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Gunns and the democratic ritual

By Peter Henning - posted Thursday, 6 March 2008

No creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold. Cormac McCarthy.

Tasmanian academic and public intellectual Pete Hay (author, most recently, in collaboration with photographer Matthew Newton, of The Forests), had this to say in December 2006:

The first duty of the democratic citizen is to defend her place. To defend it, for example, against the life- and place-destructive technologies ordered without your leave into your home valleys and foothills by men with maps and computer simulations, and claiming the fake authority of democratic ritual, as opposed to the real authority of democratically-lived citizenship, and membership of place and its living communities.


The “democratic ritual” that Hay refers to is “the regular elections between two bland and homogenised political parties”, which allows, for example in Tasmania, “that the forests that cradle the island’s very soul continue to be trashed even though survey after survey confirms that 70-80 per cent of voters want to see an end to the destruction of the clearfells, though lacking the requisite courage of their convictions, most of them, to vote accordingly.”

It is a system which guarantees passively acquiescent voters, “timid, easily-spooked, but well-meaning folk”, and they vote in droves for policies they say they don’t support.

Other voices have been raised against this passivity, the “relaxed and comfortable” retreat from political engagement.

One such voice, journalist and cartoonist Michael Leunig, also writing in 2006, is scathing. He reminds readers of the behaviour of Australians during the Vietnam War, and asks specifically in relation to the large anti-war marches in 1970, “Where were you all five years ago when it really mattered?”, in other words before the massive loss of life and destruction.

In the aftermath of the 2007 federal election we can see it all again. Tasmania is an exemplary microcosm because it had a dominant local issue. In the weeks and months leading up to the election it was clear, in poll after poll, that a majority of Tasmanians were opposed to Gunns’ proposed pulp mill being built in the Tamar Valley. But even though there was a surge of support for anti-mill candidates throughout Tasmania, the basic shape of the vote for the major parties, which were back-slappingly unified as a single party in support of the mill, was much the same as usual.

In other words, quite a large number of people who said they were opposed to the pulp mill gave their imprimatur to the new Rudd Government to claim an electoral mandate for the mill to be built.


The retreat from democracy is not just about people deserting their convictions or their consciences when they enter the polling booth. An associated aspect of the malaise is that the mutual responsibility of both electors and elected to be informed, to understand that “representation” is a two-way street, has broken down.

Tasmanians in the 2007 federal election voted overwhelmingly for politicians who have no concern about any of the impacts of the pulp mill on them or future generations. They voted for politicians who have ignored all independent expertise and advice, from economists to scientists, from doctors to former members of the sidelined state RPDC (Resource Planning and Development Commission), and of course they voted for politicians who have ignored hundreds of public submissions.

Except for Bob Brown, not one of the other five elected senators and not one of the five MHRs has demonstrated any concern about the full range of issues: including resource sustainability, water usage, managed investment schemes and plantations, affects on river catchments, agriculture, tourism, marine environment, health of people and other species, assessment process, subsidies to the proponent, increased logging and transport hazards, air and water pollution, climate change and competition with mills coming on line in Malaysia, South America and Russia.

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This is an edited version of an article first published in the Tasmanian Times on February 18, 2008.

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About the Author

Peter Henning is a former teacher and historian. He is a former Tasmanian olive grower, living in Melbourne.

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