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The Gunns 20 - a watershed legal case

By Natasha Cica - posted Wednesday, 13 April 2005

Late last year Tasmanian company, Gunns, the world’s largest hardwood woodchip exporter, commenced proceedings in the Victorian Supreme Court against 20 individuals and organisations who had campaigned against its activities, including Greens Senator Bob Brown, and the Wilderness Society. Gunns claims damages of $6.3 million, alleging disruption of logging operations and “corporate vilification”, amounting to conspiracy to injure Gunns and interfere with its business unlawfully. Will the “Gunns 20” be the new Franklin Dam case - a watershed in Australian political and legal history?

That 1983 case explored the limits of Commonwealth legislative power in relation to the States, while the Gunns 20 invites the courts to adjudicate between corporate and individual freedoms. The cases hang on different legal hooks, but both raise important questions about the appropriate balance of competing rights and interests of democratic stakeholders, arising from disputes over environmental management in Tasmania.

As in the Franklin era, angry passions are running high in that small community, grabbing the attention of local and offshore media. The State Government (now Labor, then Liberal) is again tackling environmentalists head on, while the Federal Government (now Liberal, then Labor) scores every political point it can.


But this time the Federal Government has backed established industry, neatly wedging Labor between the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) brawn and urbane brain. Mark Latham walked into that trap like a wombat gutsing 1080 poison. Days before the 2004 election he unveiled his plan to save large chunks of Tasmania’s contested forests, with likely job losses in old-growth logging. His sweetener was $800 million to generate replacement jobs in the craft industry and plantation timber logging.

A decent offer - estimates of jobs involved range from 320 to 4,000, depending on who’s counting - but shocked timber workers, used to special treatment from State Labor, spat it out. Instead they signed onto John Howard’s counter promise: less valuable forest locked up than Labor, $50 million in industry assistance and crucially, job security. Labor’s tactical disaster was compounded by anti-Latham howls from Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon and Federal Labor MP Dick Adams.

Much has changed since Labor mobilised Franklin-sensitised voters in the 1980s. Politics is less homemade and more tightly spun. It’s harder for jaded punters to find what’s real behind schmick “information” campaigns selling big trees or bigger business. Labor itself is increasingly detached from one slice of reality - the grassroots of civil society, including people who directly challenge vested interests. Tasmania’s State Labor Government has pushed this trend to disturbing extremes on forestry questions. Almost anyone who questions its pro-logging predilection becomes the de facto enemy.

So who’s been asking questions lately? Not just the usual, high profile suspects. But people like one of the Gunns 20 defendants, Frank Niklason, a hospital doctor who raised concerns about public health implications of wood chipping.

And others, unconnected with the Gunns action, like Simon Pigot, a commercial beekeeper whose own livelihood is under threat from clear felling of leatherwood trees. And Bruce Poulson, a retired school headmaster who’s documented the history of Recherche Bay, the landing site of a 1792 French expedition that collected floral specimens, made friendly contact with local Aborigines and planted a European vegetable garden. Since 2002 Poulson has publicly agitated to save Recherche Bay from logging. Last December his papers were destroyed in a fire at his home, described by police as malicious.

In her 1947 classic Romance of the Huon River, Mrs Arthur Garnsey recalled a pioneering time in Tasmania, when loggers, orchardists, botanists, teachers, sailors, liberated convicts, housewives and even politicians co-operated and compromised to a surprising degree. She unreservedly celebrated the contribution of early timber workers, while recognising the value of what was already disappearing. Giant ferns, platypus, ancient trees:


I sing the Wardrobe
Which as Huon Pine did grow
Hundreds of years ago
On Huon’s rocky, slippery hills.

Recently Sarah Gunn, an architect who is part of the Gunns family dynasty, updated the message: “In the time of my grandfather and great-grandfather the exploitation wasn't as savage and the ability of the forest to recover was better.”

Whatever transpires in the courts, Federal Labor could do worse than stick to fair forestry reforms along Latham’s lines. This time backed up with real consultation. It means listening to Tasmanians across the community spectrum, not just Lennon’s Nascar V8 constituency, and not just union leaders, party hacks and office bearers of Gunns or the Greens. Most Tasmanians hold the middle ground - opposing old-growth logging while valuing local jobs. Labor has a chance to turn the wedge inside out, from the bottom up. Before its real enemy puts flesh on the bones of his election promise, and closes a green-faced deal with Lennon - who admits he “seems to get on better with the Liberals than [Federal] Labor” - and his best mates.

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An edited version of this article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on April 7, 2005.

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About the Author

Dr Natasha Cica is the director of Periwinkle Projects, a Hobart-based management, strategy and communications consultancy.

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