The law in black and white

In the arcane world of Tasmanian politics, nothing is what it seems. Business has an expression of “above the line and below the line”, but in the Apple Isle we tend to define political decisions as either “above the belt or below the belt”. 

This week the Hobart newspaper, the Mercury, released an extract of a letter the Premier of Tasmania, David Bartlett, has written to “interested” foreign investors in Gunns Tamar Valley pulp mill. Apparently in the letter, Mr Bartlett boasts how the Pulp Mill Assessment Act, and its accompanying permit, overrules all other permits, licences, approvals and laws that “may otherwise have been required” to be met. 

Followers of the Gunns pulp mill saga will be familiar with the way this company seems to have unlimited access to the Tasmanian government and its bureaucrats, and how this voracious company actually dictates to the Tasmanian government the laws and policies that exclusively benefits its logging and wood-chip interests. 

Gunns’ lawyers actually instructed and advised the bureaucrats as to the framing of the Pulp Mill Assessment Act. 

With the last opinion poll showing that more that 70% of Tasmanians don’t want the Gunns pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, the brutality of the Tasmanian government’s actions is fairly apparent. 

Just one simple example of the power of Gunns and the government-run quango, Forestry Tasmania, is in local government planning. Under the local council’s planning scheme, The Great Western Tiers (where I live) is zoned as “Scenic Protection Area”. If you dig up a clump of Kangaroo Grass you can be prosecuted, yet Gunns and Forestry Tasmania are exempt from all of the Tasmanian local government planning schemes. They clear-fell and rip out “Scenic Protection” forest at will.  

So with the opposition to the pulp mill bubbling along in Northern Tasmania, and the local population heartily sick of one law for Gunns and another for everyone else, down in the southern reaches of the island, up pops another moral dilemma for David Bartlett’s Labor government.

The largest infrastructure project in the south, the $164 million Brighton Bypass, has been bushwhacked by the discovery of a “possible” major site containing 18,000 year old Aboriginal artefacts. The site, by the River Jordan, has been discovered by archaeologists and self-appointed Aboriginal “heritage” officers. The bypass would cross the site. 

The area has revealed “food scraps, middens and tools”, which, if the site was a regular Aboriginal camping ground, is not a totally unexpected discovery. 

Naturally, the discovery has ignited an Aboriginal backlash against the proposed Brighton Bypass and Aboriginal activists, led by Michael Mansell, are threatening action under the Tasmanian Relics Act, Aboriginal and Torres Islander Heritage Protection Act (1984) and UNESCO. 

The Aboriginal heritage officer acting as spokesman for the archaeological dig, Aaron Everett, says the he believes that the area runs for at least 15 km along side the River Jordan. 

Federally, the issue of the Aboriginal artefact site will reach the desk of Peter Garrett, the same minister charged with the final say in granting permission for the Gunns pulp mill. 

It is worth drawing these two issues, the pulp mill and the Brighton Bypass, together and consider where they stand in regards to social justice, or perhaps, as Julia Gillard might say, “social inclusion”. 

How will the state and federal governments treat these two issues — one involving most of the majority white population (about 500,000) demanding cultural protection and the minority black population (say 16,0000) also demanding cultural protection. 

With the overwhelming majority of Tasmanians pleading that the Tamar Valley, and indeed the landscape of Tasmania, be protected from destruction of social amenity and environmental degradation that the Gunns pulp mill will bring — and the Aboriginal population demanding similar protection — it will be interesting to see how out politicians react.

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