The federal government's June 11 announcement to increase the woodchip export quota by 1 million tonnes from public forests and an unlimited amount from private land spells disaster for what remains of Australia's native forests.
While the announcement was condemned as "shocking" and "outrageous" by the peak environment groups, their response also revealed the extent to which they bear some responsibility for this outcome. The Australian Conservation Foundation, for example, says: "When the Coalition said it was going green before the election, conservationists chilled the champagne ... today's decision has derailed the national forest policy process and ACF is seriously considering the value of participating any further."
Throughout the three-year long national forest policy process, the peak bodies have poured most of their resources into lobbying politicians at the expense of mobilising the broad public sentiment to save native forests. In so doing, they have hamstrung a potentially powerful movement.
If the paid full-timers for the peak bodies had spent less time in Canberra while the ranks were asked to collect signatures, write letters and send faxes to politicians, (complemented by small blockades in the forests), the environment movement wouldn't be so much on the back foot today.
The lobbying approach assumes that, in this society, politicians are generally accountable and responsive to people's demands and that with persuasive enough appeals to them we can actually bring about fundamental change.
Politicians of all major parties cultivate this belief that the system basically works. And the peak bodies' "experts" are encouraged to play the game in order to preserve their access to politicians (and, in some cases, their career paths).
The truth is, however, there is very little real democracy in this society and governments are not the decisive ruling force. Their primary goal is to implement decisions on behalf of the real powers, the owners of key sectors of the economy. And this tiny wealthy minority, the timber bosses included, is not accountable to anyone.
It is for this reason that negotiations between "experts" behind closed doors have never, in themselves, achieved significant victories for progressive causes. Channelling mass anger into parliamentary inquires, legal challenges, letter writing and the polling booths to the exclusion of building independent mass political campaigns, only sends the message that the "experts" have it all in hand. It is disempowering, demobilising, demoralising and, in the end, ineffective.
For a brief period in early 1995, and only after hundreds of timber workers blockaded Parliament House to force the government's hand in favour of the timber companies, a series of large, high profile anti-woodchipping rallies were organised under pressure from grassroots activists. These mobilisations, called at short notice, were very successful in promoting our side of the struggle and raising activists' confidence that the campaign could be won.
If these beginnings of a mass campaign had been sustained the government would have been forced to act in the interests of the 80% or so of Australians who say they oppose woodchipping in old growth forests.
The government would have done this, not because it was convinced of the ecological arguments, but because it would have had no choice: the political price of ignoring people's mobilised determination to save native forests would have been too great.
It is only by organising and mobilising the widespread pro-environment sentiment that the movement will ever be sufficiently strong to counter the power of the timber corporations. This means the movement must be totally independent of the establishment political parties. It also means putting a lot of effort into actively soliciting allies, in particular from the organised labour movement.
Prioritising discussions with the ALP, Coalition and timber industry officials, over talking with the timber workers themselves (whose real interests also lie in replacing the short-term native forest logging industry with an enduring plantation-based one), was a big mistake on the part of the environmental "experts".
If the government's latest decision does not propel the leaderships of the peak environment bodies to direct most of their significant resources into building broad-based, independent and radical mass campaigns, they will continue to hinder rather than help save what's left of our forests.