ECU Professor Quentin Beresford is the author of a new book, The Rise and Fall of Gunns Ltd, which examines the rapid rise and unexpected collapse of Australia’s largest timber company and one of the nation’s most controversial corporations.
From the time it became a top 200 company in the early 2000s, Gunns attracted controversy for its logging of Tasmania’s prized old growth forests, its poor environmental practices, its plans for a pulp mill and for its participation in a tax-minimisation plantation scheme.
When the company collapsed, it owed debts of an estimated $3 billion, making it one of the largest corporate collapses in recent decades. Thousands of ordinary investors and farmers lost their money.
“Gunns’ vast profits were built on the favours extended by State and federal governments, rather than a legitimate commercial operation,” Professor Beresford said.
“Gunns developed a reputation for aggressively defending its commercial interests and for buying political influence. It took advantage of lax electoral laws to make regular, substantial political donations and it tried to silence its critics using the defamation laws”, he said.
The latter became known as the Gunns20 case, in which 20 of the company’s main critics were targeted with a multi-million dollar suit for speaking out against the company. It is seen by many to be one of the most serious abuses of corporate power in recent history.
Pulp mill controversy
Integral to Gunns’ operations was the proposal to construct the fourth largest pulp mill in the world in the environmentally-sensitive Tamar Valley north of Launceston.
“Gunns’ power was such that neither Liberal nor Labor parties at either State or federal level were prepared to fully evaluate the proposal despite extensive concerns over air and water pollution and further threats to Tasmania’s unique forests,” Professor Beresford said.
The upshot was one of the most extensive and innovative public protest movements in Australia since the campaign to stop the Franklin River dam in the early 1980s.
“The Gunns case shows the power that corporations can wield in modern democracies and the necessity for governments to uphold the public interest when it comes to major development proposals”.
The book will be launched by former Greens Senator Bob Brown at an event in Hobart on 5 February 2015 and at a special event in Launceston at which prominent businessman, and current Australian Conservation President, Geoffrey Cousins will speak about the book.
Professor Beresford lectures in politics at ECU’s School of Communications and Arts. His book The Rise and Fall of Gunns Ltd is available through NewSouth Books website.