A Tactical Error
Yesterday (12 March 2010) there was an interesting, if not predictable, development a week out from the Tasmanian election. Former Labor and Liberal Premiers Gray, Field, Rundle and Lennon made a combined public statement urging Tasmanians to vote for Labor or Liberal, thus avoiding a Green power sharing government.
Rolling out former politicians during an election is not a mistake in itself, however if parties are going to put forward former parliamentarians as advocates they need to be very credible.
Allowing Robin Gray and Paul Lennon to go public and express ‘concern’ about the effects of a hung parliament on ‘democracy’ was a tactical error.
Most Tasmanians are aware that Gray, a former Liberal Premier is a longstanding board member of a Gunns Ltd. Gunns retains the uncritical and unwavering support of both Liberal and Labor parties and has donated money to both parties over the years. Gunns have benefited greatly from Labor and Liberal majority governments.
Gunns is of course the logging company that landed itself at the centre of the recent Tamar Valley pulp mill controversy. A controversy that for many Tasmanians has raised serious questions about the appropriateness of Gunns’ relationship with the state government and the negative effects of that relationship on Tasmania’s democracy.
Paul Lennon as the Premier of Tasmania was the overseer and the key political protagonist in the creation of the pulp mill controversy.
Lennon resigned in May 2008 with an approval rating of 17 per cent.
The fall of Paul Lennon could be linked to a number of scandals, but most Tasmanians would concede that it was his reckless personal obsession with the Gunn’s pulp mill that killed his political career.
Indeed, Paul Lennon’s premiership negatively impacted on the Tasmanian public’s faith in its democracy to the point that in his first media conference as new Premier, Labor colleague David Bartlett declared ....."I accept that recent events in the Tasmanian political scene have led to a degradation of trust in our democracy and anything we can do to reconnect with the Tasmanian people and continue to build their trust will be absolutely vital."
Post Paul Lennon, Premier Bartlett then set about a 10 point plan to ‘restore Tasmanian’s faith in democracy’ - a plan that included a new anti-corruption watchdog.
Of former Premier Robin Gray Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan wrote in his award-winning article ‘Out of Control -The tragedy of Tasmania’s forests’
....... “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.
Yet Gunns remains haunted by the Rouse scandal. The company's board continues to have among its directors former associates of the late Eddie Rouse. The 1991 royal commission found that director David McQuestin, whose friendship with Rouse it characterised as "obsequious", was not "unlawfully involved as a principal offender" with the bribery attempt, although his "compliance with Rouse's direction in the matter was ‘highly improper'" - a "glaring breach of the requisite standards of commercial morality". Robin Gray is also now a director of Gunns; the royal commission found that he "knew of and was involved with Rouse in Rouse's attempt to bribe Cox", and that while his conduct was not unlawful, it was "improper, and grossly so". John Gay, Gunns' managing director in 1989 and now its managing director and executive chairman, was cleared by the royal commission of any involvement with the bribery attempt”.
Rolling out Rundle and Field may be o.k, but putting forward Lennon and Gray as advocates for democracy and stable government was surely unwise and this tactical error will perhaps only confirm in voters minds the disconnect and lack of understanding that they believe exists between themselves and the two big political parties.
It is also interesting to note that in the Tasmanian print media’s reporting of the four leaders story, neither the Mercury nor the Examiner was prepared to highlight Robin Gray’s role as a Gunn’s board member.