Wednesday 29 January 2014

Hansard of the Legislative Council




Mr FINCH (Rosevears) - Mr President, It is a matter of record that I have consistently supported viable and responsible downstream processing in the forestry industry, but along with the majority of Rosevears electors, I have opposed the proposed pulp mill development in the Tamar Valley. It is the wrong mill in the wrong place. There are still doubts, and there always have been, about the effects of the proposed pulp mill's emissions on air quality in the populated Tamar Valley and this worries many of my constituents. I remind you we do have an inversion layer in the Tamar Valley.

The Pulp Mill Assessment Act in 2007 cannot by any measure be seen as an effective assessment. It was widely reported that it was drafted by lawyers acting for Gunns at the time and shepherded through parliament with the help of lobbyists on the Gunns' payroll. The permit which we are being asked to extend, covers up many of the compliance issues which would have emerged if there had been a proper process and if Gunns, with state government complicity, had not withdrawn from the Resource Planning And Development Commission. This was, as they say, when things went bad, when Tasmanians were shut out of the proper process and when many started to smell a rat, a decaying rat, which still infects the process, including this bill.

Ms Rattray - Not in the lunch room.

Mr FINCH - That is yet to come. As we know, this bill effectively changes the time limit in which the pulp mill has to be substantially commenced. The former legislation said permits would lapse four years after coming into force and this bill extends that period to 10 years. That means we are talking about April 2017, when the technology proposed will be approaching 15 years old. The bill before us also cements the allowance of the transfer or sale of the pulp mill permit. It also allows the minister to cancel, revoke, or otherwise terminate the permit, licence or other approval.

This bill is very simple and logical but the problem is that it is the latest move in a long and flawed process in which not only has the community not been consulted but it has been deceived. This long process started, some would say, in 2004 but the idea was mooted in 2003, and has caused uncertainty and conflict in my electorate and across Tasmania. It has caused division in the community and even in families. For more than seven years there has been uncertainty about property values and business decisions, especially in the tourism industry. Now that uncertainty and divisiveness is to be extended.

The pulp mill process really started 10 years ago. As early as 25 November 2003 I delivered a speech on a pulp mill proposal. Our GBE committee had visited the Bell Bay site for other reasons the previous week, and a week before that the state government had announced a review of the environmental guidelines for bleached kraft pulp mills. With the completion of the review months away and any concrete proposal for a pulp mill probably a further 12 months away, I argued in my speech that it was premature to have a debate then about a pulp mill. While I expressed confidence in the environmental review, I also had concerns for my electorate. I am going to quote from Hansard in 2003:

I feel confident that the proposed review of the environmental guidelines will be exactly that, that all the environmental consequences of any processing method will be examined in great detail. Any environmental consequences of any industrial project on the Tamar are of great interest to my constituents who run vineyards with a clean, green image; conduct tourism ventures; and run fish farms in the Tamar, but I am confident that the people of Rosevears will await the facts before discussing the implications of any development in the Tamar Valley.


Mr President, I would expect the environmental review to be followed by a full analysis of the social and economic impacts. The people of the Tamar Valley will want the full picture. They will want to weigh the economic benefits from any industrial development with the possible effects on other industries such as wine, tourism and aquaculture.

I have consistently argued that the people of the Tamar Valley never did get the full picture. It kept changing over the years but the big change was when Gunns quit the planning process. That is when the picture became very murky indeed. It was a long time ago but to refresh your memory I will quote from a lengthy article in The Australian on 20 November 2008:

Just when it seemed the pulp mill proposed for Tasmania's Tamar Valley might slip off the agenda, new revelations have emerged to reignite the political intrigue surrounding the controversial project.

This week a parliamentary committee heard of sworn evidence from planning chief Simon Cooper that ex-premier Paul Lennon had not been telling the truth about events leading up to the fast-tracking of the mill.

The evidence strengthened suspicions that Tasmanians were conned about the Lennon government's reasons for fast‑tracking the mill and fuelled calls for a royal commission.


Lennon saw no problem with using taxpayer funds for a government steering committee - a glorified cheer squad - to spruik the mill.

When Gunns appeared to be struggling to get the project through the Resource Planning and Development Commission, Lennon ripped up the rule book, bypassed the RPDC and pushed the mill through.

That is the beginning of the article in The Australian. I do not want to quote all of it but I would like to add a brief part close to the conclusion:

Was Gunns really willing to gamble a $2 billion project on the chance that Lennon would come to the rescue? Was the need for haste a confection to hide the mill's failings, which were known at the time by the RPDC, the government and Gunns, but not by the public or the parliament?

Richard Herr at the University of Tasmania and a longstanding independent observer of Tasmanian politics says:

These questions need to be answered and answered to the satisfaction of the public, not to the convenience of the parties. The toxicity of this is so severe in terms of what it has done to the state that it really deserves to be resolved especially since the tangled web has entrapped so many public figures and brought into disrepute the justice system as a whole.

Herr said that Parliament should have demanded answers as to whether or not it had been misled by referring the issue to inquiry by committee or by bringing key players, such as Lennon and Gay, before the bar of the House of Assembly to answer questions. He said:

I would like to see the parliament demand a complete explanation. Parliament appears to have acted on information that was either misleading or incompetent. They are the only possibilities.

That is the end of the quote from The Australian.

That matter was neither properly investigated nor resolved, Mr President. This House, of course, debated the pulp mill approval motion in August 2007. We had the burden of assessing hundreds of pages of scientific information. We are not scientists. I saw it as a momentous decision with unforeseen consequences. A brief quote from my speech:

I have reflected for months upon how we so badly needed to get this decision right because before us is a very real possibility that by making the wrong decision and ignoring the majority view opposing this pulp mill - and I have no doubt in my mind that the majority of Tasmanians oppose this mill in the Tamar Valley - we are actually 'permitting' the government to lead us into an extended and unprecedented period of division and continued and unremitting dissent across the state.

What report measured this social cost, this collateral damage to the collective psyche of Tasmania? Do we really believe it ends here today or tomorrow or next week?

That is the end of the quote from Hansard. History, I think, shows that I was correct.

I and my electorate have come on a long journey with this pulp mill process. I originally supported the concept of downstream processing and an environmentally safe and suitably located pulp mill. I had confidence in the original blueprint for the review process agreed to by both state and federal governments. Those guidelines provided a framework against which any proposal would be thoroughly evaluated and assessed. The RPDC was charged with the bulk of the assessment and any proposal which complied with the guidelines would, in turn, be passed on to the federal government for assessment of matters falling under their jurisdiction. That was the prudent and responsible way forward.

When the first rumblings of concern from Rosevears constituents were brought to my attention, I assured them that there was a sound and transparent process to be followed and the RPDC would find the right answers, but the RPDC found the Gunns proposal to be 'critically non-compliant', not good enough, not the world's safest pulp mill at all. Not safe enough for the environment or the people living in the Tamar Valley.

Gunns colluded with the Lennon government to jettison the RPDC evaluation. They replaced it with a deficient, fast-track assessment skewed to favour the Gunns proposal. The government, with opposition support, subsequently pushed a soft permit through parliament. It follows logically and rationally that I and many of my constituents became convinced that the agreed assessment process had been waived and therefore corrupted.

I came to the conclusion this erosion of public trust and disregard for the public interest and public safety outweighed any economic arguments that existed or may still exist for the construction of a Gunns pulp mill in the Tamar Valley. However persuasive those arguments may be, a pulp mill at any cost was not a reasonable or responsible or a right decision. I voted against the legislation that was passed by both Houses enabling Gunns to proceed. Further revelations of government impropriety fully vindicated my stand to support the majority view of Rosevears' electors.

Now I am asked to vote again to extend permits by amendments to the original legislation. I refused to support it then and it would be totally inconsistent to support it now. This bill has been prepared at the behest of Gunns' receivers, KordaMentha. It is a logical request to extend the permit time as KordaMentha decides amongst the six companies that have expressed interest either in Gunns' former plantations or the mill itself, or both. We do not know how many of the six potential investors are interested in the permits. I suspect there is much more interest in the plantations.

It is to be borne in mind that KordaMentha is only obligated to get the best deal for Gunns' secured creditors. As KordaMentha spokesman, Michael Smith, was reported saying last week:

The sale is not necessarily a package deal. Our legal requirement is to act in the best interest of the bank, our secured creditors. If the highest price is just for the wood chipping business and the plantations without the pulp mill, we have got to accept it on behalf of our secured creditors.

It is also possible as the chief executive of the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Michael Bailey, pointed out last week that an investor with existing pulp mill assets could, to prevent competition, buy the mill licence with the intention of never building.

KordaMentha will be announcing its decision over Gunns' former assets in about 10 weeks. You would think that if there was no interest in the pulp mill permit that that is the end of a decade of uncertainty. Well, not so. While the permit remains valid there is always the likelihood of someone coming along and reviving the project, thus the pulp mill ghost still lurks across the Tamar for my electorate and the uncertainty for the residents and business owners in Rosevears continues.

I have been aware so many of my constituents have opposed a Tamar Valley pulp mill right from the beginning. We have seen long-running and well-organised campaigns against it. While the uncertainty has continued, the project has seemed less likely year by year, so before this debate I was very interested in gauging the feelings of the people in Rosevears. It is hard to get a proper feel for public opinion as people will tell you what they think you want to hear. I have been at pains to get around the electorate, as I know others have, speaking to as many people as possible. One strong and recent indication of feeling about a Tamar Valley pulp mill was seen last Wednesday night when more than 600 people attended a public meeting in my electorate. I made sure I went because generally you get reports of these meetings and they wildly vary. The Examiner newspaper reported that there were more than 600 people there.

Despite the media and the Premier misrepresenting the situation, there were only a few people keen to show support for the Gunns pulp mill. I would suggest three or four. I will quote from an email I received after the meeting closed:

Tonight I attended a meeting in Launceston, with over 500 other concerned citizens, to bring us up to date with current efforts in place to continue protesting against the development of a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley. I am contacting you as an independent member of the Legislative Council to suggest in the strongest possible terms that this project is no longer viable, if it ever was, and that to proceed with it in current global economic climates is an act of little more than foolishness.

I am hoping it is no surprise that the strength of feeling against this proposal runs very deep in every element of the Tasmanian community; anyone who believes that such sentiment will simply evaporate has simply not been paying attention for the last eight years.

That was an email from one of the more than 600 who attended last week's public meeting.

A speaker has raised the question of further improper conduct by the state government, so desperate to wedge the opposition and position itself as the pulp mill promoter, that it will seek to alter legislation to influence the outcome of the pending court case.

Would you expect business on the West Tamar, people from the West Tamar Chamber of Commerce, to welcome a big development across the river? That is an interesting question, is it not? The Chamber of Commerce rightly says it is neutral on the matter, but the chamber has recently sought the views of individual members. It set up a questionnaire. I want to quote the results in order of priority:

1. Tasmania is an economic mess and needs industry and big business quickly but not at any cost.

2. The Tamar Valley is an inappropriate site for the proposed mill.

3. Tasmania needs some processing facilities for existing forest resources. They are not restricted to a pulp mill only.

4. The proposed mill may provide some employment but is not Tasmania's answer to its economic woes.

5. The mill would be better sited in a less populated site away from existing, successful agri, food and tourism businesses which operate opposite the site on the West Tamar.

6. Most members do not want the pulp mill in the Tamar Valley.

The president of the West Tamar Chamber of Commerce, Yvonne Masters, says in conclusion and I quote:

I anticipate this topic will feature prominently in the election. The TCCI will certainly be making representations to the government and any new government. I intend to pass on your views so that businesses in the West Tamar are clearly heard.

But on its past record, I do not think the government will be listening at all. Let us face it, environmental fears and the obvious corrupting of the pulp mill approval process has put many thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, of Tasmanians offside.

In December a Canberra-based think tank, The Australia Institute, revealed that it had been taking a close look at subsidies for the forestry industry in Tasmania. It found that it was money down the drain. It says the forest peace deal had cost taxpayers $420 million since 2011, propping up industry players rather than helping to diversify Tasmania's economy. It points out that the logging industry directly employed only 0.4 per cent of Tasmania's workforce and accounted for 0.5 per cent of gross state product.

The lead author of The Australia Institute's report, Dr Andrew McIntosh, from the Australian National University, blames the disproportionate political focus on forestry for Tasmania's poor economic performance. Here is what Dr McIntosh had to say, and I quote:

ABS data makes clear that even in the unlikely event that attempts to support the forestry industry were to succeed, they would create far fewer jobs than if the same effort was put into expanding other industries.

Despite the fact that forestry employs a trivial proportion of the Tasmanian workforce, state policy makers seem convinced that the success of the forestry industry is essential to addressing the low rates of growth, employment and output per worker which has seen the Tasmanian economy slip even further behind the economies of the mainland states.

If Tasmanian policy makers continue to place the interests of the dwindling forestry industry at the heart of their plans for Tasmania's economy, then the gap between the Tasmanian economy and the mainland economy will only continue to grow.

The government and the opposition see the Gunns pulp mill as a silver bullet solution for the economy. Many commentators have made the point that it has become an obsession, a cargo cult mentality that promises riches and jobs for all. There is an opportunity for a new, viable and sustainable Tasmanian forestry industry but not through this pulp mill, which is only the second rung on the downstream processing ladder and would suck in resources which could be used in much better processing options.

While we have wasted time, energy and money pursuing a broken dream, the Europeans have been forging ahead with new timber technologies. I remember, it would be 20 years ago, when the federal government shut down a research operation run by the CSIRO at Clayton. From that point, research and development in the forestry industry ceased. Other countries, the Europeans, Canadians, have forged ahead with the research that they are doing.

We are a couple of decades behind. We need to embark on a path that takes us forward. In particular, there are exciting prospects for the manufacture of value-added laminated structural timber from our plantations, and I hope to talk about this and other new ideas in this place in the future.

I was opposed to the original permit legislation and I oppose the current legislation before the House to shore up the permit. My position is unequivocal. Not this pulp mill, Mr President, and not in our Tamar Valley.

I believe that those in Rosevears will confirm that they agree in the May poll and I will be back here again to remind you.