The deal to restructure the collapsing timber industry in Tasmania is struggling to make headway. Logging continues in old-growth forests at the same time as sawmills and woodchip mills close and more workers lose their jobs.
Anti-logging protests are being held weekly outside the premier’s office in Hobart, and the talks between environment and industry groups continue despite a key player pulling out in frustration.
The Wilderness Society (TWS) suspended its involvement in the Tasmanian Forest Agreement on May 18, citing a failure of leadership from state and federal governments.
TWS said governments had failed to help implement the interim outcomes of the peace deal, signed between industry, unions and conservationists in October last year.
It said on May 17: “Logging roads are still being ripped through the heart of remote forests and the Tasmanian government has made no commitment to legislate for the protection of high conservation forests.
“The federal government had no funding in the 2011-12 budget to provide the necessary exit funding for native forest logging contractors and other workers or for new jobs and opportunities in a truly sustainable timber industry based on plantations.”
On May 26, Tasmanian Greens forests spokesperson and MP Kim Booth called on the state and federal parliaments to “recognise that Tasmania’s native forest industry is financially unviable”, and to “work together to provide a fair and equitable support package to Tasmanian forest industry workers … to assist them to transition into other areas of work”.
The state government has taken moves to strip up to 2,000 jobs from the public sector in response to what they describe as a budget crisis. Forestry Tasmania is the government Business Enterprise that hands out logging contracts and manages the state’s public forests.
After details emerged of Forestry Tasmania’s poor economic performance, an advertising campaign was launched by an environmental coalition on May 21 calling for it to be dismantled.
Jenny Weber from the Huon Valley Environment Centre, one of the participating groups said: “This campaign exposes the failed financial performance of Forestry Tasmania as a key factor in the budget crisis …
“It is vital for the community to know that if Forestry Tasmania was producing even a modest level of returns, 500 community service workers would not have to lose their jobs.”
The forest “Statement of Principles” was signed by three environment groups (The Wilderness Society, the Australian Conservation Foundation and Environment Tasmania) and the big timber industry players (Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union and Timber Communities Australia).
The environment groups made compromises on the question of building a pulp mill, on allowing current Forestry Tasmania wood-supply contracts to continue and on allowing plantation-wood-fired power stations. In return they extracted a promise from the industry to protect many areas of high-conservation value forests targeted for logging.
The environment groups say that the inclusion of “a” pulp mill in the agreement does not in any way mean they will support the current proposal from Gunns to build a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, near Launceston.
But Bill Kelty, the facilitator appointed by the government to chair the talks, has said Gunns’ pulp mill proposal is the only one on the table and thus the one that the agreement refers to.
Questions emerged about the motivations of government and industry in taking part in the forest negotiations after Premier Lara Giddings said in parliament on May 19: “The whole Statement of Principles process … is also about trying to assist Gunns to get their pulp mill up.”
Have they used the talks to co-opt the environment movement into supporting the pulp mill?
On May 25, the Greens tried to pass a bill in the House of Representatives to repeal the Pulp Mill Assessment Act. The act fast-tracked the pulp mill approval process in March 2007 after Gunns pulled out of the Resources Planning and Development Commission.
More than 1400 people signed an e-petition that called on the act to be repealed, noting: “It gave a rubber stamp approval to the Gunns pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, which was found to be critically non-compliant by Tasmania’s independent planning authority”.
A rally was held in front of parliament during the parliamentary sessions. The “debate” inside the parliament was broadcast onto large screens outside so the protestors could see and hear the proceedings.
Bob McMahon from TAP into a Better Tasmanian addressed the crowd, saying: “We have surrounded the front of this parliament building with black flags to commemorate the betrayal of democracy when the interests of one corporation became the sole concern of government.”
He pointed to the irony of both major parties backing “losers”, saying that “Gunns and the logging industry are on the brink of collapse”.
McMahon continued: “Of the original 21 members of the House of Assembly who did Gunns’ bidding on that day, only 9 remain.
“One deputy premier was destroyed by his involvement with fixing the pulp mill deal. Two premiers have fallen and a third will surely follow …
“For at least seven years Tasmania has been held back by the manic obsession of both the Labor and Liberal parties with facilitating a world scale pulp industry in Tasmania on behalf of one favoured company.
“More social conflict and disgust with politicians and the political system will be the outcome of today’s predictable vote for a continuance of the systemic corruption that has beset this parliament.”
All the Liberal and Labor MPs voted against the Greens motion. Greens and Labor are in a power-sharing government and two Greens hold ministerial positions.
Stephani Taylor, member of Pulp the Mill and resident of the “Sacrificial Zone” on the Tamar River, read out an open letter to all members of parliament who voted against the repeal of the Pulp Mill Assessment Act.
The letter said: “If this pulp mill goes ahead, we will hold you personally and legally responsible for any deaths which occur as a result of thousands of extra log trucks and trucks carrying chemicals for the pulp mill.”
It also said they would be held responsible for any deaths from respiratory disease, for the collapse of the fishing industry, for massive property devaluation, and when sustainable businesses in the Tamar Valley face bankruptcy as a result of the effects of this pulp mill.
“The Tasmanian community will not be ignored by its elected representatives. The Tamar Valley pulp mill will never be built, and Tasmanians will fight for the return of their democratic rights. We will never give up our peaceful campaign to stop this pulp mill.”
On June 1, Gunns announced that it planned to sell or close all of its native forest operations, and sell off up to 80% of its plantations.
The June 2 Mercury said up to 1000 jobs could be lost as Gunns also plans to sell or close down all but one of its sawmills.
Gunns said it would focus solely on the processing and exporting of plantation hardwood and softwood woodchips, and on getting the pulp mill off the ground.
The asset sales are part of a strategy to raise enough money for Gunns to fund the mill alone if necessary, suggesting it has unable to find a company willing to touch the controversial and economically questionable development.
No doubt they are also hoping for big compensation payouts from the government for exiting native forest logging.
“Although our preference is to build and operate the Bell Bay pulp mill with an industry joint-venture partner, we need to put in place a financial strategy that will enable us to proceed alone if that is necessary,” L'Estrange said.
The permits for the pulp mill are due to expire in August unless the mill has been “substantially commenced”.
A delegation from the groups involved in the forest agreement went to Canberra on May 30 to discuss forest industry bailout money with federal ministers.
Environment Tasmania Director Dr Phil Pullinger said on June 2: “Positive progress is being made on getting an agreement on forests that looks after timber workers and protects our native forests, and this is what most Tasmanians would dearly love to see achieved.”
It is true that most people want to see the protection of our old-growth forests and a just transition for forest workers, but to what degree this will happen remains to be seen.
The track record of the government in this state suggests they are all too willing to put the interests of Gunns ahead of the interests of ordinary people.