Into the woods: the battle in and out of Tasmania’s forests

September 24, 2010

Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests
by Anna Krien, BlackInc, 2010, 304 pages, $29.95


“I was the premier of Tasmania but these bastards were infinitely more powerful than me. You’ve no idea how powerful they are. I couldn’t move. For God’s sake, keep fighting them. That’s why I’m ringing you, they have to be stopped.”

Two weeks before his death, former Tasmanian Labor premier Jim Bacon, said these words in a phone call to well-known anti-pulp mill campaigner and ABC TV’s Gardening Australia host Peter Cundall.

Bacon is not the only Labor leader to have rang the alarm. In his diaries, former federal Labor leader Mark Latham said: “No policy issue, or set of relationships better demonstrates the ethical decline and political corruption of the Australian Labor movement than Tasmanian forestry.”

Both Latham and Bacon identified an undoubted truth: there was and is something rotten at the core of Tasmanian politics.

But despite the “forestry war” occurring for decades and the issue being pivotal in the 2004 federal elections (who can forget the image of forestry workers cheering on the viciously anti-union John Howard?), the debate hasn’t been well-covered in political literature.

Anna Krien’s book, Into the Woods: the Battle for Tasmania’s Forests comes at a time when the forestry industry is almost bankrupt and politicians are discussing bailouts.

Krien was motivated to write the book after witnessing online footage of timber workers aggressively attacking forest activists who were trying to prevent logging native forests in the Florentine Valley.

The first half of the book is dedicated to the two seemingly antagonistic groups, the self-described ratbags and the loggers.

To Krien’s credit, she takes the “ratbags”, mostly organised within the group Still Wild, Still Threatened (SWST), seriously — even if she doesn’t always agree with them.

Those interviewed don’t come across as stinky hippies, nor as anarchist dilettantes, but rather as intelligent, committed and dedicated activists willing to put their bodies on the line for a cause.

This dedication has built up a level of respect so even groups who have disagreements with their tactics are very reluctant to criticise them.

Beyond motivations, Krien wants to find out whether the “ratbags” actions help or harm the cause. Some think their image or what they wear is bad for the campaign. But Greens leader Bob Brown said, after prodding: “It’s a campaign to save the forests, not a revolt against society.”

In a way, it’s hard to judge conclusively their success or failure, because there seems to be differences within the “ratbag” camp about what they are trying to achieve.

One activist says if they weren’t at a blockade the whole Florentine forest would be destroyed.

“I’m not necessarily against native forest logging”, says another, telling a forest contractor that “if they protected this one bit of forest over here, I’d happily go home and you can keep logging”.

Undoubtedly, their actions have slowed down the logging of native forests and have raised the profile and consciousness of the campaign. But the blockaded forests have ended up being extensively logged and police periodically come in to allow the bulldozers to move in.

A political solution beyond direct action is needed for old-growth logging to end.

The portrayal of the workers is also fair. They are mostly likeable people who see themselves as doing a job and who have rightful concerns about job security. To their credit, despite the violence, the activists interviewed don’t feel much hostility towards the loggers.

One activist reflects: “We know we are targeting the wrong people. It’s [timber company] Gunns and Forestry Tasmania who should be seeing us every day.”

Some of the workers interviewed are less sympathetic: one describes the protesters as “fucking crazy”. But the workers’ response to blockades or machine “lock-ons” is generally silence rather than violence.

However, when violence has occurred, it has received tacit support from the state government or police (who sometimes are the only perpetrators). Krien later says there were times where she saw the activists at the blockade as slighter, gentler shadows of the loggers.

This war is not mainly fought between protesters and loggers, however; there are larger and more powerful forces at play. These are Gunns and the state government-owned Forestry Tasmania, which supplies Gunns with most of its wood.

For those who haven’t followed Tasmanian politics, reading through the section on Gunns will amaze and shock. This one company has gained immense leverage and political power.

Between 1997 and 2008, the state government gave the local timber industry $632.8 million, or about $1266 for each Tasmanian. Most of this went to Gunns. Forestry Tasmania supplies wood to Gunns at absurdly low prices, ensuring Forestry Tasmania — subsidised by taxpayers — runs at a loss.

Gunns, as the buyer, dictates the price to the seller. In 1999, Forestry Tasmania and Gunns signed an agreement that doubled the supply of woodchips but also promised $15 million in compensation if any legislation affected the agreement.

Lawyer Neal Funnel said the timber industry has “taken steps to ingratiate, financially in-debt and then control the forestry union”. In 2005, said a union official, Gunns provided $600,000 to bail the union out.

This would explain why there was barely a sound out of the union when Gunns shed hundreds of jobs at the onset of the financial crisis.

Strangely, despite explaining the political power Gunns has managed to attain and wield, Krien believes the idea of Gunns running the state is too simplistic. It’s true that Gunns doesn’t have complete dominance over the state. But the cravenness of successive Tasmanian governments and their unwillingness to make any decisions contrary to Gunns’ wishes shows how beholden both parties were and still are to its profit agenda.

At the rare moments when Gunns’ interests have been threatened, it has resorted to bribery, as the book illustrates.

In 1989, a Gunns chairperson offered a Labor MP $110,000 to cross the floor and not support an accord with the Greens. After Liberal leader Bob Cheek made a comment reported as “pro-green”, he received a phone call from Gunns chair John Gay, who invited him to Launceston.

When Cheek arrived, Gay placed two cheques in front of him. One was a guaranteed $10,000. The other was for $20,000, conditional on him giving the right answer to the question: “Will you continue to support existing forestry policy?”

Krien, however, doesn’t describe this as corruption, but rather as an “indignant kind of mateship”.

I also took issue with her description of Tasmania being deeply conservative. This may have applied 15 to 20 years ago, but hardly seems an apt description now.

In even the more conservative electorates, the Greens vote is higher than nearly all Western Sydney electorates.

Homosexuality was decriminalised only in the late 1990s, but progress has been made to right that wrong: the Tasmanian parliament has voted to recognise same-sex marriages that occur overseas.

Despite these quibbles, the book is a must-read for anyone wanting to come to grips with the fight over old-growth logging and the Gunns pulp mill. It gives a fascinating insight into Tasmanian politics.

Its strength lies in the writer’s quest to get to the heart of the issue, by surveying a wide range of people with vastly different interests. This provides the well-rounded picture crucial to understanding the fierce battle that continues today.

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