Sunday, August 19, 2012


Recent media reports indicate that the proposed pulp mill in Tasmania may not go ahead – August 2012. This piece was written when media reports were more positive, and talked about a possible Ministerial approval with ‘strict conditions.’ The piece is still relevant, as the conditional approval remains a strategy promoted by Federal, State and Local Governments to achieve their ambitions irrespective of the failings and inherent problems in the proposals being approved. The Association’s experience shows this to be far for reassuring in spite of the gloss  governments place on these outcomes – see also

Our Association has had over thirty years of experience with local authorities approving developments of all shapes and sizes in spite of the number and rigour of objections, by using conditions to overcome contentious issues and obvious problems.

This process allows these bodies to argue that all matters have been addressed and to give assurances to all and sundry that every action has been and will be taken to ensure that not one of the predicted problems (whatever these might be) will or can arise – that all concerns can be calmed.

This process includes strategies where appointed experts are given the role to supervise processes and approve subsequent matters in more detail as these developments progress after they have been approved. The pattern is now very familiar to us and continues in spite of our explicit complaints about this tactic that clouds concerns and smothers objections.

Our experience has shown just how easy it is with the passage of time for conditions to fade away, be ignored or simply to be forgotten. Even worse than this neglect, we have seen how easy it is for conditions to be renegotiated once any failure with compliance has been exposed. This alarming and apparently legal process is able to take place in private discussions, between the approving body and the developers, completely away from the public scrutiny that the original development application had to be subjected to. It is a serious and concerning loophole.

Given this repeated experience, one can only be alarmed and worried with such a major development as the proposed pulp mill in Tasmania obtaining approval ‘with conditions’ – no matter how many there might be. Indeed, it seems that more conditions only create the possibility of more loopholes. If this mill does get built and problems arise with achieving ‘world class’ or ‘world first’ outcomes now apparently defined in approval conditions determined by ‘science,’ it will be very easy to have ‘new science’ define ‘new’ outcomes by proving, perhaps, that some conditions are ‘scientifically’ impossible or undesirable, or that the ‘old science’ was wrong. ‘Science’ is merely a word that can promote both the good and the bad, and ensures very little. It is not infallible or fixed in time. Indeed, it prizes itself on constantly reviewing and testing its hypotheses, with failure being seen to be more significant than any confirmation.

Then there is the ‘real’ world. Our experience has shown just how reluctant approving bodies are to enforce promised, predetermined outcomes. The cry is that a court may not see it in the same way, so discussions begin. Just try imaging how any government could close down a multi-billion dollar development once it starts pouring out its substances of any qualities or in any quantities. We can be told anything now just to get the mill up and running, but will those who have approved it still be there to ensure that all of the conditions will be met – ‘unconditionally,’ in full accord with all of the ‘conditions’?

We have seen that ‘conditions,’ like ‘science,’ are relative, and can be used to play a confusing role where their own inherent ambivalence and uncertainty can be ‘spun’ to suit ambitions in a phoney ‘win-win’ outcome. It all becomes more than bewildering when the two, with all of their vagaries, come together as ‘scientific conditions’ that aim to place a veil of certainty and predictability over what we have repeatedly seen to be something that is fully flexible and negotiable, capable of achieving any possibility with complete indifference to the implied rigour and commitment.

It is interesting to hear Gunn’s spokesperson speak about ‘trying to’ achieve a mill that can meet all conditions. The real challenge is to understand what any failure to achieve this might mean, especially with billions at stake. ‘Conditional, scientific’ approvals are not what they appear to be. Our Association has seen how they can so easily be manipulated to shut people up and out.

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