Richard Flanagan / Tess Lawrence: Gunns and roses and the cargo cult

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Contributing editor-at-large Tess Lawrence introduces an essay by prominent Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan on the decline of the once mighty Gunns timber company — a tale he describes a parable of corporate hubris.


by Tess Lawrence

It is a tale of Gunns and Roses; of petals strewn before bulldozers and perfumes oiling chainsaws.

Turn the Tamar Valley mud-stained pages of a journal eight years or so in the writing and it becomes the story of The People versus the State; squalid deals amidst possum squeals as they slaughtered their nests and our trees, exfoliating the earth and exposing her bleeding nakedness like the injury from an inept full Brazilian wax.

Tuesday's news that Tasmania's one-time flagship timber company Gunns has been forced into voluntary liquidation with its colours now flying half mast, reflect the economic consequences of yesterday's views and ecological vandalism. Caveat emptor.

Its once honest-sweat heritage is now mired in political and corporate misconduct that seems to have increased in latter years.

Like the Hydro-Electric Commission, Gunns seemed a division within Tasmania's successive compliant governments, its growth and reputation greased in secret deals.

Gunns was once top of the corporate tree in Tassie.

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Only five years ago, in the May 2007 edition of The Monthly, Richard Flanagan wielded his powerful pen and wrote in the kindred blood of Tasmanians past and present that:
'Though Gunns was founded in Tasmania in 1875, it was not until 1989, when it became part of the written history of corruption in Tasmania, that many Australians first came to hear of the company, then still one of several Tasmanian timber firms. In that year the then chairman of Gunns, Eddie Rouse, became concerned that the election of a Labor-Green Tasmanian government with a one-seat majority might affect his logging profits. Rouse attempted to bribe a Labor member, Jim Cox, to cross the floor, thereby bringing down the government and clearing the way for the pro-logging former premier Robin Gray and the Liberal Party to resume power. Cox went to the police and the plot was exposed; a royal commission and Rouse's fall from grace and imprisonment ensued. But Gunns continued. Today it is a corporation worth more than a billion dollars, the largest company in Tasmania, with an effective monopoly of the island's hardwood logging, and a darling of the Australian stock market.'

Rouse, another bombastic media mogul, once owned the Launceston Examiner and a number of politicians. He was later stripped of his CBE for 'bribery'.

Reminiscing in The Australian, Harold Mitchell, recounted this incident with Rouse:
'It was the mid-70s in Launceston and my host, the late Edmund Rouse, had picked me up from the airport in his 7 Series BMW, one of the first in the country. Edmund was Mr Big -- with a lead foot. He owned Tassie's only TV station, half the state's radio stations and the Launceston Examiner.

I'd asked him if he was worried about losing his licence.'

"Not at all," he said, "I haven't had one for years."

Edmund Rouse

The reality is that Rouse didn't have to be a Cabinet Minister to administer to his fiefdom ― up until the Royal Commission. And he was not alone.

Speaking truth to power often comes at a dreadful price.

In his influential essay, Flanagan recounted the heartbreaking tragedy that besets many courageous whistleblowers. In the Honour Roll for game-changers in this saga, must surely be the name of Bill Manning.
'In 2003 an ageing forester, Bill Manning, was subpoenaed to testify in front of an Australian Senate committee investigating the Tasmanian forestry industry. He methodically began to unravel a tale of environmental catastrophe, of industry connivance and government complicity. His detailed evidence suggested that the forestry industry was not only systematically destroying unique forests, but poisoning the very fabric of Tasmanian politics and life.

No greenie hardliner, Manning was a man who worked for 30 years in the Tasmanian forests and who believes they ought to be logged, but logged so that they remain for the future. Yet he alleged to the Senate committee that forestry management had been corrupted. At the hearing, he painted a picture of llegal destruction on a scale so vast that it was transforming the landscape of Tasmania. Branding what was happening "an ecological disaster", Manning talked of how an "accelerated and unaccountable logging industry" was destroying wholesale native forests "which are unique in the world for their flora and fauna". "The clearfelling is out of control," he told the senators. "The scale of clearfelling in Tasmania is huge."

In a typical tactic deployed against Whistleblowers, Flanagan thankfully exposes that:
'A whispering campaign about Bill Manning's state of mind began, and in the four years since he ended a career that he loved, by standing up for what he believed, nothing has changed - except for the worse. Today, Tasmania is the only Australian state that clearfells its rainforests. While the rest of Australia has either ended, or is ending, the logging of old-growth forests, Tasmania is the only state where it is secretly planned to accelerate the destruction of native forests, driven by the greed for profit that can be made from woodchips.'

Tasmania and the 'mainland' have a lot to be thankless for, when it comes to its tawdry Governments.

For decades, the lack of public accountability and transparency have been so enmeshed in parliament that it now rivals Victoria in its contempt for constituents.

It is perhaps unfair to single out high profile campaigners but as well as Bill Manning, the media clout of the likes of Bob Brown, Peter Cundall, Geoff Cousins and Richard Flanagan have contributed to halting the (Bell Bay) Tamar Valley Pulp Mill.

Bob Brown was a thorn in Gunns' side during the Franklin Dam dispute. (Image: Matt Newton

In March this year, the Sydney Morning Herald's Greg Bearup interviewed Cousins, pointing out the influence of Flanagan's essay.
'Geoff Cousins is a ferocious consumer of words and in June 2007 he was tucked up in the loft of his Sydney house reading a long, angry article by the author Richard Flanagan in The Monthly.

It was about the destruction of Tasmania's native forests and the takeover of the state by the timber company Gunns.

At the time, Gunns was a darling of the share market and by far the largest company in Tasmania. It owned great swathes of land and had interests in an array of businesses, from pubs and hardware stores to wineries and sawmills. Its chairman, John Gay, was the most powerful man on the island and enjoyed a cosy relationship with the premier, Paul Lennon - so cosy that a building company owned by Gunns was renovating Lennon's historic house.'

Destructive plans may well have been set aside, but we should heed Tuesday's ominous threat by Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings that Gunns going into administration, does not mean the pulp mill project is pulped.

Like many, I am mindful of the panic and hardship of those who will lose jobs and the impact this will have on families and relationships. Gunns have been prepared to sacrifice its employees given that remedial action could have been taken years, even months, ago. Those employees are our brothers and sisters, despite our differing views.

Gunns should have taken stock in May 2008, when ANZ pulled out of the pulp mill project —  capitulating to pressure from conservationists and shareholders.

Today, we welcome Richard Flanagan to Independent Australia and salute his steadfast efforts to protect our heritage and flora and fauna.

He has done much good with his pen.

If it ever came to the horror of the last tree standing, no doubt Richard Flanagan would be chained to it.

Read on, about how the mighty have been felled, in Richard's own words.


(by Richard Flanagan)

by Richard Flanagan (image courtesy Colin Macdougall / Tasmanian Times)

THE STORY of Gunns is a parable of corporate hubris. You can, as they did, corrupt the polity, cow the media, poison public life and seek to persecute those who disagree with you. You can rape the land, exterminate protected species, exploit your workers and you can even poison your neighbours. But the naked pursuit of greed at all costs will in the end destroy your public legitimacy and thus ensure your doom. Gunns was a rogue corporation and its death was a chronicle long ago foretold. The sadness is in the legacy they leave to Tasmania — the immense damage to its people, its wildlands, and its economy.

Opposition to Gunns long ago outgrew any conservation group and Gunns were in the end undone by the many, many, people who refused to give in to their threats, lies and intimidation. It was the small victories of the little people that ended up delaying the project until it disappeared into the fantastical realms of commercial impossibility.

Yet for a decade, the only policy either major party has had has been Gunns and Gunns pulp mill. Of the former ex-premier Jim Bacon, near his death, confessed to Peter Cundall that ‘the forestry industry were too strong’ for him to take on. Of the latter, Premier Giddings observed not so long ago that ‘the pulp mill was no longer the icing on the cake for Tasmania, but the cake itself’.

In consequence of this non-policy, the prosperous years of the early 2000s, when Tasmania should have been reinventing itself to ensure it had a prosperous future, were instead lost as government identified state interest as Gunns’ profit margins. The Tasmanian Government mortgaged the island’s future to Gunns and squandered the good years pursuing the chimera of the pulp mill. The result is the wretched economy and impoverished society that is Tasmania today.

Premier Giddings was cruel and foolish to seek to keep the myth of the pulp mill alive in her statement to parliament today. These comments offer only false comfort to the mill’s supporters and uncertainty to its opponents. Yet the mill is dead — legally in limbo, socially unacceptable, politically impossible, and commercially fantastical. Its end ought mark the possibility of a new beginning for Tasmania when it can seek to address its many problems with many solutions free of the bitter divisions Gunns promoted and prospered from. The death of the mill should be a source of hope, not despair.

There was always, about Gunns acts, a distinctly personal and political flavour that sometimes smacked more of vendetta than of sound commerce. The demise of Gunns brings to an end a tumultous three decades of Tasmanian history that began with Robin Gray losing the Franklin Dam battle to the Bob Brown led environmental movement in 1983, continued with Robin Gray losing both the Wesley Vale pulp mill battle and government to a Labor-Green government in 1989, and now the loss of Gunns and Gray’s third white elephant, the Gunns pulp mill.

In each case, the same arguments were run and shown to be nonsense; in each case the island changed regardless. It’s time now we began to honour those changes and seek to build on them, rather than repeat the mistake of searching for the one great project solution and the social conflict their political carriage inevitably demands. Let us hope the days of the cargo cult are over.

Whatever happens next, Tuesday was, in its way, as historic a day as that of the High Court decision in July 1983 that ensured the Franklin River would not be dammed. Australian corporations will in the future ignore public sentiment at their peril.

A great darkness has lifted from Tasmania. The last remnants of the fear which so pervaded and paralyzed Tasmanian life are now gone. But whether Tasmanians have the courage, the wit and the passion to seize the great opportunities that now present themselves remains an open question.

(This essay was originally published by the Tasmanian Times and has been republished permission. In its presentation TT also republished Richard Flanagan’s seminal essay Gunns: out of Control, published by Tasmanian Times on August 21, 2009; and first published two years previously in The Monthly. It was inspirational in Sydney businessman Geoffrey Cousin’s bid to unseat Malcolm Turnbull.)
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