Tasmanians from all walks of life are up in arms about Gunns' proposal to build one of the largest pulp mills in the world in the Tamar Valley, near Launceston.
Environmentalists argue that the pulp mill will badly affect the quality of air and water, threaten endangered species and encourage the logging of native forests. A group of businesspeople, Investors for the Future of Tasmania, is concerned about the pulp mill's impact on other local industries, such as fishing and agriculture, claiming it will bring about job losses that will equal those created by the mill. The tourism industry is worried that Tasmania's reputation as a "green state" will be compromised by a polluting mill. Tasmanians Against the Pulp Mill (TAP) says that the pulp mill will use 26 billion litres of fresh water a year from the Trevallyn Dam, which supplies Launceston's drinking water. This could force water restrictions on the city.
The range of people now speaking out against the mill continues to grow. Warwick Raverty — previously an expert with the Regional Planning and Development Commission (RPDC) who took part in the first assessment process but resigned citing government interference — is speaking out against it. The pastor of the Legana Christian Church has written a "Christian response to the Bell Bay Pulp Mill". The Tasmanian Rock Lobster Association is seeking a financial guarantee from the Labor state government that the industry will not be harmed.
Gunns has been desperate to win back public opinion, paying for large daily advertisements promoting the mill under the headline "Environmental updates". Some of these ads include claims such as, "No old growth timber will be used in mill". TAP rejects this claim, saying that 80% of the timber used in the mill at the beginning will be from old-growth forests, and that switching to plantation timber will be slower than planned because of the drought.
Apart from the adverse environmental and health impacts of the proposed pulp mill, much of people's anger is directed at the state Labor government for so readily coming behind Gunns' mill proposal. Despite opposition to the mill by the overwhelming majority of Tasmanians, both major parties are avidly backing Gunns.
A May 8 Taspol poll showed that 55% of those in northern Tasmania oppose the mill. Premier Paul Lennon has claimed that he has a mandate to go ahead with the mill after winning the 2006 elections. However, he was re-elected on the promise that the mill would need to pass the RPDC and meet strict environment standards. Since the mill project was pulled out of the RPDC process, opposition has grown in the light of the lack of democracy and accountability.
The cosy relationship between Gunns and the state government started with the former Liberal premier Robin Gray, who now sits on the board of Gunns. Lennon and the director of Gunns, John Gay, continue this intimacy. Forestry Tasmania, the state government department that manages the forest industry, logs forests and then sells almost all of its timber to Gunns. But the details of these transactions have been kept secret, so no-one is certain how cheaply the wood is being sold. However, according to the Wilderness Society (TWS), last year Gunns made $87 million profit, while Forestry Tasmania made almost none.
Lennon has offered five members of the Legislative Council, as well as one representative each from Liberal, Labor and the Greens free overseas trips to tour mills in Finland and Germany. So far, only the deputy premier has taken up the offer.
This pulp mill would be the state's biggest ever investment, totaling $1.5 billion. Lennon commented: "It would signal that Tasmania is open for business."
Lennon is so desperate to retain the mill that after Gunns withdrew from the RPDC, he took the extraordinary step of rushing new laws through parliament to allow a new, much narrower, assessment of the mill and final approval by the parliament.
"Tasmania has some of the oldest forests in the world, and some of the most diverse ecosystems. To destroy these forests for the profits of one company is shameful", Matthew Holloway, a co-founder of Tasmanians for Transparency and a Socialist Alliance candidate in the federal election, told Green Left Weekly. "The collusion of the state government with one of the largest corporations should make all of us query whether this is the sort of 'democracy' we want. The pulp mill is yet another example of how the government is more interested in helping big business than ordinary working people."
TWS, a leading organisation in the campaign against the pulp mill, is still fighting a legal case, along with other environmentalists, that Gunns brought against it three years ago. Two weeks ago, TWS took the step of suing federal environment minister Malcolm Turnbull for his part in allowing the pulp mill to avoid the independent assessment process. The federal government decides whether a project complies with the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and TWS claims it is making sure the government upholds the law.
But the laws the state government rushed through parliament, giving it the power to approve the pulp mill, include a unique clause that says the mill cannot be stopped even if a member of the assessment team is found to be corrupt or biased.
Court cases alone will not win the campaign as the recent Wielangta case shows. When Greens Senator Bob Brown sued the state government for illegally logging in the Wielangta forest and won, the state Labor and federal Coalition governments teamed up to change the Regional Forest Agreement that controls which areas can be logged.
But a combination of tactics, including mass protests, can win as the Franklin Dam campaign showed. The winning strategy was a combination of huge numbers of people mobilising in a sustained campaign of street rallies, civil disobedience actions and a successful blockade.
Thousands converged on parliament when the new pro-pulp laws were passed and this coming weekend thousands more will rally at Launceston to again say no. As Paul Oosting, a TWS campaigner told GLW, "It is important to show our opposition to the mill because only through a groundswell of action will the government be held accountable and the mill be stopped".