Mar 12, 2014

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

They said the conflict over Tasmania's forests was over. But with the Liberals poised to win the state election on Saturday, should we be bracing for another round of protests?

Cathy Alexander — Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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. Vica Bailey from The Wilderness Society, who signed the peace deal, says if the Liberals open the new reserves to logging, "of course" the forest wars will return. "It would be naive in the extreme to think that you can log World Heritage forests and not expect the community to stand up," Bailey told Crikey from Hobart. Bailey says his organisation won't walk away from the peace deal. Scott Jordan from the Tarkine National Coalition says the Liberal policy will "go back to 30 years of fighting about it". "If anything, I think it will be a hotter situation and much harder to get to another agreement," he told Crikey. But there's a lot more to it, and what a politician says who desperately wants to win 14 seats in an election in three days' time might be different to what he does with a majority under his belt and four years to make it count. Hodgman may declare the Tasmanian Forest Agreement dead, but the real issue is what he does with the new reserves. Terry Edwards, who represents the timber industry and signed the peace deal, says the lack of detail from the Liberals "gives us room to move". Edwards, the chief executive of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, says the idea of "no new reserves" is open to interpretation. Does it mean going back on recent reserves? Edwards, along with Evan Rolley from hardwood veneer producer Ta Ann, told Crikey the industry needs a "controversy-free" wood supply. Both emphasised the industry needs wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council; this is an international process which discourages taking wood from high conservation value forests. Rolley, a former chief of the GBE Forestry Tasmania (and not loved by green types), said: "We will not process wood from any of the areas that have been agreed should be protected." Ta Ann, which sells wood for flooring, construction and furniture, has locked in contracts until 2028 which specify wood will not be taken from those areas. Ta Ann has briefed Japanese customers this week about their Tasmanian wood supply after media reports on the World Heritage delisting. Rolley pointed out the Abbott government's bid to delist the new WHA may fail; the World Heritage committee decides. Jane Calvert from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union said the industry won't want to log a former World Heritage Area: "There's no market for the wood the Liberals think they're going to provide us with." Behind the scenes, there's talk the Liberals may symbolically "tear up" the peace deal while keeping most of it in place, with some tweaks. There are concerns the peace deal does not provide enough speciality timber; that could be addressed. A proportion of the half a million hectares could be taken out of reserves but most left in. Industry insiders told Crikey they hope the new Liberal government would listen to them and come up with a new forest plan which averts major conflict. Whether environmental groups would accept that is an open question; many environmentalists think the movement has already given up enough. CLARIFICATION. The original version of this story stated that one signatory to the Tasmanian Forest Agreement had walked away from the agreement in the wake of Abbott's speech. This was in relation to media reports on March 6 that the Australian Forest Contractors Association had dropped its support. However the Contractors Association issued a media release on March 10 saying it "remained committed" to the agreement.

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8 thoughts on “Tasmanian forest wars: Liberal win could reignite a decades-old debate

  1. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    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?

  2. AR

    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.

  3. fractious

    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.

  4. mikeb

    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.

  5. MJPC

    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.

  6. Cathy Alexander

    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.

  7. Cathy Alexander

    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.

  8. MJPC

    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).

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