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