John Howard may be be dogged by tractors on a flying visit to Ulverstone today, when farmers in north west Tasmania converge on the town to protest against Great Southern Plantations’ move into the famed farming region.

The South Riana Hall was packed to the rafters last night when 170 locals attended a public meeting called over the perceived threat to the community from plantations and decided to deliver their message to the PM in person.

Crikey was chasing Great Southern public relations manager David Ikin yesterday to no avail, but he rang from Perth late yesterday (EST) and said two company reps would be at the meeting.

Mr Ikin said the company has 4,000 hectares under hardwood plantation in Tasmania in the north, north east and north west of the state, with more yet to be planted. And it planned to expand its holdings, in clusters, for economic reasons.

“There’s no retreat,” he said. “There are economic benefits for communities from plantations and we will be buying more properties in northern Tasmania. We only buy land that’s on the market — there’s no pressure on anyone to sell.”

But farmers are concerned that the tax incentive scheme, under which investments are 100% tax deductible in the year in which they are made, has bulldozed the earth under their feet. Great Southern Plantations is part of the Great Southern Group, based in Perth, an agribusiness investment manager with plantations around the nation, as well as investments in organic olives, wine grapes and beef cattle.

King Island mayor Charles Arnold was at the South Riana meeting. His Council has successfully removed forestry from its planning scheme as an acceptable use for rural land, an amendment approved by the Resource Planning and Development Commission. And he urged the meeting to follow the island’s lead.

The amendment was sparked by Great Southern’s move onto the Bass Strait island, but King Islanders can breathe easy. Mr Ikin told Crikey the company wanted to beef up its beef production and planned to buy more land for this purpose.

Great Southern owns 3,600 hectares on King Island — which grows grass like no other. “We’ve no intention of planting trees,” Mr Ikin said. “But we’re keen to buy more land on the island for intensive beef farming.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey