By Pip Hinman
"Those with a conscience in the ALP will find it hard to defend the indefensible", was how WA Green Senator Dee Margetts summed up the federal government's forests package, announced on March 30. Margetts told Green Left Weekly that Keating obviously hadn't learned anything from the large green vote in the Canberra by-election and the NSW elections. "This is a cynical move: it is not a win for the environment movement."
Since the renewal of woodchip export licences last December, the fight to save the remaining pockets of old growth forest has been stepped up. With polls indicating mainstream support for both jobs and protection of the environment, the federal government was forced into damage control. Now, after four months, it has come up with a "compromise" with which very few are happy.
Of the original 3000 areas conservationists wanted protected, environment minister John Faulkner recommended just 1300 to cabinet. This was whittled down to 509, with the prime minister recommending that further environmental studies be undertaken. In Keating's most recent statement, just 264 of these 509 coupes have been nominated for protection — less than 10% of the original claim!
Added to this, Fenella Barry of the Wilderness Society told Green Left that 67 of these 264 coupes were not considered in this year's round of licence renewal but would be up for logging next year. "This is simply deception by the federal government. It is not protecting anything; it is asking the state governments to. It's a buck-passing exercise.
"Of the original 3000 we wanted protected — a conservative ambit claim — we've lost 2800. Given that 50,000 people have rallied across Australia in the last five weeks, we've done the lobbying and the scientific studies, I'm at a loss as to what more we can do next."
Sid Walker from the NSW Nature Conservation Council was a little more optimistic. "I'm excited about prospect of seeing the NSW forests policy [of the new state ALP government] implemented", he told Green Left Weekly, adding that it would not happen if the federal government didn't come up with the necessary cash.
He said that unless the NSW ALP delivers its environmental reform agenda within the first year, "there will be huge disillusionment with the ALP among green voters — and this will find a reflection in the federal elections. The federal ALP shouldn't draw the conclusion that it is off the hook, especially in the light of its appalling greenhouse package.
"People have shown, in the Canberra by-election and the NSW election, that they are smart enough to make a distinction between the federal and state governments. With strong federal government support, NSW will hopefully become the benchmark for protecting forests and jobs and timber industry restructuring, and for open and accountable processes in the lead-up to the NSW forest package."
The federal package also includes guidelines for a national reserve system (already agreed to by all states except Tasmania in the 1992 National Forest Policy Statement, but which hasn't been acted on). Its framework for restructuring the timber industry is said to include compensation measures for loggers who lose their jobs as a result of the woodchip decision.
National Association of Forest Industries executive director Dr Robert Bain attacked the decision to preserve some coupes, ostensibly because of the threat this posed to loggers' jobs. Given that the timber lobby now has access to about 90% of what it originally wanted, the jobs argument — from an industry which has been shedding jobs at a rate of knots throughout the last decade — sounds more than a little hollow.