Woodchip blockade a challenge to greens

Issue 

By Pip Hinman

There were angry scenes outside Parliament House last week, as some 4000 timber workers — assisted by their employers — made their demands very publicly. By contrast, the environmental movement has yet to make its presence felt.

"If the environment movement were as prominent, as visible, and not so fixated with lobbying parliamentarians and industry representatives, we would be in a much stronger position at this stage", Bruce Threlfo, a Democratic Socialist candidate for the NSW upper house, told Green Left Weekly.

"It's short-sighted, and, frankly, stupid, for some leaders of the peak environment bodies to criticise the blockade tactic", said Threlfo, who is also a member of the Lowe Greens and active in the anti-third runway campaign. "While it's true that the forestry workers are being manipulated by their employers, the fact that they have taken their campaign into the streets — and have won a considerable hearing by doing so — is a lesson for us."

The jobs-at-all-costs argument being put by the timber companies, together with the timber division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), has tended to obscure the key twin issues of environmental and economic sustainability. Now, in absence of a mass campaign led by the environmental movement, the forestry industry's almost exclusive focus on jobs has virtually closed off any discussion about the millions of dollars of subsidies it receives, its record profits, its appalling environmental record and the job insecurity of woodchippers employed on a contract basis.

The timber industry bosses are trying to seize the opportunity to do away with the annual debate over woodchip export licences. A range of initiatives, including new state-federal regional forest agreements and a forests accord, have been mooted. While being promoted by the business press as "environmental protection measures", these are in fact rather thinly designed schemes to give the industry longer-term access to native forests.

"The idea is that state and federal governments would reach agreement on which areas of native forest could be safely logged. Once that was done, licences to export woodchips would be available, presumably on a longer-term basis", commented the January 30 Financial Review editorial. What happens if a rare or endangered species or other evidence of high conservation value is discovered is not elaborated.

Labor government

Prime Minister Keating's January 27 announcement that the 11 export licences issued last December would be recalled (following advice from the Attorney General's Department) and that 509 of the original 1300 areas to be woodchipped would first be subject to further environmental studies was "explained" by resources minister David Beddall in a follow-up statement. Referring to the reissuing of licences, a process which he implied would be virtually automatic, he said that such an exercise was "not about reducing volumes" of woodchips.

Beddall assured the timber industry that there was no guarantee that all of the 509 areas would be protected. "The Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories has admitted that some are not worth preservation", he said.

Even so, timber industry representatives threatened not to hand back their licences, and an ACTU organiser, Bob Richardson, stated that forest workers would continue to log the disputed areas even if the export licences are not renewed. At least five backbenchers whose electorates cover many of the disputed areas have threatened to resign from the ALP.

Environment minister John Faulkner welcomed Keating's intervention. The threatened caucus motion by Melbourne MP Lindsay Tanner to immediately protect all 1300 compartments recommended by Faulkner, which for several weeks had been touted as a sign of fire in the ALP left, proved a damp squib.

When caucus met on January 30, it backed the "speedy implementation" of the 1992 Commonwealth-state National Forest Policy Statement which, while regarded as a weak document, did recommend the phase-out of export woodchipping by the year 2000 and the setting up of a system of reserves to protect forests of high conservation value.

On February 3 Keating, in a bid to dismantle the blockade, spelled out the government's pro-woodchipping stand a little more clearly. Keating's announcement, roundly condemned by conservationists, closely reflects the position adopted by the caucus resources committee, which had been pushing for logging to continue in the 509 disputed areas at the same time as state forestry officials make environmental assessments. Logging companies will now have to wait only a week, according to some reports, before they are allowed to resume their destruction of old growth forests.

Richard Blakers, an environmental scientist and former part-owner of a small sawlog company, who was involved in the environmental assessment of parts of the NSW south-east forests at the end of 1994, questioned the need for new studies. In an ABC radio interview on February 3, he noted that no mention had been made about who would do these new assessments, and what the terms of reference would be.

He also said that while his team had tried to engage NSW State Forests in the 1994 study, it had refused even to provide his team with relevant information — information which was eventually obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Strategies

There is a virtually unanimous view in the environment movement that Keating's attempt at compromise has failed. The dispute over the export licences — and the "stay of execution" on 509 areas — makes it very clear that the government is not sincere about implementing the key recommendations of the 1992 Forest Policy Statement.

There are differences in the movement, however, about how to win the woodchip battle. Kevin Parker, the Wilderness Society's national campaign coordinator, told Green Left Weekly, "One of the positives of the emotional nature of the debate is that it has flushed the issues out into the open. We have reached a pivotal point of change because the community as a whole recognises a transition in the industry is required to meet both jobs and environmental needs."

Parker said that the Wilderness Society had decided on a longer-term strategic approach. This would include "an active campaign" to encourage customers to purchase plantation timber rather than timber from native forests.

Secondly, he said that TWS would be "talking to financial institutions and their agents to seek to inform them of the pros and cons of the issue". Making woodchipping "a moral issue" would encourage financial institutions to realise that "longer term investment [in native forests] is not a sensible investment".

Parker said that actions in forests of high conservation value, including Western Australia, East Gippsland and the north-east forests of NSW, would continue.

Asked whether TWS had any plans to organise national mass mobilisations in order to counter the timber lobby's recent show of strength, Parker said that this would be one of the items to be discussed at a national forests summit of environmental groups in Newcastle this week.

An organiser of an anti-woodchipping rally in Brisbane on February 3, Zanny Begg, told Green Left that the reason Resistance called the public action was because the peak environmental groups hadn't expressed much interest in doing it. "There are so many people wanting to do much more than letter-writing stalls — the type of activity typically suggested by the peak environmental bodies.

"To the extent that the pro-timber industry campaign in Canberra has been 'successful', this is related to the very public nature of it. The absence of any national counter-mobilisation by the environment movement to demand job security and environmental protection is worrying. It doesn't serve our cause well when Trish Caswell [Australian Conservation Foundation director] tackles the debate over jobs and the environment on national television by simply saying that the timber industry cannot be the only one to avoid restructuring."

Trish Caswell told Green Left that the ACF's longer-term strategy includes getting the government to adopt a multifaceted solution including "a jobs and industry plan", although she concedes that "there doesn't seem to be much of a feeling of political will coming from the PM".

She said that the transition package had to include a national system of protection for the 1300 areas, the phasing out of woodchipping before 2000, value-adding, investment in plantations and alternative employment options. Commenting on the latter, she said, "People can get redundancy packages and use it to retrain and find work elsewhere".

Asked if she thought that the environment movement's demands were being put forcibly enough, Caswell admitted that "we have been overshadowed by the blockade — temporarily", adding her disquiet at "this aggressive show of strength which obviously has had an effect on cabinet's discussions". What of a counter-campaign of the same very public nature? "We are talking about the options", was all she would elaborate.

Greens (WA) Senator Christabel Chamarette believes that the woodchipping issue will be resolved only when all sides are satisfied — a difficult job. "The government must play a key role by working on funding for a transition strategy which suits workers in the industry, the industry itself and the conservation movement. It may cost the government in terms of subsidies and tax relief; however, the industry already receives subsidies which could be redirected towards a transition out of old growth logging."

Speaking to Green Left Weekly from her Senate office in Parliament House, then still surrounded by timber workers and their trucks, Chamarette said the Liberal Party "has been playing workers like a political football". Employment in the industry has been in decline for some time, she said, but the industry has always blamed the conservation movement. At the moment, the government had no intention of stopping logging in old growth forests, but "they have a position of looking as though they will".

Bruce Threlfo insists that the anti-woodchip campaign could be won if the environment movement decided to run a much more consistent mass action campaign. Citing the 10,000-strong rally in Melbourne on January 30 and the 2000-strong public meeting in Sydney on January 25 as evidence of people's willingness to get involved, he said, "It's worrying that, given the widespread community support for old growth forest preservation, the timber lobby has still managed to steal the political limelight.

"It isn't utopian to say that we could win this campaign decisively. The widespread feeling of disappointment at the end of the Sydney public meeting, where no ongoing mass campaign was discussed, was palpable.

"Some campaigners — including those who have been in the movement a while — are ignoring the crucial ingredient needed to win — ordinary people, from all walks of life, involved in sustained mass activity. That was how we won the Franklin campaign, it's how we'll win the third runway dispute, and it is the only way to win the woodchip battle."

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