Tasmanian forest wars: Liberal win could reignite a decades-old debate

It seems Tasmania may have had its Neville Chamberlain moment on the future of its forests.

I believe it is peace for our time,” the British PM famously declared after signing a deal with Germany — in 1938. Similarly, a recent Tasmanian deal to end the bitter conflict over logging may be a false dawn. If the Liberals win the state election on Saturday, as expected, they’ve promised to scrap the deal.

So does that mean a return to the Tasmanian forest wars which divided the state for 30 years, burst periodically onto mainlanders’ TV screens and plagued federal politicians? Protesters have largely dropped their marches, blockades and market-based actions. Are we in for another round?

Crikey talked to a range of insiders and the answer is: yes, it is quite likely the forest wars will kick off again. But industry figures told us the state Liberals may refine their strategy after polling day and find a compromise to avert full-scale conflict.

Forestry has long been the hottest topic in Tasmanian politics. You’re either for forestry or against it, and you’ve probably got a bumper sticker advertising your views. Families have been split, businesses burned down, people assaulted in closed-door meetings, lifelong enmities formed. A key issue for decades has been which forests to log and which to reserve; the trend has been to reserve more forests, as more of the public (including the mainland public) called for it.

Labor has been in power in Tasmania since 1998. The federal and state Labor governments worked out a peace deal which resulted in them signing the Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement (2011), basically a deal to reserve more forests and funnel federal money to the state as compensation. In a related move, a chunk of the forestry industry and most environmental groups signed the Tasmanian Forest Agreement (2012) which agreed to put a lot of forest in reserves — about half a million hectares, including parts of the Tarkine and the deep south — while agreeing that other bits of forest could be logged. The green groups promised to stop their protests. Laws to put the peace deal into effect passed the Tasmanian Parliament in 2013.

There are people on both sides of the debate who don’t support the agreement. And among those who signed the deal, both sides genuinely think they had to compromise a lot.

Enter the Liberals. At the state and federal levels they’ve promised to scrap the peace deal. A key reason for this relates to the way the deal was reached, the fact it is a Labor deal, and the fact that Labor is deeply unpopular in Tasmania.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently told a forestry industry crowd “we have too much locked-up forest”. He has taken action to delist 74,000 hectares of newly declared Tasmanian World Heritage Area.

But the state Liberals have given few details. We don’t know what they would do with the crucial half a million hectares of new reserves. Liberal leader (and premier apparent) Will Hodgman says he will “open them up … so that they can be used to create jobs”. But there’s no lines on maps, and as insiders know, it’s the lines on maps that matter.

Behind the scenes, there’s talk the Liberals may symbolically ‘tear up’ the forest peace deal while keeping most of it in place …”

All the state Liberal forest policy really says is that the government would bring in tougher anti-protest laws (including a mandatory jail sentence) and give businesses greater rights to sue protesters. The Tasmanian Liberals did not respond to Crikey’s request for comment for this story.

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Categories: ENVIRONMENT, Markets, TAS

8 Responses

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  1. Heard Liberal Hodgeman on ABC radio earlier today - he seemed to be saying that if the Libs don’t get a clear majority in the election he will not lead a minority Liberal government - no matter who he could form an ‘alliance’ with. Would this mean that the Libs might have to replace him, after election day, with someone who IS willing to negotiate to form a Liberal minority government or does it mean the Liberals will take their bat and ball and leave the field? What is it about this born-to-rule mob?

    by Hugh (Charlie) McColl on Mar 12, 2014 at 4:05 pm

  2. No “IF” about it,SouthMouth jnr made it abundantly clear to Fran on RN this morning,”I will rip up the agreement in my first week in office.”
    Points for telling us that before hand - minus several thousand for being .. himself.

    by AR on Mar 12, 2014 at 4:05 pm

  3. I wonder what the chances are of Hodgeman honouring that commitment (or is it a non-core promise) should he find himself in charge of a minority govt. After all, loggers are the best environmentalists, doncher know.

    by fractious on Mar 12, 2014 at 4:24 pm

  4. Ripping up the agreement is an election ploy to wedge the Libs from green/labor. From a business sense it is a stupid idea as everyone involved in the industry wants the agreement to work - that is apart from dissafected ex-loggers who couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt. No credible buyer wants wood from uncertified forests and other suppliers can get it cheaper elsewhere anyway. The so-called party of free enterprise will need to bump up the subsidies and handouts as a pseudo unemployment benefit to rednecks who somehow think the rest of the state’s taxpayers have less rights to a job than them, but should nevertheless continue paying them to keep the chainsaws running.

    by mikeb on Mar 12, 2014 at 5:29 pm

  5. Heard the LNP heir apparent on the ABC today being interviewed:
    Following his (recent) masters voice to the Forestry heads it will be “rip, rip woodchips, turn it into paper” come Sunday if they get in.
    On the mainland the unemployed are all going to be barista’s or Coles checkout operators, in Tasmania they will all be lumberjacks; this is a sorry excuse for a Government.

    by MJPC on Mar 13, 2014 at 9:02 am

  6. Good question Hugh. I have been asking around about this. While polls show the Liberals are likely to win 13 or 14 seats on Saturday (13 is a majority), there is a small chance they may only win 12.

    Now, if that happens, Hodgman has made it clear he will not govern in minority. If Labor and the Greens can muster 13 seats between them they would likely form govt, but I think this is highly unlikely.

    The PUP could just win one (again, unlikely, but possible). In that case, I think the Libs would form govt with the PUP. Hodgman could either become premier, or stick to his promises and stand aside.

    Hodgman would really struggle to form govt with the Greens given the vehemence of his comments around this. But he could get away with governing with the PUP, I think.

    by Cathy Alexander on Mar 13, 2014 at 12:51 pm

  7. And MJPC, on woodchips - one thing the Liberal forest policy does note is that the forest industry is no longer about woodchips.

    We don’t want to go back to the past; the era of forestry underpinned in the main by woodchip exports has finished.”

    Interesting - you would never have heard that a decade ago.

    by Cathy Alexander on Mar 13, 2014 at 12:52 pm

  8. Cathy, I would’nt be too sure that policy is changed come a win. He did mention with fondness the por state of a pulp mill (which I thought did not go ahead as much for environmental reasons as for Gunns financial woes), and had some fond comments about a woodchip mill being still available for use by the products of the lumberjacks.
    Never believe a politician when in opposition, in NSW the red t-shirts worn by the Premier (water over coal) and crew before the state election became only so many cleaning rags in government (coal/CSG winning out over water in the Hunter).

    by MJPC on Mar 13, 2014 at 1:19 pm

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