What Agreement?

What is the forest conflict really all about?

The Legislative Council has decided not to consider the Forest Agreement Bill at this time. Councillors want to obtain further information as to the foundations for the Bill. From those not close to the action, a collective groan that the matter is still not resolved. But for those that are involved, there has been a mix of reaction, from condemnation and frustration to full support.

The genesis for this present impasse is contained within an Agreement reached on 22 November (less than 4 weeks ago) struck by a group of signatories. These people were asked by the two governments to thrash out a peace deal after the failure of the West Group, established by the Intergovernment Agreement between the two governments (the IGA) on 7 August 2011, to come to a resolution over claims for further reserves.

The signatories, representing a variety of commercial, social and environment interests, sat for over a year before finally arriving at a position which each party said they were not happy with but that “it was better than any alternative”. A criticism of this group is that they were not representative of all interests, including the public interest, and did not seek any advice, other than technical advice, from outside their own grouping.

The Federal Government, through Environment Minister Burke, agitated for a resolution by the end of this year, and put money on the table to assist the parties come to an agreed position.

The agreement involves the setting aside of an extra 503,000 hectares of reserves, with immediate action taken on 123,650 hectares to be nominated for World Heritage. In return, the ENGO’s present offered “peace”, the so-called durability provisions.

With extraordinary and unseemly haste, the government introduced the Forest Agreement Bill into the Lower House, and after an all-night sitting passed the Bill with amendments, even before all signatories had signed off on the deal. The structure of the Bill is interesting. Essentially it sets up two sequential processes, to first of all “protect” forest from being logged, and then to determine the class of “reserve” for these protected forests.

The Bill makes no mention of any specific forest to be reserved (that comes later), nor does it provide any details of the durability provisions, other than the writing of a durability report by a committee set up for this purpose. As some people have mentioned, it is simply “enabling” legislation in which a “framework” is established for the creation of new reserves.

When the Bill reached the Upper House, it came with even more amendments, and debate was in fact deferred for a period while further information was supplied to Council members.

The agreed position of the signatories was not known to anyone until it was made public in November. Yet the pressure was mounting. The Federal Government threatened to take away its 30 pieces of silver if the Bill was not passed, the company Ta Ann said it would leave the State if certain provisions of the Bill were not agreed to, the signatories and their entities ran full page ads in the papers promising peace in our time, or else it was back to the trenches.

The lines were getting fuzzy. Some environment groups claimed the bill should be rejected, others that it should be passed. Some industry spokespeople claimed it was the best deal that could be achieved, others claimed it was the death knell of the industry. The Union, seeking the high moral ground, called for consideration and certainty to be given to the workers in the industry, even though such consideration was not particularly apparent over the past 2 years. And the group Timber Communities Australia, having sought a plebiscite of its members, then voted against their wishes democratically expressed.

The Council was faced with conflicting opinions as to the merits or otherwise of the Agreement between the signatories, a Bill that did not truly reflect that Agreement, conflicting analyses of benefits and costs, and expressions of urgency incoherently explained. The critical question facing the Legislative Council was whether or not to accept the Bill.

On the one hand, the deal offered peace in the forests, however the wood supply remaining for industry was never scrutinised. The deal was Plan A, but there was no considered Plan B if the deal was rejected, other than Armageddon.

On the one hand it was simply enabling legislation, however, it implied both an acceptance of the principle that further forest be reserved, and that the quantum could be over 500,000 hectares.

On the one hand it stated that the legislation was required to ensure the security of the industry and the workforce, however, the Federal Minister seemed to be only concerned with having a World Heritage nomination in place by a nominated time, otherwise he would withdraw his offer.

On the one hand money was being made available to the State for certain “projects”, yet the projects were not only undefined, but the amount of money in the kitty kept changing.

An extra $100 million from the Federal Government, offered at the death-knell, turned out to include $45 million from the State, an amount the State government has been at pains to say it hasn’t got. Compensation to Ta Ann for reneging on contracted commitments remained undefined.

On the one hand the signatories offered durability, however three are no durability clauses in the legislation.

The carbon sequestration story, which suggests we get paid for doing nothing, falls into the “too good to be true” camp, and has confused everyone, including Minister Burke.

And finally, the decision by government to ram through the legislation, without a reference back to any articulated policy on forestry, or consultation with other industry sectors.

The Legislative Council had little option other than to defer consideration of the Bill. It could have rejected the Bill outright, but to do so would indeed have been an act of defiance, and would have placed the Council at odds with the Assembly for no good purpose.

It is a time for cool heads to prevail. The Council has determined it wants some time to consider the ramifications of this legislation - in all the circumstances it seems a reasonable request. The pressure is now on them to consider the matter properly, and in a timely fashion. The pressure is on the ENGOs to keep the peace, and for industry to hold the line. The parties could do worse than to consult a broader constituency. The CFMEU is only one Union, and does not represent the broader Union movement, FIAT represents some, but not all the industry players, and so on.

The Legislative Council could do a lot worse than to consider and report on current forest management regimes – Forestry Tasmania is an expert in the field, but there are alternative views. In fact the real answer to resolving the forest conflict revolves around this fundamental issue. It has rarely been addressed, and yet it is far more significant than drawing lines on maps.