It isn’t at all easy to locate the Thorne residence in West Launceston, the home where Tim and Stephanie Thorne have spent the past
thirty years. The house is set up a sloping and narrow through road, where following traffic shepherds slower-moving vehicles to more
In the confusion of the search, you could be forgiven for mistaking the number ‘6’ on their letter box for ‘16’ – and once located, you might note the work that’s been done on the driveway. "It’s narrower now, making it less easy to park" says Tim, "I’ve yet to come to terms with its width and have had a couple of scrapes backing out." Climb the steps and enter the house to the welcome of the Thornes’ book-lined loungeroom and one comes face to face with a panorama that opens up across the Launceston basin. "It’s a lovely view," says Tim with pleasure, "except when the fog rolls in. In thirty years, I’ve never grown tired of it. And in all the years of people visiting here, only one person has disagreed with me about the view and that was Doris Leadbetter. I think she found the steps difficult - and it was night – so she didn’t appreciate it much. I pointed out the twinkling electric lights scattered across the valley and her response was, ‘Fond of electricity, are you?’ "
Conversation flows easily for Tim and Stephanie, people and events spring readily to life. "Doris was such a character," Tim continues. "I’ll never forget the time in Cygnet she volunteered for mud wrestling, I think it was in response to a sign in the local butcher’s shop advertising ‘Women wanted for mud wrestling. Apply within.’ Doris - being well into her sixties at the time and having had a double mastectomy - thought she would volunteer. The butcher was somewhat taken aback, Doris wasn’t quite the applicant he was expecting.’
"And there was an episode at a New Norfolk pub where we were staying while on a reading tour," he adds. "A gang of bikies was assembled at a car park which Doris for some reason had to traverse and – I think more as a pre-emptive strike than as a response to anything – offered to one of them as she walked past, ‘Ah yes. A man can bond with a Ducati!’ Doris was an imposing character, a wonderful wit and a great presence … she’s sadly missed."
Those figuring in Tim Thorne’s conversation come to life in his poetry as well. He defines himself as a political poet; you’ve only to read a line or two from a bitingly satirical piece – eg, ‘while the ATMs chew up the bush as if it was a dodgy card’ - to be aware of how nuanced he is with political developments. But a mellower side is evidenced in his love poems, in the humour of his lighter performance pieces – acts of playfulness which lead a merry dance – and in poems dedicated to friends. ‘At Table’ imagines an exchange with Gwen Harwood over dinner, when ‘As the table’s cleared for entrée / the topic turns to literature.’ "Ah yes, that was my attempt to encapsulate within a few lines the life of such a fascinating and varied and amazing individual as Gwen Harwood," Tim says. "And I imagine that when at table with Gwen, at a certain stage the work of Wittgenstein would have come up…." Another Thorne poem – ‘The Living Are Left with Imagined Lives’ – is written in memory of his friend Robert Harris who died in 1993 at the age of forty-one. Harris’ work has been described as ‘deeply spiritual’, and his collection Jane, Interlinear and Other Poems was posthumously awarded the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry.
"Bob Harris did the Melbourne launch for one of my books", Thorne recalls. "Virtually extemporare: he obviously had thought about it beforehand, but it was delivered without any reference to notes – and one of the kindest and most perceptive things anybody’s ever said about my poetry. I hadn’t met him that many times, but our paths would cross occasionally. He struck me as one of the most genuine seekers after truth among the poets that I’d met … The line ‘your blunt face butting at the truth’ in the poem I dedicated to Bob: that’s how he was, the sort of person that maybe three or four or five years might elapse between meetings but you’d pick up where you left off, and cut straight to the chase. I had more satisfying conversations with Bob than with many many other people.
"I was very saddened at his death and I just hope that that poem as an elegy comes somewhere close to doing justice to its subject … which no elegy ever can because a poem can’t replace a human life, but … no reason not to try I guess."
Tim mentions others he’s drawn to – similarly unpretentious individuals, not concerned with peripherals – of whom, he says, a surprising number are poets. "Poets – despite all the cliches – stack up pretty well. It’s an invidious job of picking some out, forgetting others, but Jennifer Maiden would certainly be another. Again, we don’t see each other that often and we correspond very occasionally, but we seem to know where the other one’s coming from and there’s a whole lot that’s unspoken - that doesn’t need to be spoken - because I guess we have a similar approach to life. Alan Wearne’s another. Chris Mansell…."
Over a career spanning more than three decades, Thorne has published eleven collections of poetry. However, Thorne the poet is but one aspect of a multi-faceted persona, come to know him better and one more fully appreciates the depth of his grassroots political engagement. That however is for others to ponder: I asked Tim, how does he see himself?
"Oh dear … how do I see myself? Through a glass darkly?
"When I first became politically involved I had already decided that poetry was the most compelling aspect of my life. That politics and poetry didn’t gel. And yet, there was always a nagging feeling that they should. For a long while I deliberately didn’t write poems that could be construed as having a political content. I think I had a view of poetry that was shaped by a kind of apolitical approach, I’ve always been something of an admirer of that saying ‘no politics is fascist politics’, and of the apolitical approach that viewed literature as beyond mere partisan politics. But by the late sixties, early seventies I was starting to tie the personal and the political together. Whereas initially I’d thought I could separate the two, with a little honest analysis I realised I couldn’t - and shouldn’t – and so from then on I tried not to.
"It’s been a strange mixture of approaches, I’ve sort of gone backwards and forwards a bit in how I’ve seen those two aspects of my life, how I’ve seen them connecting to each other. It’s resolved itself – certainly in most of my recent work – in the fact that I am a political poet."
Thorne possesses a dispassionate capacity for critical observation, the ability to nail within a word or a phrase an essence, mood, tide of opinion. Yet judging from responses to his recent poetry, it’s not a style that satisfies the criteria of what judges and administrators seek when deciding major poetry prizes. "Any indications why?" I ask.
"Who knows? There was a time when what I wrote fitted the fashions of the time. But that period was a pathetically brief and discrete slice of my biography. I think there are many people who still believe as I did, that poetry and politics shouldn’t mix and therefore what I’m doing cannot be considered seriously as poetry. Again, it’s not fashionable to write a sixty page ottava rima poem, particularly not in a bastardised or twisted form as I have, which is fairly idiosyncratic in itself. The attempts at revival of traditional poetic form is part of the postmodern approach which I find quite interesting and fascinating, if a little superficial – there’s got to be a heavy dose of irony, I suppose, when you’re using form. And yet the ottava rima is the perfect vehicle for irony too. Maybe irony is out of fashion, maybe post-post-modernism has done away with irony.
"And I could probably date that. Didn’t somebody did actually say that September 11th, 2001 marked the death of irony? An absurd claim, but I think one which holds resonance with a lot of people who’ve always felt that irony isn’t quite the go."
In a comment to the new-poetry list, US poet Suzanne Burns makes the point that poetry is valuable insofar as it’s not a commodity that can be harnessed to make money, and so is therefore free to do a different kind of work. What sort of work is poetry capable of?
"The important thing about poetry - and why it will never be a successful commodity - is the way it deals with language," Tim suggests. "Language is the crucial element here - that’s all that poetry has - language is poetry’s total raw material, total resource. Because poetry is an end user of language, because poetry is an end and not a means, it therefore has a vested interest in the language itself. Like any other resource, if it is absolutely essential to your business then you have a vested interest in protecting that resource and not seeing it polluted or degraded in any way.
"Almost every other use of language has in fact a vested interest in degrading it, polluting it and manipulating it, making it subservient to a greater end. Whether that end is making money, having power – whether it’s power within a relationship, or whether it’s power in a political sense, whether it’s money in a commercial sense through the use of language in advertising for example, or whether it’s the use of language in order to get ahead in your job – in all those cases language has to be distorted in some way. Whereas in poetry, you can play with language - in fact you probably should - but it’s there as a form of absolute. And there’s no commercial future in absolutes."
Another comment to find its way onto the new-poetry list is James Finnegan’s view that perhaps only the privileged and leisure class can afford to like disturbing art. "In a way the so-called edgy poets are preaching to the choir of the educated and privileged peers and not to the segments of society they claim they want to reach."
"That’s an interesting observation, and it’s partly true," says Tim in response. "But I have seen the exact opposite of that at work, and it worked brilliantly. A poet like Eric Beach can get through to people with no previous experience of any formal education, let alone literary education. I’ve seen people respond to poetry - and particularly to that so-called edgy poetry - who by most people’s benchmarks are among the most marginalised, oppressed and down and out social groups. So my experience of that is not true.
"I would hope, and I certainly try, to write poems that reach people, I understand it’s very easy to be dismissive and say you’re only talking to other people who are like you but jeez there are not that many of us around. I read at a pub in a country town in New South Wales once when a woman - someone who’d been in the next room playing the pokies but happened to hear the poem - came up to me at the end of the reading in tears, saying "That was my life in that poem". And another example is an aspect of the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, when – quite aside from the land reform, the political indoctrination – poetry workshops played a pivotal part of the revolutionary process; poetry workshops for traffic police, poetry workshops for air force mechanics…. Now, the literacy rate under Somoza was something like 35% - very low – and the vast majority of the people benefiting from political reform was illiterate. But when they were given literacy, they jumped immediately to poetry. It was like: now I can write this is what I want to do; what was holding me back from being a poet was the fact that I couldn’t read or write. I’ve jumped that barrier. I’m not going to read the bloody newspaper, I mean I’ll do that as well but it’s not where I want to stop.
"So I’d challenge the remark you quoted. There’s never been any survey done and I don’t know if it would be possible to devise one, but it seems to me that there are a huge number of people out there who do respond to poetry, what they don’t respond to is a lot of the guff that surrounds it."
For many years, Tim Thorne has reviewed - both professionally and for the love of it - in newspapers and magazines. He agrees with critic Michael McGirr’s assertion that the quality of reviewing in Australia is threatened by the modest rate of pay offered to many reviewers. "It is rare for a reviewer to get as much as an ordinary day’s pay for a book review, although most reviewers devote far more time to their task than they are paid for. It is not easy to read and consider a sophisticated book and then write about it all within a day," McGirr wrote.
"Yes I’d certainly agree with McGirr," says Tim. "Poetry reviewers are not paid nearly enough: from my experience of having written reviews and written poems, I tend to get paid better for the reviews than I do for the poem. And I don’t know what money poetry reviewers would get if there wasn’t poetry to review. I tend to agree with Les Murray when he talks about the people who live off poetry, ie newspaper reviewers, even literary journal reviewers. If you consider academics who do very nicely thank you from being a middle man, the poet – in Les’ analogy, the farmer who produces the material in the first place – is never the one who gets rich from it. But that’s for a different argument. Speaking as a poet, and also as a publisher of other poets, I find the problem is that there is not enough space devoted to reviewing poetry. In that sense I guess there’s not enough money spent on it, either by paying reviewers or by providing space within publications. It’s annoying to put such an amount of time and effort into producing a book of poems - or the amount and effort into publishing a book of poems by someone else - only to find it dropping into a bottomless well of critical response and never hearing the splash at the bottom."
It’s a line of thought that begs that question as to whether there are good reviewers of poetry in Australia. Thorne’s judicious in his response.
"I guess one’s reply to that is going to be tempered by one’s experience. Yes there are some excellent ones. But there are some reviewers of poetry who seem to get fairly regular gigs who don’t seem to understand what poetry’s all about. And that’s a bit … tiresome. Reviewing is hard work, and as McGirr says it’s unrewarding work in a lot of ways, certainly financially. But I think it’s important to do – mainly, to promote work that I think people would genuinely benefit from reading.
"These days I only review books when I really want to recommend them to people. Years ago, when I used to review for the newspapers I'd review whatever they sent me - when reviewing for The Australian back in the seventies I’d be sent some really awful poetry. And I was not averse to totally condemning a book if I thought it needed total condemning, and pricking the bubble of pretension if I thought it needed to be pricked.
"On the other hand, there were some exciting, interesting, innovative and worthwhile poetry collections that if I thought I could help promote, sure; I was privileged to be in a position to do that. These days, I’m past the stage where I can be bothered with the negative ones. If I don’t like a book I won’t review it. Sometimes I’ll get a book that I really don’t know much about, I’ve never heard the author or I’ve never read much of their work, when I’ve a totally open mind about it - and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised in some cases. But generally speaking, recent reviews I’ve written have all been quite glowing and the only reason for that is that the selection process takes place beforehand. Because – there’s so little space, it’s a pity to take it up with a negative view, when there may be somebody out there who likes it and will review it positively. So good luck to them, I don’t mind if a bit of bad poetry gets out, bought and read – as long as a lot of good stuff gets bought and read as well.
"When I first fell in love with poetry, at the age of eleven or twelve, it was because I realised that poetry could deal with subjects, whether human or inanimate, that were otherwise marginalised. Poetry at that stage for me was about flowers, nature, heroic aspects of history. But in my first year at high school, my English teacher – Bob Hortle – read a poem in which was a line about a concrete mixer at an urban building site; that this could be the subject of a poem was a bit of a revelation to me. From then on, the poems that really interested me were poems that dealt with subjects – other people, or scenes or events - that were probably anti-poetic in the cliched sense of poetic. Later on, I came to appreciate Wordsworth and some of the other poets who dealt with more conventional subjects, but from the beginning I was brought up with the understanding that poetry could elevate – no, elevate is not the right word cos that would imply some sort of hierarchy – could transform the mundane into the wonderful. I find it easier to write a poem about a busker in the mall than I would about some famous operatic tenor. I would find it easier to write a poem about an industrial workplace than I would about some sublime mountain scenery."
Buskers in the mall; industrial workplaces … Thorne’s metier lies in social commentary. With these lines from the poem ‘Erechtheus 33’s Apologia’,
The absence of Martin Bryant jokes tells us
that the line is always being drawn
but by whom?
he refers to the 1996 Port Arthur mass murders and makes the point that as a society, we draw the line by consensus - almost by
implicit agreement – to refrain from making jokes about particular topics until a certain amount of time has elapsed. "Maybe there are
some subjects that are still totally taboo," he says. "And within different societies and different groupings, those taboos would vary,
would differ. Had I written that poem a couple of years later, I might have said the absence of 9/11 jokes.
"Some of us will step across the line quite deliberately and provocatively, and sometimes the consequences of that can be pretty bloody severe; and sometimes not. Take a milder example, we’ve only got to watch ‘The Chasers War on Everything’, they have made quite an art form of crossing the line in pursuit of the joke. If you transfer that to in pursuit of the poem, it makes for an interesting comparison because poetry seems to be able to cross more lines than humour. Because I guess there are various ways of treating something in a poem, humour is more limited in that sense.
"Generally speaking, you don’t make jokes about the massacre of innocents - Port Arthur, Auschwitz, 9/11, Rwanda - events it’s pretty hard to find humour in. On the other hand, there is that kind of gallows humour that can come - usually from the victims – where you’ve got to pay your dues. You can’t buy in to that one from outside. Which is where there’s a parallel with poetry, you can’t buy into an emotional, psychological or cultural area from outside and expect that the language will somehow or other get you through. A lot of bad poetry deals with important, serious subjects but it does so because it’s relying on the impact of those subjects rather than its own artistic strength. That’s true not only of whole poems, but of occasional lines, metaphors within a poem, where you can fail by leaning on what is ultimately extraneous to your experience and your poetic. There are some pretty obvious areas - religion is one - where you can call on an established symbolism as a kind of substitute for working through your own metaphorical language, symbolism, art. People respond – not because of anything you’ve written - but because of what they bring themselves from their experience of their own belief system or their own cultural background. And that’s a copout … hitching a ride for free on somebody else’s structures. It never results in good art."
Since 2001, Tim Thorne has been instrumental in the running of the Tasmanian branch of ‘Now We the People’, a grouping of people from a variety of backgrounds "but mainly, I guess, of people who had been associated with the traditional political Left". The group who went public in setting up a Tasmanian branch of NWTP in 2001 were - besides Tim - Pete Hay, Christine Milne, Max Bound and Austra Maddox. Tim helped to organise NWTP Tasmania’s ‘A Future for Life’ in February 2007, a weekend seminar focussing on the effects of Global Warming. The nuclear issue, now hotly contested following Labor’s reversal of its long-standing Three Mines policy, was one of the topics on the agenda.
Environmentalist Tim Flannery is among those who encourage the use of nuclear power as a means of creating electricity, encouragement that comes in the wake of a call by James Lovelock [of the ‘Gaia Hypothesis’ fame] in 2004 for a program of nuclear expansion which in Lovelock’s view is the solution to slowing down the rate of climate change. In Thorne’s view, the mooted expansion of the nuclear industry is ridiculous. "There’s certainly a big push for nuclear powered electricity generation throughout Australia," he says, "it’s what the federal government is looking at. The Labor Party, I’m sure, would be quite happy to go along with it. Federally they would. The point about the Labor Party is that the States would all say ‘yeah it’s a great idea but not in my back yard’, there could be internal problems for them in pushing that policy. But it’s not going to make the slightest impact on greenhouse gas emission. Any impact it does make won’t happen quickly enough, it takes quite a while to get nuclear power stations online, particularly when you haven’t got the slightest bit of infrastructure in place. Then there’s the waste problem. But as far as the government’s concerned, they’ve solved the nuclear waste problem, they’ll just put it on Aboriginal land.
"You only need an expanded nuclear capacity if you take certain things as immutable; and if you take present rates of increase of consumption as immutable then you are setting yourself a whole different scenario than if you say … well hang on, maybe we can change our consumption. There are all sorts of things that can be done immediately and cheaply that would deal quite happily with climate change and most of its worst effects, certainly it would slow the rate down to within the kind of limits that most scientists are saying we need to achieve.
Thorne insists that Australia alone could provide enough solar energy – in one year – to keep the economy of the United States operating at its present level for six months, using no other source of power. "That’s without wind power, without hydro-electricity, without all the other relatively benign forms of energy production. And that’s just energy production.
"It’s only an issue, really, for the people like the big multi-national coalmine owners and for those who’ve a huge vested interest in the current way things are done. There are so many ways that the economy of Australia could actually be improved by taking measures to reduce greenhouse gases, that to say that to comply with – for example – the Kyoto Protocol would be damaging to our economy, is a nonsense. It’s more damaging to say, we mustn’t upset the coalmining company, we mustn’t upset the oil company and we mustn’t upset the automobile manufacturers…. The problem is having a problem and a range of potential solutions which are in the scientific arena, but another set of problems and solutions that are in the political arena – looking to be met by different criteria. Politicians are not going to upset the economic and industrial status quo."
Still on the subject of the future: local environmentalist Pete Hay’s bleak self-assessment is as "a miserable, gloomy bastard", quite unable to see resolutions for the planet. "The genie’s out of the bottle," Hay mourns. "We’ve lived this high-rolling lifestyle that’s destroying the planet and we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It’s a tragedy because most of us know that on one level we’re doing it, but we’ve no capacity to do anything about it."
I asked Tim whether he sees things similarly?
"Irrationally I’m an optimist, but most of the time I agree with Pete," Thorne replied. "I used to think there was some way in which enough people could realise that what was happening in the world was pretty diabolical ... that though the genie was out of the bottle, enough of us could put it back. I’d still like to think that Pete’s wrong. But I can’t convince myself sufficiently….
"In the old days, one used to talk about revolution, though it’s very passé I suppose to talk now about revolution in the sense envisaged by the revolutionary train of thought through Marx and Lenin and Mao. That whole socialist revolutionary project has for various reasons been discredited and made irrelevant. But there is a sense in which Marx was right, and that is – not that I’m a physicist, but there are parallels in my layman’s understanding of quantum theory – that there comes a critical point where things either totally collapse into chaos, or the resistance to the developing entity builds up to a critical mass and starts turning things the other way. I have this irrational belief that human beings are going to wake up to themselves, before it is absolutely too late for everybody. It may be relatively too late, and it may be too late for a lot of people – it is already too late for a lot of people. I asked Chris Harries at the Now We The People seminar in February when he was talking about advice to offer to people about global warming: "What’s your advice to people in Tuvalu?" His advice to them was to get a good lawyer.
"I mean, it is too late for some people. The last figure I saw was that 160,000 people have already died in Bangladesh as a direct result of global warming, a number that’s likely to double each year. So it’s too late for some people but obviously not too late for a lot of us, so there’s still hope. There’s a quote from Christopher Fry in his play ‘The Lady’s Not For Burning’, talking about that little hellcat Hope. Basically he’s saying that when you have total chaos and everything’s thrown open, as long as one of the little things left – however irrational - is hope… I don’t know, it sounds very much like religious faith doesn’t it?"
One sells a little bit of one’s soul by deciding to represent one of the two major parties politically, wrote Greens’ candidate Cassie O’Connor in the run-up to Tasmania’s 2006 state elections. "And I just don’t see that happening with the Greens, I feel like I can stay free to myself and to those things and people and places I love by running for the Greens." Thorne, by contrast, is more comfortable with a non-partisan political approach. ‘Now We The People’, the social interest organisation to which he’s attached, uses the disclaimer that "Now We the People (Tasmania) is not a political party, nor is it aligned with any political party. Its members are, however, actively and passionately involved in the political process".
Why the non-partisan approach, I asked?
"I can see where Cassie’s coming from, but I would have grave hesitation in saying the Greens are any different really as a political party, they haven’t experienced power sufficiently for that to be evident yet: it’s very easy to be pure when you’re not in office," Thorne replied.
"I agree with what she says about political parties, by the very nature of political parties of course you have to give up a little bit of your soul. I was a member of the Labor Party for a decade, I went into it pretty much with my eyes open knowing that I didn’t really subscribe to a lot of what they were saying. But they were a useful platform in the seventies from which to oppose things like conscription, Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War , nuclear policies, uranium mining policies, various other things that were issues at the time.
"After a while though I realised that that platform was imaginary. When I witnessed how much time and effort was put into developing policy at a grassroots level only for it to be overturned at the snap of the fingers because somebody in PR had suggested to the leader in the lead-up to an election that you don’t talk about those things because they’re going to lose votes … that was the stage at which I thought, this is just a waste of time. Since then I have never been a member - nor have I any desire to become a member - of any political party primarily involved in what we generally see as the political ie the electoral process in Australia. Which is of course not to say that I am any less interested in politics, and in the political process, and in political issues. So what that’s meant is that I and other like-minded people, I guess, felt that there was a need for a political grouping, a focus for people to come together and look at issues - though not a party in the sense that it would contest elections, or even have much of an organisational structure."
One of the pressing political issues facing Tasmanians is the proposed siting of a pulp mill in the middle reaches of the Tamar Valley. Some months ago Sydney kayaker Simeon Michaels paddled from Sydney to Hobart in an effort to heighten opposition to the mill. He was joined enroute by actress Rebecca Gibney for a brief stretch of his paddle up the Tamar River.
In publicity for the staged event, the pair stated that while neither considered themselves ‘Greenies’, both were concerned about the effects the proposed mill will have on the environment and the economy. Their demarcation over whether one is or isn’t ‘green’ drew a vitriolic response on a local website, the Tasmanian Times, an independent forum of discussion and dissent. Commenters wondered whether such questions were designed to divide and conquer, to segregate between ‘greenies’ and ‘non-greenies’.
The anger, the suggestion of fractures within the alignment of groups and individuals opposed to the mill, came as a surprise to me. What did Tim make of it?
"It’s funny isn’t it," Thorne replies, "people just don’t like being labelled. I don’t like being labelled. Labels are strange things, for one thing – obviously - it saves a lot of time, it’s a shorthand way of having an argument. They’re two very nice bottles of wine on this table: I wouldn’t drink the labels of either of them. People do confuse the label for the substance.
"Just that whole word ‘green’: somebody should write the history of the word ‘green’ over the last thirty years, because it does mean a lot of different things. There are ‘Greens’ with a capital ‘g’ and ‘greens’ with a small ‘g’, then there are those who are ‘green’ leaning. The other aspect of it of course is that if you are labelled ‘green’, then you are assumed to be only concerned with the environment. This is one of the worst problems the Greens have with having chosen that as the name of a political party because they are automatically considered by huge numbers of the population to have no policies whatsoever on anything other than the environment, therefore they couldn’t possibly be a responsible political party! I don’t think it was the wisest choice, in that respect. But again, what are labels? When did the Labor Party truly represent labor? When was the Liberal Party last liberal? When was the Democratic Labor Party ever democratic? When did One Nation ever not believe that there were two nations at least in Australia? Political labels seem to be particularly misleading."
Understandably perhaps, since a federal election looms later this year, forest protests are in the local news again. Given my employment in the forest industry, I was curious to gauge (through Tim) the level of sympathy in the community for those caught up and hurt – economically, professionally – by the protests. Coincidentally - within a week of my conversation with Tim - a play reading in Hobart in early June raised questions of a similar nature.
Promotion for Richard Bladel’s ‘The Bone Orchard’ describes it as being about ‘A state bitterly divided. The death of a whistleblower…… A bold new Tasmanian theatre work about the forests and our future’. ‘The Bone Orchard’ speaks to current Tasmanian forest issues; in lieu of swift parrots, stag beetles and wedge-tailed eagles, read butterflies. It's entertaining theatre, possessed of a powerful dynamic that presents not just an environmentalist’s point of view but industry’s as well. It examines the dilemma of the contractor (his wife - the playwright tells us - does the books, his two sons take care of the business’ workforce of thirty-five) who falls foul of a protest at a forest blockade. There’s mention of the arguments for effecting forest change from within the system, along with speculation about spindoctors who view an uncommitted public as an untapped resource, open perhaps to persuasion should the message be sufficiently beguilingly framed.
Problematic for me is the pivotal role of Bladel’s whistleblower - an honest worker 'in a corrupt industry', much maligned by the powers that be - which by analogy would appear to paint the whistleblower’s former work colleagues as a little less than honourable, as people whose words you’d take with a grain of salt. I’d have few qualms with this scenario if ‘The Bone Orchard’ was presented solely as theatre, but – it's clear, isn't it? – it is offered as allegory for the problems facing the forest industry in general, and for its forest practices management in particular. My personal view (should you ask) is that personally and professionally the industry’s forest practices enforcers are exceptional individuals: principled, diligent, as honest as the day is long. Agreed, conflicting interpretations of the role of forest practices officers – should they mediate? wield a big stick? – dog the public perception of their duties, but that’s separate from the question of integrity, and a political issue.
The feedback session that followed the play reading was interesting for its expression of views by audience and actors alike. Should the script be more hard-hitting than it actually is? Should the playwright’s approach be even-handed in an attempt to present a sympathetic appraisal of both sides of the debate? The plight of the play’s forest contractor is perhaps the most obvious example of an effort to portray not simply an environmental point of view. It calls into question the merit of protest in situations deemed illegal, as well as the rights of forest industry contractors and employees prevented from working.
"The flipside of the coin - for those at the receiving end of what might be considered illegal trespass - is economic hardship," I suggested to Tim. "Inevitably people get hurt".
"A lot of people get hurt," Tim replied. "But the point is, who’s doing the hurting? Ultimately?"
"Wouldn’t it be awful if you’re a member of a large family where the sole breadwinner was a concentration camp guard. And some bastard came in and closed the camp. They wouldn’t have thought about the fact that you had to earn a living …
"I’m not equating people who cut down trees with people who cut down people, but…. The point is some of us actually don’t have the kind of choices available to people working within the forest industry. We’re constantly being told – and I’m not one to question what we’re being told – that we’ve never had it so good, that the economy of this country is strong, that unemployment is down, everything’s booming. I’ve known a lot of people, and I’ve known of thousands more, who have lost their jobs because we’ve had to move with the times. I don’t think forestry should be exempt, there’s no special eleventh commandment that says thou shalt not take the jobs of forestry workers but you can take anybody else’s."
As we lead up to a federal election later this year, the building of a pulp mill in Tasmania has become a hot political potato with federal implications. The sidelining of the Resource Planning and Development Commision as an arbitrator of the pulp mill approval process is another. Are they one and the same issue, I asked Tim? Two separate issues? Is one of more importance than the other, has one subsumed the other?
"I think the RPDC issue is more important because it can affect more than this one mill," he replied. "Obviously: if it can happen to this one mill, it can happen to any other project, so the RPDC has been virtually abolished. Any genuinely independent assessment process for further developments in Tasmania has just been kicked out the door.
"As to the relative significance of those two issues and the amount to which they’re interlinked, well obviously one wouldn’t have happened without the other. Eventually there could have been an issue that had come up that would have caused the government to substitute its different process for the RPDC virtually at the request of somebody whose project was up for assessment by them … so yeah, there could have been another issue that came up, but I would have thought just from the nature of Tasmanian politics, it would have been something in the order of the pulp mill, it would have had to have been something in the same general area of industry. So yes, the two are linked in that sense.
"Because we live in a valley that has such severe temperature inversion in winter and is subject to the worst – currently – to the worst woodsmoke-generated air pollution of any part of Australia, any industrial development that does not take that fact and the potential worsening of that situation into account, is - I think - completely irresponsible. Employment benefits are virtually zero, economic benefits are probably – overall – negative, when you look at the effect on fishing, viticulture and horticulture, tourism etc. It’s a much bigger issue than Ralph’s Bay…. In some ways I think it’s a bigger issue than say the Franklin Dam, or Lake Pedder, which were important issues in the environmental perspective - and important issues from a wider political perspective - for a whole lot of reasons that had very little to do with the actual projects. But this is going to affect a hundred and twenty thousand people - their lives and economy, their health, the safety of their kids in school buses on the roads with a four-fold increase in log traffic.
"People say ‘look at the zinc works and what they’ve done’ … but imagine trying to get the zinc works built in a suburb of Hobart today. You’d have Buckleys. This is where I have some small amount of sympathy for people like John Howard who say policies such as the stolen generation thing have to be seen in the historical context and ‘people thought it was right at the time’. My argument is that okay people thought it was right at the time, we now know it was wrong … well, why don’t you admit it and apologise?"
A couple of days before I travelled to Launceston to speak with Tim Thorne, he’d announced his involvement in ‘Campaign for a Clean Tamar Valley’ along with Peter Cundall and Ald. Janie Finlay. The trio hoped to raise public awareness of the dangers to the environment and the economy of the Tamar Valley, and to the health and safety of its residents, posed by the proposed pulp mill. I asked Tim how the campaign hoped to achieve this.
"If our aims, to raise at least twenty thousand dollars, are met, then we can afford a PR campaign, primarily a TV campaign, which will affect, I hope, I believe – I think it was 18 percent, the last poll that was taken of people who are undecided, people who didn’t have an opinion one way or the other about the pulp mill. They’re the people we’re aiming at, then I think the politicians will take notice and commonsense will prevail, economic commonsense which is what we’re mainly relying on; people tend to care about their money than they do about their children’s health. The health and safety, and the economy are the areas where people need to be educated and where the money we’re trying to raise will go towards."
(Conversation recorded in Launceston, Tasmania, early 2007,
and published in famous reporter 35).