Wednesday 28 March 2007
PULP MILL ASSESSMENT BILL 2007 (No. 9)
Mr FINCH (Rosevears)
- Well, what a dog's breakfast, Mr President. Here we are presented with a hastily cobbled-together bill which is the result of the Government's cack-handed attempt to run our State. We are told the Australian people have elected Labor State governments around the country because they are such good managers on State issues. Yet, here we have a premier and his Government who, to put it mildly, have fumbled the management of potentially Tasmania's biggest-ever single investment. Here we have a government which has bungled a straightforward and widely supported assessment process for a pulp mill. Here we have a government that has interfered in the process to an extent which has made the public suspicious and cynical. Here we have a government on the backfoot, trying to get up an alternative assessment process which is never going to have the confidence or attract the support of most Tasmanians. Here is a government which has lost the trust of many Tasmanians.
Mr President, we have seen enough division over environmental and developmental issues in this State. It tears apart our communities and our families. We thought that with the Resource Planning and Development Commission process we had a system of public consultation, a scientific and expert assessment which would result in a decision which, while it might not have been what every Tasmanian wanted, would at least provide transparency and expertise.
We recall the report of this House's select committee into planning schemes which was released late last year and chaired by the member for Rowallan. Among the many witnesses were the now-resigned executive chairman of the RPDC, Julian Green, and also Peter Tucker, the then Tasmanian President of the Planning Institute of Australia. Here is some of what Mr Tucker had to say on 27 January this year after the departure of Julian Green from the RPDC:
'the opportunity is there for both the RPDC and the Government, if they have the will, to restore public confidence in the planning process. The need for a properly functioning and effective RPDC has consequences much wider, and ramifications that will last much longer, than just whether Gunns ends up building a pulp mill on the banks of the Tamar River.'
Mr Tucker went on to detail some concerns about the workings of the RPDC process and to make suggestions for improvements. Mr Tucker said:
'One procedure that could help manage the RPDC workload and also speed up processes is to allow directions hearings and mediation in the approval of planning schemes and amendments. Another change could be to loosen the emphasis for legal representation and technical jargon that currently dominate RPDC procedures.
If we are struggling at the moment in Tasmania it is not the RPDC or any one person or organisation's "fault". But we do need to accept we have a problem and that our planning system is not operating as it should. The public is entitled to doubt that the planning process is always fair, accessible, inclusive, timely and transparent.
How the RPDC operates, and is perceived to operate, is central to public confidence in our planning system. If we lose that confidence then we can kiss the chance of continued sustainable growth in this State goodbye.'
That is the end of the quote and that was timely advice, Mr President, by a planning expert that was given two months ago, and seemingly not heeded.
The RPDC assessment process, Mr President, was supported by the Federal Government. It was praised by the State Government and it was seen by local government as the jewel in the crown of the planning process, despite those reservations outlined by Mr Tucker.
So what happened? The Premier set up a body called the Pulp Mill Task Force. This, from the Premier, is supposed to be impartial in planning and development issues. So was this task force to be impartial? Was this a body designed to obtain the best result for Tasmania? I make no judgment about that but it seems the head of the RPDC did not think so. He resigned, citing improper pressure from the Government through the task force, and was replaced.
I would like to quote the man who resigned along with Julian Green, a Victorian organic chemist who works for the CSIRO, Dr Warwick Raverty, and –
Mr Parkinson - I wouldn't quote too much of his nonsense.
Mr FINCH - Dr Raverty has been much in the news lately, Mr President. It is only a short quote, it won't trouble you too much - although it may. I quote:
'If Paul Lennon had heeded the warning given to him by Julian Green on 2nd February 2005 and honoured his promise given to Mr Green that day to ensure that the Pulp Mill Task Force would not contact my employer CSIRO, or its joint venture, ENSIS, the original RPDC Assessment Panel would still be on-track to deliver a recommendation on the proposal by 30 June 2007.'
If I might stress that last sentence, Mr President:
'the … RPDC Assessment Panel would still be on-track to deliver a recommendation on the proposal by 30 June 2007.'
Mr Parkinson - Was this after he resigned?
Mr FINCH - Julian Green's successor as head of the assessment panel, former Supreme Court judge, Christopher Wright, was quick to put the blame for the delayed process on the pulp mill proponents - Gunns. By this time, of course, the Tasmanian public was puzzled at best, and at worst, suspicious, about what was going on. Confidence in an impartial and independent assessment of serious environmental issues for the Tamar Valley was shaken.
Christopher Wright has said the RPDC assessment had been considerably broader than the proposed new fast-track assessment and would consider a lot more things. He says an assessment process without public hearings is fundamentally flawed. The preceding sequence of events is well known. It will be written into our State's history as a farce, as a fiasco. Some of the public comments of the past few days might also fit that category.
In contrast, Mr President, I am greatly impressed by the standard of the general public debate. Like my colleagues, I have received hundreds of e-mails, phone calls and had personal representations, the vast majority of them informed and rational arguments.
Mr President, I am impressed by my fellow Tasmanians. There is much to be gained by this kind of public discussion. My only regret is that it also seems to have split our community. Here we are in this House today, presented with a bill which throws out the well-regarded RPDC process and presents us with this fast-track, hastily prepared, dog's breakfast of a bill.
I do not know what your constituents are thinking, Mr President, but many of mine are disappointed at losing a process in which they had some trust and certainly felt that they were included. Now they are bewildered and suspicious. The honourable member for Nelson has spoken of the vital need for any pulp mill assessment to take the public with it. There are strong indications that the process resulting from this bill will not do that. The result will be divisive. The result may be a development which will continue to be opposed by half or more of the population.
What have we in place of the RPDC process, Mr President?
Let us look at the expressions of interest brief for consultants for the new assessment process that was released on 22 March. It is significant that any consultant's contract is to be managed by the Department of Premier and Cabinet, hardly an independent body. Without going too far into the briefing document, I would just like to quote paragraphs 'h' and 'i' from section 2 of the statement of requirements:
h) If limits specified in the guidelines are unlikely to be met, advise on whether the predicted emissions are considered consistent with accepted international best practice for a project of this nature and scale.'
i) If accepted modern technology and best practice environmental management measures or other requirements specified in the guidelines will not or are unlikely to be met, advise on whether that aspect of the project is considered consistent with accepted international best practice for a project of this nature and scale.'
It now seems, Mr President, the tough guidelines that the Premier constantly speaks of are somewhat optional. Members of this House will recall the briefing yesterday afternoon. Part of the presentation was by Environmental Management Director, Warren Jones, and written about in today's Mercury . We were told that the pulp mill would fail to meet those rules relating to the dangerous nitrogen oxide pollution and the required height of its smoke stack. What is the point, Mr President, of having rules if there is no intention for them to be met?
Mr Harriss - World's best practice overtakes it.
Mr FINCH - Mr President, this debate is not about the pros and cons of a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley. It is about the process of assessing such a project. However, I would like to stress at this stage that I strongly support the establishment of a pulp mill in Tasmania. But like many others, I believe the present proposal is for a pulp mill in the wrong place. This is not a case of 'Not In My Backyard'. The problems of the Tamar Valley as a pulp mill site have been much detailed. I believe that alternative sites such as Hampshire should be more closely examined. I know the transport logistics are a problem, but is transport a greater consideration than health? Hampshire has much to recommend it. Airborne emissions would be safely dispersed, Launceston's future water supply would not be a factor, and there is not the population concentration of the Tamar Valley. Gunns from time to time suggested processing in Victoria or Indonesia. If it is with our woodchips, why not take a left turn out from the Tamar River, go up to Burnie?
There are a number of avenues for assistance with transport logistics, including Federal Government programs. If Hampshire had been chosen as a site we would not be having this difficult debate today. Tasmanians would not be split. There would be overwhelming support for a pulp mill.
Mr Harriss - But the RPDC would not accept them competing in that situation.
Mr FINCH - What a pity, Mr President. In the past few weeks the Premier has acted as if it is the end of the world if this present pulp mill proposal fails to go ahead. The Robin Gray Government told us something similar years ago about the Wesley Vale pulp mill proposal. I would suggest that if a new pulp mill is a sound investment and can meet environmental and other guidelines, it is a done deal. If the Gunns project does not get up, another one will. Gunns is not the only player in the State's forestry industry, or Australia's. What will rationalisation of the forestry and timber industries of Australia throw up? We do not know. It may well be very positive for Tasmania, so perhaps there is no genuine need for the Government's panic. But in the meantime, here we are in this Chamber having to consider panic legislation to fast-track a possibly ill-conceived project in a highly sensitive area which could affect the health of 100 000 people. How can those people have confidence in a hasty process at the whim of a government which is apparently prepared to cut corners? I am always ready to support any project which will provide jobs and security for Tasmanians, as long as it will not harm our health or the place in which we live. In that I am supported by the majority in my electorate. Most Tasmanians want to see more downstream processing in our forestry industry, but my constituents must be confident that any project will not harm their health or their environment. I am unhappy to say that they will not be confident about this new process.
Mr Parkinson - Well, let the assessment have a go.
Mr FINCH - If the consultant's expression of interest brief is anything to go by, Mr President, there are strong grounds for suspecting that we are not now going to get the best pulp mill in the world; we are going to get an average one.
Mr Parkinson - So you've made up your mind.
Mr FINCH - My basic concern, Leader, is for the health of my constituents and their children.
Mr Parkinson - That is what the assessment is all about.
Mr FINCH - The Australian Medical Association says that this bill will not allow enough time to address the health concerns of those who live in the Tamar Valley. That has to ring alarm bells. Why must we possibly threaten the health of people to fast-track a project without proper scrutiny for a financial time line? Regardless of the Premier's promise of great annual financial benefits for every Tasmanian household, why should we throw out a widely supported assessment system? What if the medical expenses caused by additional particle inhalation far outweigh the Premier's dubious promise? Where are we then?
In his briefing yesterday, as you will recall, Mr President, the Tasmanian President of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Michael Aizen, said he had seen no information to allay his concern that a Tamar Valley pulp mill was likely to increase respiratory illness in Launceston. He said the AMA could only support a Tamar Valley pulp mill if there were stringent health restrictions placed on its operations. It seems that will not be the case under this proposed assessment process. Dr Aizen cited a present rate of deaths from respiratory disease in the Tamar Valley of between eight and 17 a year. He said the AMA did not wish to see a further increase in mortality and morbidity resulting from a major development nearby. He said experts analysing data provided by the pulp mill proponent found serious flaws in the methodology of the studies and of the models postulated. Dr Aizen continued, and I will quote:
'Our concerns were such that we were invited to present them to the Resource Planning & Development Commission in order to provide a balance and a more scientifically accurate picture of current and potential adverse health outcomes. In the course of the RPDC's proceedings the proponent took our message on board but the untimely demise of the RPDC precluded any response from the proponent. We respected the integrity of the RPDC's process and its attention to detail.'
Dr Aizen is of course not the only one who respected the RPDC process. I feel that Dr Aizen's concluding statement sums up the AMA's position, and I would like to quote it:
'As doctors we strongly urge you to be guided by the strongest possible current scientific evidence and if you do elect to allow the Pulp Mill to proceed to apply the most stringent rules of operation and to enforce closure in the event of breach. It is clear that short term economic considerations have resulted in the demise of a respected, independent and transparent body. This Bill runs the risk of replacing due diligence with indecent haste. If this bill is passed in its current or similar format it will almost certainly lead to severe and unintended adverse health outcomes not only for our current generation but for those to follow.'
That is good enough for me, Mr President. I will not support the bill in its present form and, as I indicated earlier, I do not want to get involved in the pros and cons of the present pulp mill proposal. If this bill is passed that will be thrust upon us in September after only three days to assess the implications for Tasmanians, but I do object strongly to the scrapping of the best planning process this State has come up with so far, the RPDC.
I would also like to point out the Federal implications of Gunns' withdrawal from the agreed assessment. This puts the pulp mill political football into the air only months before a Federal election, a Federal election in which both main parties will be playing politics for the Green vote. What a dog's breakfast.
Let us all go back to square one. We have generally supported RPDC scrutiny of a controversial project which our voters want to be properly scrutinised by the best experts available. That will cost more, but history will justify that cost. If one company decides to take away its bat and ball and give the umpire the flick, somebody else will come to the wicket if the idea has genuine merit. And if another player arrives, its proposal can be properly assessed in the health and other interests of all Tasmanians, preferably in a location which does not have the problems of the Tamar Valley. So I do not support the bill.