A Splintered Peace

It is obvious that it was a requirement of the Greens that this be so, and that is purely politics.  In fact, on forestry matters, the Greens would appear to be the policy determiners, even to the extent of rolling the responsible Minister and Deputy Premier in Cabinet on this matter.  What were his Labor colleagues thinking when they allowed this to happen?

Greens leader McKim has even called FT a rogue agency.  I challenge him to justify such salacious propaganda.  FT is an independent authority, with a charter as determined by an Act of parliament. Has it stepped outside its charter?  No.  Has it broken the law? No.  Has it managed the forests on a sustainable basis.  Yes.  Has it cooperated fully with the IGA process, providing data to assist that process, even against its own commercial interest.  Yes.  Does it disagree with the McKim prescription for the future of the forest industry?  Yes.

 That makes it a responsible entity, it does not make it rogue.  In fact, FT should be seen and could be used as a vehicle for change and improvement in the industry, not an impediment to it.

But back to the talks.  Industry has returned to the table albeit reluctantly, to try and reach agreement on a continuing guaranteed wood supply for the industry.  The process is proceeding at a glacial pace, and industry representatives have now stated that any agreement will need to be reached by the end of the month, or else they will leave the table permanently.  In my book, the end of the month will come without any agreement, and so players be warned – there will need to be a Plan B.

I make this prediction because the competing claims cannot be reconciled.  And to explain why, lets recap.

Some years ago, Gunns decided it would walk away from native forest harvesting.  At that time, Gunns was a major player in the industry, having reached its position by a series of commercial acquisitions.  It was FT’s major customer for native forest product – it took around 145,000 of the 300,000 cubic metres of sawlog each year, and it was a major grower of plantation timber on private land.  These plantations were grown specifically as pulp timber.  Just as scones cannot be made into a fruit loaf, so pulp logs cannot be converted into sawlogs.  The ingredients are different, the treatment is different.

The decision to withdraw was made for a variety of reasons, not the least being Gunns’ desire to obtain a “social licence” for its pulp mill proposal in the Tamar. Gunns was even compensated by both governments for making this decision, an extraordinary outcome.  However, the decision has had some serious consequences. For starters,  FT’s sawlog revenue was halved, company employees were made redundant, and the company’s contractors were left high and dry.

At that time, FT had around 1.5 million hectares under management, of which some 700,000 hectares was for wood production.  The remainder were in reserves of one kind or another.  What with the conservation movement seeking further forest land to be reserved from FT’s management, the government under Premier Bartlett, on urging from a number of national players, called for a “round table” to resolve the conflict.

From this process, industry sought a guarantee that sawlog supply would be retained at 155,000 cub metres per year. This figure was the amount of timber that FT was still under contract to supply.  Meanwhile, the conservationists called for an immediate cessation of logging from 430,000 hectares of forest, and a request to consider up to 572,000 hectares in permanent reservation.  This amount of land is a significant part of FT’s operations.  Governments supported the process, and encouraged participants to resolve the matter.

These competing claims simply cannot be reconciled.  The remaining native forest cannot supply the necessary volumes of sawlog, nor can the plantations, for the reasons mentioned previously.

Unfortunately, (or tactically, depending on one’s point of view), a number of conservation groups were excluded from the process and stated they would not be bound by any agreement arising from it.   They wanted to continue their campaigns to undermine Tasmanian product in the market place, arguing that the forests were being trashed.   A good line for propaganda, irrespective of the truth.  In fact around 50% of our forests are in national parks, an amount conveniently ignored by the claimants.

So the issue of durability arose.  Industry argued that even if an agreement was reached, and wood supply assured, how could it be guaranteed that the protests would cease.  Again, the obvious answer was that they could not be given such a guarantee.  “Best endeavours” became the buzz words.

As the process ground on, with minor concessions being made by both parties, the Greens call for FT to be broken up came to pass, which meant for industry that there could now be no guarantee of continuing wood supply.

For these reasons, it is obvious that the parties will never be able to come to an agreement.  If the parties walk away, then one option would be for the government to impose a solution.  It would need to be in the form of legislation to amend the Forestry Act, and that will need to pass the Legislative Council.  And I suspect that won’t happen.

The end result of all of this manouvering is that the status quo will remain, with the parties jostling for airtime to prove their point of view, with many people who were gainfully employed now out of work, and the opportunity for Tasmania to develop its natural assets squandered.

Government will need to determine a policy on forestry, and not leave it to minority pressure groups to determine policy on its behalf.