Gambling on Labor won't save the forests

March 15, 1995

By Pip Hinman

With the March 25 NSW election looming, an important opportunity exists to increase the pressure on both major parties to stop the destruction of our old growth forests. However, given that the woodchipping debate will continue well beyond this point, it's important that the environment movement arrive at some consensus on its main line of march if it is to win.

This is an issue which we can win. The facts are out and the arguments are very simple: woodchipping old-growth forests is not only a destructive waste of a scarce resource, but is also economically unviable. The only reason it continues is because governments — both Labor and Liberal — subsidise the timber companies' profits rather than protect timber workers' jobs and the environment.

This is why more than 80% of the population opposes woodchipping in old growth forests. This is also the reason for the large mobilisations — at short notice — in the last month or two (some even in states where old-growth forests no longer exist) to demand an end to the senseless destruction.


To date, the main strategy, pushed by the peak environmental bodies, is lobbying. Consequently, the paid full-timers for the peak conservation bodies spend more and more time in Canberra chasing politicians while the ranks are asked to collect signatures for petitions and to organise letter-writing campaigns to sway politicians. This is complemented by small blockades in some of the forests under immediate threat from logging companies.

The mass rallies in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane (three of which were called by the peak bodies only after considerable pressure from activists) renewed people's confidence that this is a campaign that can be won. They were important in broadening the campaign, and many (especially newer) activists are now calling for more and sustained public actions in urban centres.

Letter-writing and petitions are worthwhile exercises in so far as they raise people's consciousness about the issues involved, but they won't sway the state and federal governments because they do not challenge the powers that be. Stating one's private opposition to woodchipping has very little impact in the absence of a public campaign which has the potential to draw in mass support.

Nevertheless, this is exactly the type of "campaigning" which neatly dovetails with the strategy of politicians who, particularly around election time, bend over backwards to cultivate a "responsive image". Both federal and state Labor parties are particularly adept at this game, having had a good deal of practice in coopting sections of the leaderships of various social movements over the last 12 years.

The federal Labor Party and the timber industry bosses claim that stopping woodchipping in old-growth forests would cost jobs. This is a lie which serves the push to restructure the timber industry. The issue is not a question of jobs or the environment — it's about keeping neither or both.

Every year timber companies' profits grow and timber workers' jobs decline. Yet, timber workers, a potential important ally in the anti-woodchipping campaign, have been duped by the timber bosses, lied to by the ALP, misled by sections of their union leaderships and isolated by the peak environment bodies. As a result, timber workers' rights to secure employment, decent wages and a healthy environment remain abstract notions.

Bob Carr, the leader of the NSW opposition, has been convening talks between conservationists, the timber union and NSW Labor to come up with a "solution" to suit all players. This is, of course, an impossibility without major compromises being made, and the whole exercise should be seen for what it really is: a cynical attempt to try to stitch up preferences to win crucial marginal seats.

Carr's forest policy, announced on March 8, doesn't commit Labor to immediately protect high conservation value forests, but instead promises $60 million to the timber bosses to restructure the industry. The federal ALP is also involved in this election ploy with its decision to postpone the release of woodchipping licences for 33 forest areas in NSW until after the state elections.

Who decides?

The peak bodies' approach is based on the assumption that we live in a society in which politicians are, in general, accountable and responsive to people's demands, and that with enough petitions/phone calls/letters/postcards, we can actually bring about change.

Labor and Liberal politicians alike are in the business of cultivating the belief that the system basically works. And the peak bodies' lobbying "experts" are encouraged to play the game in order to preserve their "access" to the politicians (and, in some cases, their jobs).

And it is a game. Why? Because contrary to popular mythology, there is very little real democracy, and governments, whether Labor or Liberal, are not the decisive ruling force in society. In so far as governments "govern", it is to implement social and economic decisions on behalf of the real powers that be, the owners of key sectors of the economy. This tiny, wealthy minority, which is not accountable to anyone, has the decisive say in how our society is run.

If we had real democracy, the federal government would have to stop handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to the timber companies, immediately halt the woodchipping of unique 300-year-old trees, insist that the timber giants clean-up after themselves and massively increase plantationing. But while timber companies constitute only a small group of wealthy people, their influence extends way beyond their size.

Just as in Britain and the USA, the "two-party" parliamentary system in Australia means that both the major parties are committed to serving the needs of this minority class.

Labor's game is both to do the bidding of the ruling class, and, at the same time, dupe enough people into believing that it really is responsive to most people's needs. This job is made easier with the active support of those former social movement activists who have made their peace with the system.

Environmental campaigner Tim Doyle was right when, at the recent 6000-strong Adelaide anti-woodchip rally, he commented that it was time to break the "informal alliance" between the ALP and the peak conservation groups. This alliance has to end because it has never helped, and, as is particularly evident in the current woodchipping debate, is actively hindering the building of an environment movement that is independent of both the major capitalist parties.

While the peak bodies perpetuate the illusion that gaining fundamental change is a simple business of exerting a little extra pressure at election time, they discourage people from taking independent political action by sowing illusions that the system will reform itself from above. But as people's illusions in Labor's reformist agenda have been reduced over the past decade (its uranium sell-outs, its grandstanding and subsequent inaction on greenhouse gas reduction targets and its annual, automatic rubber-stamping of the woodchip export licences are some of the reasons for this) the peak bodies use the "lesser evil" argument to justify their informal alliance with Labor.

While it's true that Labor's environment policies may be slightly better than the Liberals, the fact remains that this party, which in both the 1990 and 1993 federal elections relied on the "green vote" to scrape back into power, has demonstrably proved it has not greened itself sufficiently to deserve the backing it has from the peak environment bodies.

The leaders of the peak bodies are deeply suspicious about ordinary people taking political decisions and running campaigns. They are cynical about those who attempt this course, often writing them off as "fringe elements" or people who want to push "other agendas". Peak bodies defend their control of campaigns by arguing that they can give it more "legitimacy". But "legitimacy" in whose eyes?

It is also the case that some leaders of the peak bodies have vested interests in the lobbying approach because their jobs often depend on government funding and their career prospects are bound up with the fortunes of the major parties and governments. The career path from a leadership position in, say, the Australian Conservation Foundation to employment in the federal environment department is a frequently travelled one — Phillip Toyne and Sue Salmon formerly of the ACF and Tony Fleming from the ACT Conservation Council are some of the latest examples.

Stunts or mass action?

The flip side of the belief in persuasion through lobbying is the desperate hope that stunts will somehow bring the powers that be to their senses. Forest blockades are presented as a "last resort", the "last line of defence".

What lies behind this thinking is the mistaken belief that the ruling class can be shocked into changing its mind. In other words, this strategy is mostly directed at the ruling class. No matter how big a blockade is, the government can always send more police or the loggers can come back when the blockade is over.

The blockaders sometimes imagine that their action is a decisive test of force, and the media help foster this illusion for the sake of sensationalism. But the media publicity eventually cuts both ways.

Consequently, there have been a series of confrontations, which unfortunately have skewed, if not completely misrepresented, the key issues in the woodchip debate. So, for instance, establishment media reports of violence — the inevitable result of chaining oneself to a bulldozer — between the blockaders and timber workers is usually slanted against the former.

Unless the blockade is built as a mass action, only those with the means to get to the forests and live there for a period of time can involve themselves. This excludes the majority of anti-woodchip campaigners. Over time blockaders become demoralised, especially if they are ignored by the media. And many of those who might otherwise be persuaded of the anti-woodchipping argument may be turned off because of the violence or simply because they can see no relevance or role for themselves in the campaign.

The majority of people in our society don't have the wealth and influence of the ruling minority. But we do have tremendous potential power. This power lies dormant most of the time because it is in the interest of the ruling class that the majority remain out of political action most of the time. However, this power can be unleashed through a strategy of independent mass action.

Independent mass action doesn't just mean taking part in rallies and demonstrations. It also includes the full range of activities that lead up to such mobilisations — reaching out to people at schools, universities and workplaces and promoting self-organisation among women's, church, union and pensioners' groups in order to create new and democratic organisations to express the popular will. It involves empowering these people by giving them a democratic say in the conduct of the campaign.

Take the successful Franklin dam campaign, for example. It succeeded because it mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in rallies across Australia as well as at the proposed dam site. It was the independent nature of the campaign, the fact that so many people from all walks of life took public action in a united way, which eventually forced the federal government's hand.

Despite what we are fed by the peak body leaders, the reality is that any campaign, if actively supported by enough people, has political clout of its own. Masses of people, united in action, make up an independent political factor which counts, among the powers that be, for a lot more than a peak body with lots of "experts" but with a passive membership.

Sustained mass mobilisation raises the prospect of bringing into play the one force in our society that can challenge the power of the ruling class — the working class. This is the class to which the great majority of us belong, and our power lies in the fact that we are indispensable to the running of society because we do all the work.

In contrast to social movements today — which mainly comprise people who are involved in political action for the first time — the ruling class is very aware of the powerful potential of sustained independent mass action.

In the case of the current woodchipping campaign, because a clear majority of the population opposes the destruction of old-growth forests, this campaign has the potential to win — providing the tactics and the strategy are right. Only by mobilising that 80% of the population in independent mass action, will we really bring pressure to bear on the powers that be.

The recent rallies were a good start, but it's not enough to hold one mass rally and leave it at that. There should be rallies in all major cities on a regular basis.

Like the successful Vietnam moratorium campaign and the peace movement of the 1980s, the involvement of people in mass actions around woodchipping will radicalise them around other issues as well while increasing their campaign organising skills, their confidence to act on their opinions and ideas, their sense of people's power and their commitment to democratic methods.

In sum, they will be more committed and effective activists for fundamental social change. It's no wonder, then, that this is the sort of approach which those who defend the system shy away from.

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