Cooke-Tassal deal backlash: Blaming foreign ownership ignores the ‘real issue’

Canadian Cooke Aquaculture’s acquisition of Australia’s Tassal last week has turned up the heat to remove salmon farms from Tasmanian waters, but rather than trash foreign multinationals taking over an industry, it may be time to look at the real issue.

In an opinion piece in the Hobart Mercury titled “Beware the penned-up frustrations,” Hobart barrister Greg Barns noted how local politician Greens MP Rosalie Woodruff called the Cooke-Tassal deal as a “dark day” for Tasmania’s marine ecosystem.

The politician blamed the Liberal government for being “suckered” into handing over Tasmania’s waters to foreign companies with “terrible track records.”

But Barns says the regulatory framework that relate to farmed salmon in Tasmania is the real issue.

“The fact that Cooke is Canadian and that JBS, which owns Huon Aquaculture, is Brazilian is neither here nor there. Trashing foreign companies is part of the narrative of the populist Right and Left and ignores the fact that if Tasmania is not open to global markets then this already mendicant state would be even more bereft,” he writes.

Read also: Anti-salmon activists block Tassal vessel in Long Bay

He agrees that if a company has a poor record when it comes to ensuring its operations, they need to be watched closely when they invest in a new jurisdiction. He says the “social licence and environmental sustainability are keys to the success of the farmed salmon industry’s future in Tasmania.”

These depend “on the robustness and independence of the regulatory framework that governs operations,” he writes, suggesting therefore to look at regulators – of salmon farming and other industries – to make sure they are not victim of influences, for instance, “ from donations to political parties, so that when they are in office they instruct regulators to ‘go easy’ on industries and companies that have filled the party coffers.” He called these sorts of influences as “regulatory capture,” a term used in the 1960s and 70s by American economists.

He underscores that he is not criticizing the current board or management of the Environmental Protection Authority, which is now a statutory independent body with its own board and is the regulator of Tasmania’s salmon farming industry. He said any regulator of any industry needs to be watched.

Barns, who has advised on federal and state Liberal governments, recommends “rigorous independent research” on whether the EPA and the Tasmanian government have been influenced.

“Perhaps it is time for an independent inquiry consisting of an economist, a scientist and a lawyer to be established so we can determine the question of regulatory capture and what best-practice principles to underpin salmon farming in Tasmania for now and the future,” he suggests.

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