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Is Garrett a dud? CSIRO pulp mill report on Gunns and other disappointments

(pulp mill effluent image on front page is from http://www.surfrider.org/srui.aspx?uiq=a-z/pulp_mills)

Population numbers
Decidedly, the Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, is proving a substantial disappointment on some major environmental group concerns. As President of the Australian Conservation Foundation he infuriated Australians who were concerned about too much population growth in this country by heading an organisation which refused to voice their concerns and failed to uphold its own constitutional policy on population, but would act as if it was representing the Australian public and ACF constitutional values in this matter.

RAMSAR Wetlands
Since becoming Environment Minister, Garrett has outraged the Blue Wedges, a substantial environmental movement in Victoria, centred around the health of Port Phillip Bay because of what they see as his abject failure to protect the bay, including its RAMSAR wetlands areas, and his failure to meet his obligations under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC) Act to consider sustainability principles – including intergenerational equity.

Intergenerational Equity

"How," asks Blue Wedges, "can it be equitable to future generations of humans - and all other species for that matter- to leave a legacy of a toxic dump in the Bay, 60 times larger than the Hattah Nowingi site near Mildura? It is worth remembering that in 2006, the Mildura site was rejected, first by the community and then by an independent planning panel."

EPBC Act
Australian wildlife campaigners had hoped that Garrett in government would intervene to make the EPBC Act more effective. Instead he has relied upon its inherent weaknesses to support more development in and destruction of important environments around Australia. Environmentalists, many who elected him, have found his performance bitterly disappointing. (The Act had never been very strong but had been further watered-down by the Howard Government in 2006 amendments.)

Murray Darling Basin

And his failure to intervene in the Murray Darling Basin South Australia crisis has provoked disgust. Here, as with Port Phillip Bay, RAMSAR wetlands and fragile marine ecosystems are threatened.

The Arts

Yesterday, The Age reported that Garrett, as Minister for the Arts has let down the arts community badly, defending the Rudd Government’s 3.25% funding cut to small public sector agencies, such as the National Gallery of Australia, National Library of Australia and the Australian War Memorial. See: http://news.theage.com.au/national/cultural-institutions-get-enough-money-20080825-41xf.html

Broad agreement that Garrett is a dud

In short there is broad agreement that Garrett is a dud – although calling someone a dud is likely to have one ejected for the House of Representatives (ABC PM tonight – 26-8-08) …..It seems even parliamentary privilege is no protection for robust criticism any more - So much for freedom of speech in this fair land!

Green Senator denied CSIRO research report on Gunns Pulp Mill

On the 21st of August, Senator Christine Milne strongly criticized Garrett’s failure to supply her Freedom of Information request for a CSIRO research report from a member of an independent expert group which has the task of reviewing material submitted by Gunns pulp mill.

Query about pulp mill effluent dumping

According to her press release of 21-8-08, Senator Milne believes that the report relates to “Gunns’ intention to dump 64,000 tonnes of effluent into Bass Strait per day and the probabilities of it exceeding the allowable effluent concentration.”

Garrett's department mired in process?

On 22 August, Garrett, in an ABC Radio National Breakfast interview with Fran Kelly Garrett seemed basically to be saying that his department would not release the report Milne was complaining about because the material in it had not been verified and because there was a process whereby Gunns could be asked to supply more information to clarify the material in the report. One wonders if Garrett was being circumspect because of the possibility that Gunns (famous for having pursued 16 individuals - including Green MPs Bob Brown and Peg Putt - and four green organisations - including the Wilderness Society - for a total $6.3 million damages arising out of protests and campaigns against the company) could sue for defamation if a report led to financial losses and could be shown to be knowingly premature or incomplete.

Senator Milne seems to be indicating in her complaints, that she believes that the report must already be adequately informed.

Deadline for Gunns

In the interview with Fran Kelly of the ABC it was made clear by Garrett that Gunns has until October 4, 2008, to finalise its input into the Government's assessment process. It sounded like Garrett might well give Gunns more time if it requested this.

Both Senator Milne, in her 21 August press release, and Fran Kelly in her 22 August interview with Garrett, described Gunns' as if they were in severe financial difficulty and as if the question of the amount of discharge they might be contemplating was the focus of much speculation in the business community.
Senator Milne: “With Gunns stock in freefall, and rife speculation in the investment community as to the content of scientific studies, this is not the time for the Government to prioritise Gunns’ commercial interest over the public interest."

Fran Kelly: "Yesterday, shares in Gunns were at an eight year low, in fact placed in a trading halt while the company goes out seeking this funding. In the last few weeks doubts have been raised about the future of the pulp mill. Leighton Holdings boss, Wal King, says it will never be built and there are some reports that even the new Tasmanian Premier, David Bartlett is sceptical."

This kind of comment about Gunn's financial situation should, one would think, tend to alleviate any anxiety Mr Garrett might have about the possibility of defamatorily prejudicing Gunns' business outlook by the release of more information.

Milne: Since when does an environment minister protect the interests of big business over those of the public?

Garrett's close-lipped approach on this matter does seem to lend weight to the relevance of Senator Milne's question:

“Since when has the Commonwealth Environment Minister seen himself as the protector of the interests of big business at the expense of the environment and the public interest?"

Changes to defamation laws

For many years it was extremely difficult for the Australian press to report clearly on financial matters because of Australia's defamation laws, which did not support truth in reporting and which could lead to extraordinary costs in court. In those days, even if what you said about a company was true, if that company lost money over your revelation, you might lose any case they brought against you for defamation. This problem is well treated at the end of Trevor Sykes, The Bold Riders, Allen and Unwin, Australia, 1996, for anyone who would like to know more. (Trevor Sykes writes for the Financial Review as Pierpoint.)

Since 2006 these state laws have been largely harmonised and made much more reasonable, with truth a very strong defense and the public interest a non-qualifier or at most a minor qualifier. There are also limitations on costs and processes (articulated or implied through precedent) to increase motivation to mediate rather than to sue. The very unpopular Howard Government immigration minister, Philip Rudd, was responsible for placing pressure to free up these laws in favour of public expression.

Article written by Sheila Newman with Jenny Warfe

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