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No democracy in the Tamar Valley

By Peter Henning - posted Tuesday, 16 December 2008

In the final analysis, for the people of the Tamar Valley, 2009 is a year in which they will be forced to continue the fight for their future. It is ironic, but true, that the current Prime Minister was seen as a beacon of hope a little more than twelve months ago, partly because of his professed commitment “to forge a new coalition of political forces across the Australian community, uniting those who are disturbed by market fundamentalism in all its dimensions, and who believe this country is entitled to a greater vision than one which merely aggregates individual greed and self-interest”.

How hollow and deceptive that now seems …

What is it about the Tamar Valley which has made its people, its communities, its diverse and productive businesses and its natural and man-made attractions so completely lacking in worth and value, so completely insignificant, like a newly-identified terra nullius, a kind of territorial tabula rasa, to the majority of Tasmania’s elected political “representatives”?


Former Premier Paul Lennon answered that in an interview with the Launceston Examiner’s editor, Fiona Reynolds in early November 2008, when he stated that it was not the role of his Labor Government to have any say on a decision by a private company, Gunns, to build the nation’s biggest pulp mill in the Tamar Valley. Lennon was reported as saying that the decision was based exclusively on commercial considerations, the essential factors being the Bell Bay port facilities and close access to timber resources in the north east.

The role of the Tasmanian Labor and Liberal Parties was to legislate for that to occur.

He merely confirmed what many people have been saying for several years. It was most inconvenient that people actually lived in close proximity to the Bell Bay site. It was most inconvenient that high quality food producing industries and associated enterprises, including a high proportion of Tasmania’s viticulture and other niche agricultural products, substantial fishing, tourism, recreational and residential investment, actually existed in the valley.

One problem for Lennon was identifying the best strategy to remove the inconveniences. The next step, the implementation stage, was trickier. The first part of the strategy, as we all know, was to ignore the inconveniences, to ignore all voices from the community and from independent experts, to treat all these things as superfluous or a nuisance, and to portray them, en masse, as NIMBY anti-development extremists.

But Lennon and his cabinet wanted a stronger counter against residents and businesses of the Tamar Valley if their inconvenient presence could not be easily isolated, silenced or labelled. The strategy needed legislative teeth. Lennon always knew he had the support of the Liberal Party in this matter.

These parliamentary “representatives of the people” knew that if the people proved too resistant in protecting their own interests, whatever they were, there had to be weaponry in the legislation that was rammed through Parliament. That is why the Pulp Mill Assessment Act 2007 contains carefully worded clauses to ensure that the common law was set aside.


One thing that Paul Lennon learned as Tasmania’s Premier when John Howard was Australia’s Prime Minister, or had confirmed for him, was that in Australia’s constitutional “democracy” parliaments are able to legislate “to set aside the common law if they choose to do so” (Julian Burnside). This was done by the Howard government with the Migration Act, which enabled them to argue all the way to the High Court that a stateless man without a visa could be detained for the rest of his life. That is what can happen when parliaments set aside common law.

How can we thank Gunns enough, and how can we thank the Labor Party enough, and how can we thank the Liberal Party enough, for their unprincipled support for the brilliant idea of building a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley?

It is a serious question, because everything in the Tamar Valley is irrelevant in the face of the interests of the pulp mill. Everything and everyone.

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First published in the Tasmanian Times on December 8, 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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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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