Lennon gets Gunns pulp mill bill passed


Tasmanian Labor Premier Paul Lennon's Pulp Mill Assessment Bill, which fast-tracks approval of timber giant Gunns Ltd's proposed $1.5 billion Tamar Valley pulp mill, was passed by the Legislative Council, the state parliament's upper house, on March 29. Seven days earlier the bill had been passed by the lower house.

Nine MLCs voted in favour of the bill and five — four independents and one Labor MLC, Terry Martin — voted against. Martin later told journalists that the general public perceived that something "shonky" was going on with the rushed process to approve the Gunns project and that he had a problem with Lennon's leadership of the state ALP.

The next day, a spokesperson for Lennon announced that Martin had been expelled by the premier from the ALP parliamentary caucus. Martin said he had received overwhelming public support for his stand against the Lennon government's pulp mill bill.

The March 30 Hobart Mercury reported that he believed "there is a growing discontent within the parliamentary Labor Party about the performance of the premier and his lack of standing in the community" and that "he has no vision other than for this pulp mill".

Gunns withdrew its pulp mill project from the normal assessment process conducted by the Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC) on March 14, claiming delays in approving the project were costing the company $10 million a month. Gunns CEO John Gay then called on the Lennon government to introduce tailor-made legislation into parliament to allow the project to go ahead.

Lennon's fast-track bill will return on April 17 to the lower house with upper-house amendments already approved by the government, and is widely expected to then become law.

The legislation provides for a private consultant to be employed by Lennon's government to "assess" the pulp mill project. The consultant is not required to consider the project's water, energy or transport impacts or the implications for Tasmania's forests.

On March 23, 14 senior academics from the University of Tasmania issued a statement warning that, by taking the pulp mill assessment from the RPDC, the Lennon government "appears to have given in to the demands of a single powerful corporation, according it preferential treatment ...

"Waiving these procedures for the benefit of influential developers or powerful corporations creates the impression of a government that acts on behalf of the powerful few rather than the public."

Australian Associated Press reported on March 26 that two University of Tasmania senior law lecturers — Michael Stokes and Tom Baxter — said the fast-track legislation will "allow for political interference in the process without the public or the parliament having any way of knowing the extent of that interference".

The March 28 Hobart Mercury reported that at a briefing for the MLC the previous day, senior government bureaucrats admitted that the bill was designed to ensure that the project's failure to meet state environmental standards on emissions of nitrous oxide would not stand in the way of its approval.

CSIRO scientist Dr Warwick Raverty, who resigned from the Resource Planning and Development Commission last year, has warned that the Tamar Valley pulp mill project fails on three environmental counts — air pollution, toxic effluent and odour emissions.

Raverty's claims have come under attack from timber industry groups that have taken out full- and half-paged advertisements in the state's newspapers to argue their case. Raverty hit back on March 26, announcing that he intends to sue the Forest Industries Association and Gunns for defamation.

The spotlight may now move to Canberra, as under national environment laws federal environment minister Malcolm Turnbull has to ensure that the impacts of the proposed mill on the ocean and on endangered species are properly assessed.

On March 29, Wilderness Society spokesperson Geoff Law called on Turnbull not to approve the pulp mill, adding that a "rally in Launceston's Albert Hall on Sunday will show mainstream community opposition to this fast-tracked pulp mill".