Gunns was ‘erratic’ on mill sale

Former Forestry Tasmania manager Bob Gordon at the Triabunna woodchip mill inquiry. Picture: GEORGIE BURGESS
Former Forestry Tasmania manager Bob Gordon at the Triabunna woodchip mill inquiry. Picture: GEORGIE BURGESS

FORMER Forestry Tasmania managing director Bob Gordon yesterday told the inquiry into the Triabunna woodchip mill that timber company Gunns had become ‘‘erratic and unpredictable’’ in the lead-up to the sale of the mill.

Mr Gordon said the sale to environmentalists Jan Cameron and Graeme Wood was a ‘‘bolt out of the blue’’.

He said Forestry Tasmania had an offer together with timber businessman Ron O’Connor, and had sourced a sale for woodchips in China.

On Tuesday, the committee heard that Mr O’Connor, co-owner of logging company Aprin, had secured $16 million in finance to buy the mill, but it was subsequently sold to Mr Wood and Ms Cameron for $10 million.

The inquiry heard from Forest Industries Association of Tasmania chief executive Terry Edwards that he believed conversations were held between environmentalists and Gunns boss Greg L’Estrange that if the sale went through they would ‘‘go soft’’ on the proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill.

‘‘I don’t know if Mr L’Estrange thought he had an agreement, but if he did, it didn’t hold,’’ Mr Gordon said.

Mr Gordon described the sale as ‘‘a very strange decision’’.

‘‘The pulp mill was the obvious strategy,’’ he said.

Mr Gordon said the move may have been made to increase the value of Gunns’ plantations, because a domestic pulp mill could get substantially more for the plantation wood than exporting it.

Mr Gordon said he did not think there was a basis for claims made by Mr O’Connor that Mr L’Estrange sold the mill out of the industry to hurt Forestry Tasmania.

‘‘I’m struggling to work out the logic of what Gunns’ thought process was,’’ he said.

Pulp mill analyst Robert Eastment told the inquiry that Gunns’ decision to move away from native forest harvesting was to get a pulp mill up and running.

‘‘They wanted environmentalists to give them a break,’’ Mr Eastment said. Triabunna Chamber of Commerce president Debbie Wisby said the closure of the mill ‘‘ripped the heart out of the community’’, but was a long time coming.

Ms Wisby said all tiers of government ‘‘did very little’’ to prepare the community for the impending closure.

She said new uses for the mill’s wharf must be explored, and said a ferry route to Sydney or accommodating larger commercial fishing vessels could be an option.

‘‘If we don’t get something happening, we’re going to go backwards,’’ she said.

Ms Wisby said the inquiry needed to be ‘‘the final chapter, and not a drawn out witch hunt’’.

‘‘There is so much work ahead that looking back isn’t going to benefit my business, my family or my community,’’ she said.