Public First Program


Shane Elson


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+61-4-1349 7828

August 2007 # 5

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Back to Editorials 2007

Cousins of Gunns

When the wealthy begin to slog it out, you can rest assured that there is more to it than meets the eye. The latest stoush between the rich of Sydney’s harbour suburbs is being framed as something we should be interested in. And, on one level, we should. 

Gunns have just about got their way in Tasmania and the Sydneysiders are arguing over the merits of the largest pulp mill in the southern hemisphere going ahead or not. What intrigues me is that John Howard hasn’t jumped in to support Malcolm Turnbull in his time of need. Some way to reward a major fund raiser from your own party. 

In case you’re not aware, Gunns is the company that runs Tasmania. The company is able to gather hundreds of truck drivers to rally against their own interests. It is able to access the highest levels of government safe in the knowledge that their conversations will be protected. Oh, and by the way, the company is destroying the Tasmanian forests at a rate of over 25,000 hectares a year. Well over half of this is old growth forest. 

The proposed pulp mill, to be built in the northern Tamar valley region, will not only cause irreparable damage to the forests, the effluent it will spew out will change the environment not only in the immediate vicinity of the mill but also in to Bass Straight. The air pollution that will be generated will sit in the valley. Medical experts are saying it will increase the likelihood of children and the elderly developing chronic respiratory conditions potentially leading to higher rates of hospital admissions and even deaths. 

Then along comes Geoffrey Cousins, former advisor to John Howard, current Telstra board member and former Optus and George Patterson CEO. A rich bloke in his own right, Cousins and his contacts comprise some of the real rulers of Australia. This wealthy elite usually shun the spotlight, preferring to do their deals in the shadows and behind closed doors. For Cousins to come out, all guns blazing, so to speak, is a departure from the script. Perhaps it has taken Malcolm by surprise.  

Cousins has been described as a ‘keen bushwalker’ who visits the Tasmanian wilderness quite often. He said he became an environment convert after rafting down the Franklin River back in the 70’s. He also owns property there and a business or two. It could be said, therefore, that he has a vested interest in the issue of Gunns’ proposed development.  

Having gathered a gaggle of the rich and famous behind him, Cousins is being touted as the saviour of the Tasmanian wilderness. A knight is shining armour, riding over the crest of the hill just in time to save the virgin from the maws of the Dragon. Whether this turns out to be true or just another example of media spin will be revealed in time. What is critical is that the rest of us wake up and support those who have put their lives and livelihoods on the line. I mean, where was Geoffrey and his money when the ‘Gunns 20’ needed him? Where was he and his money 2 years ago when this matter could have been put to rest? 

These questions will remain unanswered unless he decides to come clean as to his real motives. As an influential ‘businessman and community leader’, as he likes to be described, Geoffrey has the ability to ring the Prime Minister and put pressure on him. But will he? I doubt it. While he is quite content to bag Peter Garrett, who with each passing day becomes even more of a consummate politician and sell out to the values he espoused for so long, Cousins doesn’t seem willing to put pressure on the one person who could change the mind of the Tasmanian government. I mean, if John is prepared to meddle in the state for his own ends and gift to them, at our expense a hospital, surely he would be willing to step in and prove us all wrong about his environmental credentials. 

But lets not forget one thing in all this. What is happening in Tasmania is a symptom of what John Howard calls the greatest thing on earth, capitalism. It’s all about money and more importantly about who has it and how much of it they have. Gunns has the ability to get what it wants because it has the cash to buy the decisions it demands. However, there is one strength left in our so called democratic system. The ability of the not wealthy to demand and get what they want. 

I was listening to a program on Radio National the other day, the right wing, ultra conservative, “Counterpoint” a program that seeks to put the alternative view to that which serves the interests of we, the people. That is, anything that threatens the status quo and the ability of the wealth accumulators to acquire more wealth. On that program the guest was railing against the reforms of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez has re-nationalised industries that were formerly owned by private capital. His government’s reasoning is that the wealth of the land belongs to those who occupy it and any benefits from it should go back to them. Counterpoint’s speaker was saying this was a bad thing. For the proponents of the Gunns’ mill and speakers like those on Counterpoint, anyone who opposes this project is just a stupid troglodyte who don’t understand. 

What gives Chavez his strength is not his own personality, the military or even his political colleagues. It is the will of the people, those poor and disenfranchised farmers who for decades were locked out of their land or who had it taken over by multinationals. The Venezuelan people became fed up with the way big business ran rough shod over the top of their rights and squashed their hopes and dreams. It is, therefore, the people that empower the political process or who allow others to run it for their own interests. 

I’m not interested in one rich bloke’s efforts to fight on my side for something I believe in – that this mill should not go ahead. I’m more than willing to join in with an ally who, in most cases, would oppose my philosophy on most things. I will take his money and support his efforts to stop the project but I also recognise that if we leave it up to him alone, then all we are doing is abdicating our responsibilities once more. 

When the rich of Sydney’s harbour side suburbs begin to slog it out, there is more to the matter than meets the eye. At the heart of this matter is the willingness of the Australian people to give up all responsibility for the collective good and hand it over to faceless, nameless men in suits who do their deals in backrooms and boardrooms and order our elected, supposed, ‘representatives’ around. 

The Gunns’ mill is only one example of big money potentially getting its way. Hawke stopped the Franklin Dam not because he thought it was good idea but because he was, politically, left with no option. As the time is coming when the government must make up its mind on the pulp mill, the time is now for us to act to oppose this project not just on environmental grounds but to also show those in power, who it is that really should be running the country. After all, those of us who don’t live on the harbour far outnumber those who do.

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