By Lisa Renfrey
The federal ALP's elaborate manoeuvres to clean up the political mess it created with the issuing of 11 woodchip export licences in December has only fuelled the anti-woodchipping campaign around the country.
Prime Minister Keating's speech on January 27, which sets aside, for an interim period only, 509 of the 1311 areas recommended for protection by environment minister John Faulkner, is seen as the last straw. It has convinced many activists that the ALP is no more sincere today than it has ever been about phasing out woodchipping in Australia's native forests.
"Keating has been saying this since his industry statement of March 12, 1991, yet he continually allows the amount of woodchips exported nationally to increase", said North East Forest Alliance spokesperson David Julian.
Forest blockades are ongoing in NSW at logging sites near Bega in the south-east and at Koolkhan in the north-east, and in Victoria on the edge of the Errinundra National Park in East Gippsland.
Urban-based campaign activities over the past week have included letter writing and petition stalls in over a dozen marginal federal seats. On January 24, small groups of activists gathered outside State Forest offices from Newcastle to the Queensland border, protesting against the irresponsible behaviour of the government and timber corporations in state forests.
This week, the Australian Democrats are carrying out a letterboxing campaign involving the distribution of 250,000 leaflets in seven Labor electorates across five states. The seats targeted, most of them marginal, include those of ALP faction boss Wayne Swan in Brisbane, ministers Michael Lavarch and David Beddall in Queensland, Gordon Bilney in SA and backbenchers Mary Easson in NSW, Peter Staples in Victoria and Dick Adams in Tasmania — none of whom have signed a caucus petition seeking to change the government's woodchipping policy.
The Democrats are also finalising a timber industry plan which will be put to the government for implementation in the May federal budget.
A meeting in Melbourne of the major environment groups to discuss electoral strategies for the anti-woodchipping campaign on January 26 wrote a letter to the PM outlining a proposal for resolving the "debacle", stating: "The ALP should not feel at all secure that green preferences will automatically go their way in crucial marginal seats at the next election unless they make a miraculous turn around on the environment".
This threat, apparently ignored by the government, was repeated by Kevin Parker, the national campaign coordinator of the Wilderness Society, immediately after Keating's January 27 announcement. Parker said, "Neither the environmental nor the jobs agenda has been satisfied — the PM is either bored or he has lost the plot completely. As far as we are concerned, there is a gnat's hair between the major parties in regards to protecting the environment, and all electoral options are now wide open."
Even before Keating's speech, the large attendance at anti-woodchipping public meetings clearly testified to the breadth and depth of the population's anger about this issue. A public meeting at Sydney Town Hall on January 25 attracted an angry crowd of about 1000 people, the majority of whom stayed behind at the end of the meeting to volunteer to help the campaign in marginal seats in metropolitan Sydney.
Following Keating's speech, angry rallies in Brisbane on January 27 and in Melbourne on January 29 attacked the government's decision.
Despite the much publicised pro-woodchipping rally of 3000 timber industry and union members in Hobart on January 28, a growing number of trade unions have also taken unequivocal stands against woodchipping in native forests (see article on page 9).
Summing up the argument of these unions and much of the environment movement, David Julian said, "It's not just woodchips that are being exported but jobs and the priceless heritage of our native forests. The jobs provided by a sustainable value-adding timber industry based on plantations would provide employment, generate financial returns indefinitely and help repair our environment.
"This is far from the present reality, with job loss in the timber industry at an all time high and environmental damage rampant. The government is clearly pandering to the irresponsible and ruthless greed of the powerful multinational corporations."
Public rallies are being organised outside Parliament House on January 30 by both environmentalists and pro-woodchipping forestry workers.