gunns about the deferral of his decision and did not publicise it in the Government Gazette.

He may well be right, and Turnbull may find himself having to make his decision within the next week or so.

Opposition from all quarters

To add to Turnbull’s woes, leading businessman and Liberal Party figure Geoff Cousins has mounted a vigorous and very colourful campaign to force both the Liberals and the ALP to declare their opposition to the project, and to demand a resumption of the public hearings on the proposal by the Lennon Government. If Turnbull refuses to do so, Cousins says he will run for election in Turnbull’s eastern Sydney seat of Wentworth.

Cousins’ campaign is helping to turn an issue of primary importance to residents of northern Tasmanian electorates into one of major national significance, as happened in the Franklin River campaign more than 20 years ago.

As a further complication, the Wilderness Society is taking the matter to the Federal Court. They are challenging Turnbull’s right to make a decision based on his process of assessment, which mainly consists of seeking the opinion of Jim Peacock, the Commonwealth Chief Scientist who helped the Howard Government formulate its reactionary stand on climate change.

In short, the situation is rapidly turning into a nightmare for the Liberals, and a headache for the ALP, which has not covered itself in glory over the issue.

The only MPs coming out of the Gunns Pulp Mill saga with any real credibility are the Greens, who have steadfastly opposed the mill proposal and the gimcrack approval processes of the Tasmanian and Federal Governments. Doubtless, this will be reflected at the ballot boxes at the forthcoming federal elections.

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