NewSouth, 2015, 442 pages, $32.99 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
It was a sweet day when the placards – No Pulp Mill! – won an epic seven year battle against elite corporate and political power in Tasmania after Gunns Ltd., the largest timber corporation in Australia, went bust in 2013 with debts of $3 billion. Public outrage over its proposed woodchip pulp mill had sunk the state’s largest, and most powerful, corporation.
Quentin Beresford, politics professor at Edith Cowan University, situates Gunns’ spectacular implosion in ‘crony capitalism’ – the close and profoundly undemocratic bond between business and state - that had ruled Tasmania’s economy and politics for decades and had arrogantly ignored or bullied its people.
Hydro-industrialisation had led the way with cheap hydro-electricity for industry, the tab picked up by the taxpayer for the government’s loan financing debt. The logging industry next joined the corporate profit party with “eye-glazing” government subsidies, bargain-basement government royalty revenue and environmental regulation exemptions. The trading of financial favours worked both ways with forestry industry political donations to Liberal and Labor parties returning the state’s economic favours.
Gunns not unreasonably thought that its ideologically-compliant and donation-tamed ministers would surely see to it that nothing would get in the way of government approval for Gunns’ next big project, a proposed pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, near Launceston.
Not the toxic pollution from the dioxin-contaminated effluent, not the rotten-egg gases and other air pollutants, not the mill’s enormous thirst for water, not the massive clear-felling of old-growth native forests to supply the woodchips for the mill, not, for good measure, the quantum leap in greenhouse gas emissions.
Every single politician of note, Labor or Liberal, state or federal, got on board the Gunns-forestry-pulp mill bus. They may have been part of the minority (less than a third) of Tasmanians supporting the mill but the politicians had all the power. Their armoury against the popular will included personal aggression when under public challenge, a lack of tolerance for dissenting views, quarantining government policy and deal-making from public scrutiny, fast-tracking parliamentary approval, criminalising protest and dogmatically refusing to consider an economically diversified and cleaner future as an alternative to capital-intensive, low-employment, anti-environment ‘development’ projects.
Gunns, for its part, tried to sue its critics into silence whilst mobilising its timber workers, made susceptible to corporate propaganda over their jobs, as shock troops against mill opponents in an “organised campaign of intimidation”.
There emerged, however, a counter-power. A “multi-dimensional strategy” incorporating local community opposition, mass public rallies and ‘corporate activism’ targeting Gunns’ business customers and investors sustained a campaign that was remarkable for its size, breadth, intensity and longevity.
Beresford devotes much favourable attention to ‘corporate activism’. Certainly, its successes were real. The ANZ (Gunns’ principal lender) withdrew its backing for the pulp mill after tens of thousands of the bank’s customers threatened to close their accounts. Other large financial investors ran off, fearing similar “reputational risk”. Japanese buyers of Gunns’ woodchips (Gunns’ most profitable market) dumped Gunns’ native forest woodchips in favour of the surviving market of sustainably sourced woodchips during the global financial crisis.
These were all hard-headed commercial decisions based on Gunns’ soaring investment risk, rising debt, falling profits and tumbling share price. All these failing financial indicators, however, had been fatally aggravated by a vibrant and determined popular campaign against the pulp mill. ‘Corporate activism’ is dependent for its effectiveness on the old-fashioned protest stuff, and even has the potential for being counter-productive, as demonstrated by The Wilderness Society, a multi-million dollar organisation reorienting from protest to boardroom business deals, which offered its green imprimatur to a pulp mill in return for Gunns sparing more native forests.
In the end, Gunns’ refusal to move with the greening times burst its government-backed financial bubble as “their plans unravelled in the face of people power”. The fatal mistake of Gunns and its hired governments was to underestimate the power of the placard.