Friday, September 14, 2012

Consultation Not Spin.


I will start with a quote from the Mercury On Sept 12, the article was put up on their website at 12:01 on the 12th, fully 19 hours before the public meeting which was to be held at Copping Hall. The article
has the punning and refreshingly realistic title A Waste of a Protest

"Proponents of the Copping waste dump say protesters have "zero" chance of stopping the controversial project going ahead. This is despite Southern Waste Solutions agreeing to a month of consultation
with residents."

On the same day I saw a brief interview with the Mayor of Sorell, Carmel Torenius, where she was wondering why the locals can not just listen to and trust the experts. This gets to the heart of the problem
for the council and the SWS, trust has been broken. The social contract that we implicitly enter into with governments has been if not broken, at least bent out of shape. The consultation was not a free and frank discussion with the citizens to come to an agreement before a course of action. From my point of view one can argue that it was the experts who gave us the Iraqi War, who gave us the nuclear accident at Fukushima. People on the other side of politics as myself would be able to say something like, it was the experts who gave us the Carbon Price, the MRRT. Experts, while of course useful and expert in their fields are not the people who actually have to live the decisions.

So with these words in my mind and no great expectation in my heart I went along to the meeting at Copping Hall.  A functional little building just off the Arthur Highway on the road to Marion Bay. The plain walls of the wooden hall were decorated with pennants of cricket winning team, and the obligatory, sorrowful memorial plaque to the dead of the Great War.

If Churchill described the Soviet Union as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside and enigma, this meeting can surely be described as a pretence wrapped in a sham inside a facade.

The permits already have been issued to Southern Waste Services. With no support from the local government, and no support for the residents of the Carlton River Catchment coming from the State Government the purpose of the meeting was a face saving exercise for SWS. What wasthe point of the meeting? It seems no more than a scene from Tom Wolfe's essay Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, that is a chance to let some locals vent their anger in a safe manner, while people who  can not change the situation  catch the flak of the public.

But let us digress for a moment and look at this word consultation. It comes from a Latin word consulatare, and for the Latins this word meant pretty much the same as our usage of the word. To consult, to take the advice of. More exactly my dictionary defined consult as: Have discussions or confer with (someone), typically before undertaking a course of action. This lead me to question the use of the word discussion. And again looking at the dictionary I found this: The action or process of talking about something, typically in order to reach a decision or to exchange ideas.

So quickly we find that this meeting, this second round of consultation is not consulting at all, but rather a safety value releasing after thought. To consult, to have discussions, means to talk and take advice, to consult BEFORE undertaking a course of action. Any other usage of this word is a type of spin.

The meeting at the Copping Hall was held on a cold windy and threatening rain sort of early spring evening in SE Tasmania. When I arrived at the meeting, the hall was full. I counted over 150 concerned residents before I stopped counting. So when the ABC reports the meeting having some 200 people that would be pretty much accurate. In a small town on a dismal night this is a very strong turnout.

I was in the crowd, but was not given a chance to ask a question. The meeting started with a talk about the structure and form of the C Cell. Then the meeting was opened to questions. And according to the panel of experts only valid, sensible questions would be taken on board to be potentially added to the permit conditions. Of course this begs the question of who gets to decide what is valid, what is sensible. The period of asking questions was limited to only one hour. Many questions were not only unanswered, but were not even raised. I am sure the locals could have stayed longer asking questions. The question time was noisy and rowdy, with frequent interjections from the 'mob' and threats by the experts to stop the question period
sooner. This showed the attitude to democracy, it is no more than a facade, a sham. Democracy, as we were reminded by Donald Rumsfeld, as the museums of Baghdad were being looted, is messy. Democracy is loud
and it is rowdy. Apparently democracy only works for experts when they control the agenda and the time frame.

I was taken aback by the patronising attitude of the panel, of course I should not have been as previous comments from Christine Bell and others spoke of the uneducated, emotional response of the community,
about how the locals have been hijacked by a misinformation campaign.

But on the misinformation front I think that SWS has given as good as they have received. On ABC radio last week Christine Bell said that the plastic layer to contain the waste would be 5mm. Last night it was
agreed that this layer would be only 2mm thick. The panel refused to use the word toxic, always referring to the waste as controlled, and then asking if we (the Tasmanian community) want this uncontrolled waste just sitting around in the backyards of industry. But if the waste is so safe and benign why not leave it where it is. Because it is dangerous and needs to be stored. The meeting went around like this for a while as SWS tried to spin what is meant by the word toxic and controlled.

I personally was annoyed by the attempt to use the slogan of a 'Clean, Green Tasmania' to promote the idea of this C-Cell. Again industry is able to go along creating waste and leaving it for others to clean up, and if you do not roll over and accept what we have come up with, then you (the local residents) are holding back Tasmania becoming a Clean, Green State. To use the phrase of Alan Jones, you are wrecking the joint.

Putting on my old timey radical hat these seem to me to be once again that this is a question of Surplus Value. Things are produced in industry, the owner pays the worker less than he or she produces. For example a person in a widget factory gets ten dollars an hour and is able to make fifty dollars worth of widgets in the time. After taken out other costs and etc, which for the sake of argument let us say equals twenty dollars, so the outlay for widgets is thirty dollars and then the boss gets twenty dollars. This fight for the surplus produced is an important key to understanding much about politics and economics in our modern age.

One of the costs that is not included in these sorts of equations is the cost of cleaning up. We all know of mining companies, timber cutters etc who happily go along making profits and then when the forest or mine is clapped out, they walk away and do not pay for any of the clean up. This Carlton River Hazardous Waste Dump allows the owners of industry to increase the level of surplus value, to increase the rate of profit.

Rather than have the companies pay to clean up toxic material, rather than have industry work out how to deal with waste, the costs can be passed on to the local community and the local government. If, as
local resident and citizens, we oppose this plan to dump the waste onto the community and allow industry to walk away, we are then abused and we are the ones who hinder the economy and the ones who put up the
signs saying Tasmania is closed for business. There seems to be an idea that if industry does not get everything they want than they will close up and go home. But, to use the old slogan, we live in a society, not an economy.

This demonising of the locals as uneducated wreckers is obviously false. If this dump was such a good idea why then did the councils and SWS feel the need to make decisions behind closed doors? Surely if a new type of dump is to be built in Tasmania, why could the Councils have brought in community consultation from the very beginning of the process? This is not a simple thing like making a new park or changing the cost of parking fines. This is a site that will have to be monitored for many years, decades and even centuries. This is a site that, if the worst was to happen, could have very negative consequences for the physical and financial health of the community. This a project unlike other projects undertaken by the local councils.

The Sorell Council likes to use the argument that the pre-existing tip has been running for ten years and has not had any problems. However we are not comparing apples with apples. The one site, the current site takes normal domestic waste, while the new tip will take more hazardous wastes. Also how much does the community know about the current tip, is waste leaking into the rivers? We know that plastic bags are being blown into the surrounding bushland. The people of the area did the right thing by agreeing, by allowing the current tip to be built and operated. The community even swallowed some of the concerns they had, because the residents knew the importance of the site, and how it is helpful to the greater community. Now that there
is a dump built, we see that the council and the company they have set up SWS, is moving to next higher level of hazardous material. Is it not valid to query whether in another ten years the authorities will be
able to say we have a pre-existing dump and no one is complaining, let us (for example) now dump radioactive waste in this site? Now that the Council has lost the trust of the community can we not say that this will not happen?

The residents who have lived with a Class B tip are rightfully upset over this new extension to the Copping tip, as we have been kept in the dark. This extension was sprung on the community in a way that has
decreased trust. And once this trust is broken, insincere apologies and a sham of a consultation process are not enough to fix the problem.

Not being able to speak for the all, my view is that the only course of action is to cancel the permit and to start over again with local citizens being consulted and informed on each and every step of process. If as SWS says this project has been under review and investigation for some ten years why the sudden rush now? Why not spend another six months or so doing the work properly and with proper consultation? I for one would like to see the EPA review other sites to the same level as they did Carlton River site. In talking about alternate sites we are told, conflicting information, as to the sites investigated. Did SWS and EPA simply look over a map and say this site is too far from highways? I would also like to see the site chosen on purely environmental and public health issues, not what is cheap and expedient for industry (the ones who have caused the problems.)

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