Pulp mill-related scandal brings down deputy premier

April 19, 2008

Tasmanian deputy premier Steve Kons resigned in disgrace on April 9 following the eruption of a new political scandal for Premier Paul Lennon's Labor government related to its support for Gunns Ltd's planned Tamar Valley pulp mill.

The April 4 Hobart Mercury reported that last July deputy premier and Attorney-General Kons had signed a document recommending to cabinet that lawyer Simon Cooper be appointed as the next new magistrate, but was then ordered to destroy the document by Linda Hornsey, the head of the premier's department.

The alleged reason related to Cooper's conduct when he headed up the Resource Planning and Development Commission during the assessment process for Gunns' pulp mill project. Cooper had written a letter to Lennon that revealed that Hornsey had played a central role in ensuring Gunns was never told in writing that the project was not meeting the RPDC guidelines.

Kons initially called the Mercury's report "pure fantasy", and when questioned in parliament on April 8, denied ever signing or destroying such a document. The Greens then held up a previously shredded document that they had sticky-taped back together. It showed that Kons had signed off on such a recommendation.

Kons was forced to admit that he had deliberately misled parliament and had to resign as deputy premier (and minister responsible for the pulp mill).

The whistleblower who rescued the shredded document, Nigel Burch — who was an adviser to Kons before he was sacked last month for writing a letter critical of the government — claimed that Lennon had backed Cooper's appointment as a magistrate so as to remove him from the RPDC.

Education minister David Bartlett has been appointed as the new deputy premier but economic development minister Paul Wriedt will be responsible for the widely unpopular Gunns pulp mill project.

Tasmanian Greens leader Peg Putt has called for a judicial commission of inquiry into the Cooper affair. The Tasmanian Bar Association has called for a more transparent process in appointing magistrates and judges, outside of the sole control of government.

In an article entitled "Battle cry for our Tasmania" published in the April 12 Mercury, novelist and environmental campaigner Richard Flanagan wrote: "We need this rotten era to be over. We need a new politics of hope and change that is respectful of all Tasmanians, rather than craven to a handful of big businesses… We need practical measures to ensure such a shameful era never happens again — an independent commission into corruption, a return to larger houses of parliament, the ending of political interference in our public service, statutory measures to ensure the return to proper and respectful distance between executive government and big business."

The call for a permanent statutory anti-corruption commission has been taken up by the Greens, independent MP Terry Martin, whistleblower Nigel Burch and Max Bingham, a former Tasmanian Liberal deputy premier who was the first head of the Queensland Criminal Justice Commission, established in 1989.

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