The Forest cauldron continues to boil

There have been many twists and turns in the forestry debate over many years.  Without retracing a blow by blow description of events, the interminable and never-ending conflicts over forestry boil down to two different value sets.  One is to conserve native forest for reasons of nature conservation, the other is to manage forests for their wood value, thus employing people and generating wealth.

Much has been said, but three recent developments are pertinent, and involve four different groups of players.  The players are the industry and forest workers, the conservation groups, government and Forestry Tasmania.

During the middle of 2010 Premier Bartlett set up a round table to resolve all forest conflict.  A somewhat naïve ambition considering the two opposing value sets and the long and tortured history.  A shuffle occurred within industry and within the conservation groups to see who would be sitting at the table.  Spokespersons for both sides spruiked their basis for representation, but the truth is many parties were disenfranchised at that point.  The government made available officers from FT to assist the discussions by providing factual information to each of the parties.  However, they had no seat at the table, and neither did the government.

The first development was the drafting of a document called the “Statement of Principles” (SoP).  This document was drafted by the two groups after a period of time - 6 months of talks were foundering – when pressure was applied by both sides to get something agreed.  It would be fair to say that the sceptre of the Gunns pulp mill loomed large at this time, with the threat that parties would withdraw from the process if the draft was not agreed to.  Under some duress, the draft document was agreed to, and is a dog’s breakfast of a document .

However, this then sent the government to Canberra to seek funding for the “next round”.  Canberra, although unimpressed with the Statement of Principles, came to the party – sort of – and provided Bill Kelty as a facilitator for the next round of discussions, which was to determine specifically the areas of forest under debate and still maintain wood supply.  Kelty eventually came up with a document that was supported by the parties and which was put before the two governments, who then signed a Heads of Agreement document (the HoA).

During the process FT’s management approach and data were independently scrutinized and their data and calculations were found to be sound.

The HoA covered two salient points.  For the NGO’s it meant a phased withdrawal from all native forest harvesting, an immediate reservation of 430,000 ha of State Forest, and a final reservation of 570,000 ha.  For industry, it meant ongoing security of resource supply for sawlogs (150,000 m3),peeler logs for Ta Ann (265,000 m3), and specialty timbers (12,500 m3).

For FT, it meant a further and significant withdrawal of hectarage from the forest estate under its supply management.  The problem was obvious to all.  Supply could not be guaranteed if the land in question was no longer able to be harvested.  And contracts were already in place for this level of supply.

A draft document was then circulated to the parties prior to government sign-off.  Three days later, the two governments signed an Inter Governmental Agreement (the IGA) to enable the two governments to provide further support.   However the IGA contained different provisions to that in the draft.  No longer was there a security of supply, in fact compensation was going to be offered instead.  Industry smelt a betrayal, and it was found that the governments were influenced by a submission from Jonathan West, an economist, who was then entrusted with an ongoing boundary verification process.  Professor West believes that the IGA will deliver an outcome where supply can be met and that protests will stop.  This is a minority view of one.  It is not a view held by FT, the industry nor it would appear some conservation groups who have vowed to continue with protest action.   

Last weekend people protesting against the IGA held protest meetings in Hobart and Smithton where it was made clear by Liberal MP’s, local mayors, forest workers, the AWU and others in the industry, traditionally supporters of the government, that the IGA was unacceptable.

Government has committed itself to the IGA, even though FT has advised it will be in breach of its contractual commitments.  An invidious position for FT’s Board and management.

FT is a GBE, and operates under two separate acts of parliament, being the Forestry Act and the Government Business Enterprises Act.  Under each of these Acts, FT has a responsibility to perform its functions in accordance with sound commercial practice.  This includes managing forests in a sustainable manner and not breaching contractual commitments.

Clause 12C of the Forestry Act deals with Ministerial Directions and Clause 65 of the Government Business Enterprises Act deals with a Ministerial Direction to perform community service obligations.  

The decision to support the IGA will require some form of Ministerial Direction.  If the government instructs the Board to do something that the Board cannot do, then the Board can object in writing to the government, and if there remains a standoff, the government must then lay before both houses of parliament its instruction and the board’s objection.

Where it then goes is anyone’s guess.  From here, how does parliament resolve the matter?  The Legislative Council has already held an inquiry and recommended against any further reservation of forest or transition out of native forest, so no legislation will pass.  The government could consider sacking the Board.  But what does that achieve?  And where will the Commonwealth, another signatory to the IGA and the major provider of funds, stand in all of this?  More twists and turns to come.

We live in interesting times.