The fight over Gunns Ltd's proposed pulp mill, which has now moved to the national stage, is so contentious because it will determine the future of Tasmania. If this mill is allowed to be built, the logging of native forests in Tasmania will be massively expanded and an investment of this size would lock Tasmania into the logging industry for decades to come.
From the point of view of environmental groups who have been working for the past 30 years to protect the state's forests and wildlife, this is unacceptable. Other environmental impacts — on the sea and marine life, on local air quality, and on Tasmania's "clean and green" image — would severely damage the tourism, agriculture and fishing industries, as well as undermining the health and livelihoods of the local population.
The $2 billion proposal is the biggest commercial project Tasmania has ever seen, and Gunns says that if this development is rejected it would send a clear message that Tasmania does not welcome significant investment. However a new report by the Tasmanian Roundtable for Sustainable Industries found that although the pulp mill could create 280 jobs in Tasmania, it will be at the expense of 1219 jobs in other industries. An extra 216 lives would be lost from increased respiratory conditions and log-truck accidents on the road.
Gunns, which has clashed with environmentalists before, anticipated the scrutiny and public uproar. In 2004, three days before it announced its pulp mill proposal, Gunns launched a lawsuit against 20 prominent environmental activists and organisations, who believed this was an attempt to silence them. Although the cases of six defendants have been dropped, it is still dragging on for the other 14, even though it was reported in the Hobart Mercury on August 6 that Gunns has now spent more on the case than the amount it was suing for in the first place.
Stopping the pulp mill has become a national battle, with Geoffrey Cousins, a former adviser to Prime Minister John Howard, standing against federal environment minister Malcolm Turnbull in his seat of Wentworth over the issue of the mill. Turnbull has announced his initial approval of the mill as long as sea effluent and the health of endangered species are monitored. But Sean Cadman from the Wilderness Society (TWS) said on August 20 that "Mr Turnbull has placed no significant conditions on the project ... The conditions proposed by Mr Turnbull do little more than validate emission levels Gunns had already set for themselves."
The mill is hugely unpopular. An EMRS poll found that 64% of Tasmanians do not agree with the government's fast-track approval process. Tens of thousands have attended anti-mill rallies and more than 20,000 Tasmanians have signed a petition calling for more public participation in planning. But despite this public opposition, it seems likely that the mill will be approved.
TWS and the tourism group Investors for the Future of Tasmania lost their court case two weeks ago challenging the fast tracking of the mill. The final approval needs to be given by the state government on August 30, which is likely, as the lower house is controlled by Labor and its members are expected to vote in favour. Labor backbencher Lisa Singh's request for all members of parliament to be allowed a conscience vote on this issue was refused. Instead she will be allowed to abstain from the vote without risking being thrown out of the party.
Some people are hopeful that the upper house — which is controlled by independents, some of whom have indicated their concern over the process — may vote against it. If it is approved by state government (and if TWS loses its appeal in the federal court) there will be no formal barriers standing in the way of the mill's construction. But that doesn't necessarily mean it will be built.
The campaign against the mill is often compared to previous environmental campaigns against the Franklin Dam and the Wesley Vale pulp mill. In 1988 a pulp mill was approved for construction in Wesley Vale amid a similar public outcry. But despite approval, the mill was never built because public opposition was too strong. The current campaign uses the same effective strategy, with an alliance between people from a diverse range of backgrounds, including environmentalists, the tourism and fishing industries, the churches and businesspeople. Ongoing organised public opposition could make it impossible for the mill's construction to proceed.
Unlike the Franklin Dam campaign, in which the Labor prime minister stepped in to stop the development under mass community pressure, Tasmanians cannot guarantee that they will be rescued by Labor leader Kevin Rudd if he were to be elected. Federal Labor has already pledged its support for the mill, as well as for the continuation of old-growth logging in Tasmania's forests, and would be unlikely to rock the boat with the Tasmanian Labor government. With both major parties at state and federal levels giving their support to this deeply unpopular project, voters are left with little choice. This means the battle must be won outside the ballot box.
Whether or not this mill gets built, the confidence that people have in the two-party system has been shaken. For some people, the main concern about the pulp mill has been the way the state government has shown that it acts in the interests of big corporations like Gunns, at the expense of what the people want.
The weakness of our democracy is exposed when stopping an environmentally destructive development means ordinary people have to campaign tirelessly for many years, using every ounce of strength against the substantial power of big business teamed up with a dishonest government. If the people do eventually win, odds are we will have to fight a similar campaign all over again in another few years. Under Australia's capitalist economic system, companies whose only motive is profit are given control over our natural resources. This fundamental problem must be confronted if we are to guarantee community control over our local areas and a sustainable environment in the future.