Un­der the Gunn

How a com­pany and its po­lit­i­cal al­lies held Tas­ma­nia hostage to the One Big Project

The Australian - The Deal - - News - Story by: An­drew Main Pho­to­graph by: Nikki Davis-Jones

Tas­ma­nia’s un­for­tu­nate busi­ness-po­lit­i­cal past

the no­tion that a mill, per­haps in a more suit­able place such as Wes­ley Vale near Devon­port, would at least have added sig­nif­i­cant value to what was oth­er­wise a cheap bulk com­mod­ity. How­ever he points out that the Ta­mar Val­ley mill would need at least a decade’s worth of old-growth for­est to be eco­nomic, and that puts aside pol­lu­tion con­cerns that were never prop­erly re­solved.

The sub­jects given free-char­ac­ter as­sess­ments in the book in­clude most re­cent premiers start­ing with Robin Gray, plus a clear in­di­ca­tion that Tas­ma­nian Lib­eral se­na­tor Eric Abetz is not one for rea­soned dis­cus­sion about the tim­ber in­dus­try when a steely glare and a tuned up chain­saw will do. One of the least lovely char­ac­ters was for­mer La­bor pre­mier Paul Len­non, neatly de­mol­ished in 2004 by Mal­colm Turn­bull when he was en­vi­ron­ment min­is­ter. Turn­bull, who emerges as a man who was obliged as a coali­tion min­is­ter to push for the mill while per­son­ally de­plor­ing it, de­scribed Len­non as an “uber­bo­gan”, who “seems to think any­one who ad­mires a tree or who is moved by po­etry and beauty is a dick­head or worse’’. When Len­non re­signed in 2008 he had a 17 per cent ap­proval rat­ing fol­low­ing a scan­dal in which he re­port­edly or­dered the ap­point­ment of a prom­i­nent critic to a public ser­vice post to get the critic out of the way.

Even now there are nasty pieces of un­fin­ished busi­ness. One is the light sen­tence given to John Gay for in­sider trad­ing. Gay sold four mil­lion Gunns shares in 2010 when he knew the com­pany was about to an­nounce a 98 per cent drop in half-year profit from $36m to $400,000. He grossed more than $3.6m from the sale at a min­i­mum of 90c a share, be­fore the price fell to 68c.He was fined $50,000 with­out be­ing com­pelled to re­pay his profit. The Com­mon­wealth DPP has chal­lenged the penalty by launch­ing a civil “pro­ceeds of crime’’ ac­tion.

The Tas­ma­nian gov­ern­ment has caused some in­drawn breath by propos­ing bet­ter tourism ac­cess to wilder­ness ar­eas by build­ing airstrips, jet­ties and roads, which is at least an ar­guable pro­posal. The Ab­bott gov­ern­ment made an elec­tion prom­ise in 2013 to tear up a peace deal be­tween en­vi­ron­men­tal groups and tim­ber unions that ef­fec­tively ended log­ging in old-growth forests. That hasn’t hap­pened yet but last year the fed­eral gov­ern­ment tried to ex­cise 74,000 hectares of for­est from Tas­ma­nia’s world her­itage area. It took eight min­utes for a United Na­tions com­mit­tee to spike that pro­posal.

Lastly, Gunns ad­min­is­tra­tors Kor­daMen­tha may still sell the right to build the pulp mill, which has been for­mally ap­proved. It may never hap­pen but hope springs eter­nal among cer­tain breasts in Tas­ma­nia. T HERE ought to be more books in this vein: a full-scale, well-as­sem­bled anal­y­sis of what caused a pow­er­ful and of­ten feared busi­ness to col­lapse, as the Tas­ma­nian-based forestry out­fit did in Septem­ber 2012. Of course, lots of news sto­ries were writ­ten about the com­pany on the way up and on the way down, but Quentin Beres­ford has pulled the whole saga to­gether and put in the con­text of how Tas­ma­nia still op­er­ates, warts and all.

He is a pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at Edith Cowan Uni­ver­sity in West­ern Australia, but he was born and bred in Tas­ma­nia and worked as a re­porter for The Ho­bart Mer­cury in the mid-1980s. His cre­den­tials for the job are solid. He tells a dire tale of how suc­ces­sive Tas­ma­nian gov­ern­ments, Lib­eral and La­bor, and unions were cap­tured by the no­tion of One Big Project, what­ever it might be, as a gen­er­a­tor of blue-col­lar jobs. And how there was an al­most pa­ter­nal­is­tic ap­proach by Tas­ma­nian gov­ern­ments in ca­hoots with a Gunns man­age­ment that pushed, sanc­ti­fied, but also ex­ploited the anti-gree­nie at­ti­tudes of tim­ber work­ers in a bid to max­imise the out­put of wood­chips for pa­per­mak­ing, and min­imise in­ter­fer­ence from out­side.

The book doesn’t say this, but an Aus­tralian Bureau of Statis­tics re­port from 2012 stated that half of all Tas­ma­ni­ans aged be­tween 15 and 74 were func­tion­ally il­lit­er­ate, and more than half were func­tion­ally in­nu­mer­ate. That hor­ror fact is part of the back­drop to the saga that some read­ers may not have pre­vi­ously worked out: a group of ruth­less lo­cal politi­cians plus Gunns’ ex­ec­u­tive chair­man John Gay play­ing up the threat to the liveli­hood of blue-col­lar work­ers and mer­ci­lessly bag­ging any out­siders and/or en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists. The Ro­mans called it divide and rule. It be­came so ab­surd that Gay started legal ac­tion in 2004 against 20 of whom he saw as the most prom­i­nent ac­tivists against his pet project, the Ta­mar Val­ley pulp mill. That tac­tic, which cost Gunns some $2.8 mil­lion be­fore be­ing pulled, is called a SLAPP Ac­tion. It is in­ter­est­ing to note that Beres­ford also wrote a book pub­lished in 2008 called

God­fa­ther – The Life of Brian Burke. It was about the for­mer pre­mier of West­ern Australia who went to jail (twice) af­ter cham­pi­oning the idea of gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rates join­ing forces to “get things done’’.

Beres­ford is clearly a mild leftie. The pro­po­nents of the pulp mill are drawn in mono­chrome as a ca­bal of stone-hearted plot­ters, bul­lies and thugs, while all op­po­nents ap­pear in a very un­crit­i­cal light, with very lit­tle mid­dle ground in be­tween. He makes no se­cret of his hor­ror of what hap­pened over Gunns’ plan to build the pulp mill, but he doesn’t give a lot of space to

Quentin Beres­ford tells a dire tale of col­lapse

of a Tas­ma­nian cor­po­rate in­sti­tu­tion

The Rise and Fall of Gunns Ltd

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