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Passing through Hong Kong airport last night, a casual conversation with a stranger in the boarding queue suggests that a pulp mill for the Tamar Valley will be an early agenda item for whichever party forms government next Saturday.

This fellow was flying from Helsinki to Launceston, to work on a strategy with the Gunns receivers to sell the pulp mill project.  I did not ask his name, but he offered that he had been involved with the project for a long time.

In the face of the losses to Gunns’ shareholders, who is paying the Helsinki expert to fly on business to Launceston to consult?

With whom is he meeting? 

What is the expectation? 

How does it tie in with the policies of the next Federal Parliament.

The evidence is building.

• Both Liberal and Labor want the project to proceed.  The Liberals even propose the establishment of an agency in Launceston to streamline approval of projects as part of their campaign pitch.

• The Tasmanian Forest Agreement has passed the Legislative Council against expectations. Forest industries boss Terry Edwards has effectively told the Liberal Party to back off its promise to rip the TFA up. In fact, Terry Edwards is looking positively co-operative in the face of the “defeat” at the hands of his traditional enemy.

• ENGO parties to the forestry roundtable do not object to “A” pulp mill. 

• John Gay is a good bloke according to our legal system.

• The receivers, Korda Mentha, believe the permits can be sold and are obviously pursuing this option.  Remember Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings’ observation that the forestry roundtable was all about getting the pulp mill up ( TT: What Lara said about the pulp mill, Hansard here ).

Sniffing the breezes, I question whether the legal challenge to the validity of the pulp mill permits is a foregone conclusion, as is FT certification under FSC.

A further question is whether Korda Metha has had any discussions with representatives of either political party with respect to the pulp mill.  If so, have any undertakings been given? 

Whether for or against the mill, it’s a sad situation that these questions even arise.  But I am strongly of the view that our political system in Tasmania remains tainted with the misleading and illegal deeds of this saga. 

The best analogy I can suggest is the recent high profile trial of Bo Xilai in China.  Straight talking Chinese believe that the whole affair was just an elaborate puppet-show to legitimise the pre-ordained result – imprisonment of Bo, the challenger, suppression of dissent under the guise of transparent legal process, consolidation of power with the ruling clique.  The government holds it as proof that it is cracking down on corruption.

Are we there yet in Tasmania; such an insidious divide in the community?

*Ben Quin is the Managing Director of an Australian engineering and agribusiness company with interests in Australia and China. He lives at Triabunna.

• Examiner: Eastment outlines needs for pulp mill

Sept. 2, 2013, 8:36 p.m.

NEW pulp mills need to be bigger with cheaper labour, energy and fibre costs, according to retired pulp and paper consultancy company director Robert Eastment.

But at the same time pulp prices are the only ones in the pulp and paper industry that have risen in the past seven years, Mr Eastment said this week.

He was commenting on news last week that Gunns receiver-manager KordaMentha plans to have both failed timber company Gunns’ proposed Bell Bay pulp mill and its permits on the market before Christmas.

A KordaMentha spokesman said that it made sense for the receiver to have the proposed mill project up for sale at the same time that Gunns’ liquidator PPB Advisory tried to sell off the company’s investment plantation forests, mostly planted to feed the mill.

Mr Eastment told a national conference in Melbourne last month that woodchip growers and paper makers were being challenged by pulp prices internationally.

But pulp prices were volatile and although pulp was mostly traded in US dollars, the exchange rate meant that both Australian sellers and buyers were impacted, Mr Eastment said.

The trends regarding pulp and paper mills worked against plans that developers might have for a new mill in Tasmania, according to Mr Eastment.

``Integrated mills in the `west’ are being replaced by market-based mills in the `east’,’’ he said.

Industry figures showed that while pulp prices have risen 40 per cent in the past seven years, paper prices were stagnant, Mr Eastment said.

Paper manufacturers faced rising energy and labour costs, margins were under huge pressure and there was a lack of investment in existing paper mills, he said.

At the same time Australia had sufficient plantation fibre to supply at least three world-scale pulp mills, he said.

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