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Howard, Gunns, political donations: our system is broken

By Mike Bolan - posted Tuesday, 23 October 2007

The Ausralian federalist system under John Howard appears to be irrevocably broken. Governments can stay within the letter of the law while violating the basic principles of democratic representation.

A lightning review of the pulp mill process makes the point.

We’ve had a Premier and a businessman doing a deal in a restaurant that places a private sector pulp mill onto the top of the government’s priority list. Before any evaluation, or even complete description, of the proposal we’ve had both state and federal Labor and Liberal parties support the proposal. All of the local governments in the region proposed for the mill also endorsed the proposal, again without any details. Many in the community wonder why such unqualified support was given so quickly.


In the course of all of this, the project proponent was given the job of defining all of the impacts on communities and other industries, notwithstanding their obvious conflict of interest and their lack of expertise in many areas (e.g. fishing, tourism, agriculture).

The mill proponents were given over $10 million in subsidies to prepare their case, and the state government spent more millions on subsidising a pro-mill marketing campaign and a pulp mill taskforce.

Community groups were refused any help from their own government, and were also denied political representation as both major parties supported the proposal.

When the relatively independent Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC) was about the declare the proponent critically non-compliant with its requirements, the state government immediately moved to create a new process in which approval was delivered by an overseas pulp mill supplier. The commonwealth accepted the new process and conducted a review on a small percentage of the total impacts (less than 5 per cent).

Now, with the mill still having to prove itself at the federal level, we’ve had the Prime Minister stating that there is no reason to rule out accepting donations from Gunns. "Obviously it’s a matter for the party organisation as to where they take money, but just because a company has been involved in the news is not a reason not to accept donations", he said. (Howard happy to take money from Gunns)

Yes, it’s legal but it defies everything that we know about trying to make impartial decisions.


The Prime Minister is saying that it’s fine for the proponent to give money to his party at a time when their business proposal is being reviewed by his government. This is entirely within the letter of the law in Australia but destroys any hope of impartiality from our governments.

While the law may say that a cash donation does not represent influence, all common sense and past experience tells us otherwise.

One real problem with this situation is that it totally tips the balance in favour of existing large industries, (particularly those in receipt of subsidies who can then direct some of the subsidy into their favoured political parties to keep the subsidies rolling) thus biasing our political system in favour of old industries. The trouble is we are facing novel problems such as drought, fuel price increases and globalised diseases (e.g. equine influenza).

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First published in the Tasmanian Times on 11 October, 2007

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About the Author

Mike Bolan is an independent complex systems and business consultant. Mike worked for the Tamar valley community and others to prepare materials for the RPDC in which he spent about a year visiting Tasmanian communities, businesses and individuals to learn the impacts of forestry operations and the implications of a pulp mill on them. The lessons learned from that period are still relevant today and are used in this story, which is told to inform not to gain income.

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All articles by Mike Bolan

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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