14 Nov 2004, Comments (0)

New Bob in the Blogosphere

Author: Helen

The prolific commenter BigBob put up a great guest post at Back Pages about the federal election and Labor’s maligned forestry policy. Chris says, ” Bob is the son of a timber man and lives near Burnie in Tassie, in the once safe ALP seat of Braddon, where he looks after his kids while also nurturing the local wine industry.”

So people who deplore the Inner Urban Greenies Telling Timber Communities What to Do can’t dismiss BigBob’s arguments as easily as they can mine.

BigBob gave me permission a while ago to repost his piece here. Now, I learn from Barista that BigBob has started his own blog. (There’s another one, Philobiblion, which you should check out too. Sorry, Dave, for stealing practically your entire post.)

Onya Bob! Welcome!

Repost of Forest policy ñ Parting the branches for a closer look

(First published as a guest post on Back Pages by BigBob and republished with his permission)

Well, the election has been run and, for the moment, the first big loser appears to be Tasmania’s old growth forest.

After much posturing and an interminably long game of chicken, both the Coalition and the ALP released their forest policies in the dying days of the campaign. This meant that neither policy was able to be analysed and digested properly in the remaining days.

The Coalition played the political game far better with their policy. On the surface, it appeared to offer significant protection to forests. It garnered support from some sectors of the timber industry and its workers.

It was launched to a sea of cheers among those present. The ALP policy launch was subdued and met with loud protests.

Both policies polarised stakeholder opinions. Conservation groups roundly criticised the Coalition’s policy, while the timber industry lauded it. Vice versa for the ALP’s policy.

In Tasmania, the ALP’s policy was a political disaster. One safe seat ó Braddon ó suffered a huge swing of 7.5 per cent to the Liberal challenger. The marginal seat of Bass fell as well, with a 5 per cent swing against the incumbent. Before the release of the policy, most pundits felt Braddon would remain with the ALP and that Bass was a possibility for the Liberals. Looking at the swings, it would be safe to say that Bass would have remained in ALP hands without the pro-logging protest vote. The seat of Lyons held with a 4.5 per cent swing to the Libs, but only because of the maverick views of the local ALP member. The other two Tasmanian seats had small swings to the Coalition, but remain safe Labor seats.

On the mainland, the effect of the ALP’s policy is harder to determine. The Greens picked up a 2 per cent swing; most of their preferences would have flowed to the ALP. The ALP picked up 0.4 per cent in primary votes. From this, it is difficult to say whether Labor would have won or lost more seats if the policy had never existed. It is unlikely that Green preferences would have flowed away from the ALP with a less conservation favourable policy.

On this basis, it appears that the ALP policy ended up delivering negative electoral results for the party.

Policy, what policy?

The question remains, which policy actually would have delivered the best outcomes for Tasmania and the old growth forest. What are the realities here? I’ll start with briefly summarising the promises.

The ALP policy was to exclude 220,000 hectares of forest from further exploitation. Logging could continue on those coups currently being logged. The areas considered for protection were clearly identified. Within a year, a new panel of experts was to report back on the conservation value of this 220,000 hectares. Areas deemed to have sufficient value were then to be protected. As a means of compensation for the economic loss caused by any protection, $800 million was set aside. This was to be used to provide for retraining and re-skilling timber workers, and to provide industry support and growth. The policy recognised job losses connected with cessation of old growth logging activities, but aimed at moving these jobs to other parts of the timber industry. The aim was for no net loss of jobs within timber.

The policy also went further toward delivering sustainability by phasing out clear felling operations in the high value native forests not protected, ending clearing of native vegetation, expanding the buyback of private land of high conservation value, preventing native forest biomass being classed as a renewable energy source for the MRET, phasing out 1080 poison and restoring funding to world heritage areas. Labor most significantly committed to reviewing the regional forest agreement (RFA).

Coalition policy was to add 170,000 hectares immediately to the current reserve system and to purchase another 2400 hectares near Mole Creek. Approximately $50 million was set aside for various projects, mainly toward industry support and phasing out 1080 poison, with a few add-ons such as bush walks and saving the Tasmanian Devil. The policy claimed no loss of employment at all would be caused by its implementation. The policy is in total support of the current RFA.

I can’t see the trees through the smoke and mirrors

It is interesting that the Labor policy was released as “Labor’s Plan to Save Tasmania’s High Conservation-Value Forests”, while the Coalition’s policy was “A Sustainable Future for Tasmania”.

Like a lot of ALP policy this time, its forest strategy had clear winners and losers. The great majority of old growth forests were to be assessed and protected based on their conservation values, while the industry could finish working the patches they were on. This seems to be a reasonable approach. Once reviewed, forests were to be either protected or re-opened for logging. However, it appears that the use of clear felling in released areas would have been limited or prohibited. Thus logging would be for high value timbers for milling. This seems a reasonable use for a finite and precious resource. Obviously the losers out of this will be the clear felling wood chippers (effectively Gunns Ltd and its contractors).

An $800 million restructuring fund would have provided at least a start in compensating these losers. Whether it would be sufficient is a matter for debate; compensation amounts mooted have been from $200 million (conservation groups) to over $9 billion (some forestry industry groups).

At face value, the Coalition’s policy looks appealing. 170,000 hectares saved and no direct job losses. A win-win situation. Unfortunately, with some examination it becomes apparent that it is too good to be true. The areas nominated for saving are predominantly places unavailable for forestry activities anyway. Indeed, the actual area of forest that could have been logged looks to be about 20-30,000 hectares. It gets worse. Although these areas are to be protected immediately, the actual boundaries are to be reviewed by Australian and Tasmanian environment and forestry ministers, who will take into account the social and economic impacts of extending protection to these forests. As has been shown on numerous occasions, these ministers generally favour logging. The end result could be that nothing at all gets protected, apart from that area which is unable to be logged anyway. In fact, that is the most likely result, notice the wording ñ social and economic impact; nothing about the conservation value. The report is due by 1 December 2004, not much time for a really close look at the situation.

John Howard played very clever politics with all this. Clearly stating there was no need for any further reviews (attacking Latham’s position of ‘review before action’), while actually instituting a review that would favour the winding back of his promise!

Save the forest worker!

So, the conservation credentials of the package are on decidedly shaky ground. What about the jobs side of the equation? Surely this means that employment will remain untouched as promised? Most probably. But the state of the industry needs to be examined to understand that it is a pretty hollow victory for workers. Looking at the actual numbers of people employed in native forest processing in Tasmania, around 1850 people are directly involved in activities revolving around native forests. These are figures for all native forests, which includes regrowth and old growth forest. An estimate of job losses from stopping ALL old growth forestry comes from Gunns Ltd (the only real player in Tasmanian forests) at 480. Many of these people could be redeployed to other parts of the industry.

Rather than looking at these raw figures, let’s look at the jobs the whole industry is generating. In 94/95 there were 7225 total industry jobs; there are now 7750 total industry jobs: a 6.9 per cent increase in 10 years. The total area being logged in the state has risen from 5500 hectares to 22000 hectares, or a 300 per cent increase in logging activity. Hardly a growth employment industry. In fact, the 94/95 employment figures have only been surpassed in the last year. Employment was trending down until plantations started coming into production.

Nearly all employment growth will be in plantations from now on. In real terms, jobs will continue to be in decline in the old growth forests. Effectively, these jobs could be transferred into the plantation sector. Why isn’t this attractive? It’s a combination of contractors buying expensive equipment suited to virgin hardwood forestry and established attitudes among workers. Forget the argument being advanced that the workers didn’t want to be retrained to be Nancy-boy makers of cappuccinos and the like. The workers actually didn’t want to work on wimpy eucalypt plantations or, even worse, poofy pine plantations.

So it appears that what we are now faced with is the further logging of all old growth forests by fewer and fewer workers.

Instead of accelerating the transition from a clearly unsustainable basis for native forestry, the pain has been delayed. The irreplaceable old growth forests will continue to shrink to provide wood chips that can be sourced from other less precious resources, while Tasmania will not see $800 million in restructuring funding.

We’re all individuals!

One thing that was not made clear in the media is that the timber industry did not unanimously support the Coalition’s policy. Clearly the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania (FIAT) did, but it is predominantly the voice of Gunns Ltd and its contractors. Many small millers are quite critical of the current RFA and would not be happy with the Coalition’s policy. I notice that their voice was not represented in the media, as usual.

Politics? We don’t need no steenking politics!

Politically, forest policy was an own goal for Latham, and a clear victory for Howard. The reasons why are not caught up in the policy, for the ALP policy was solid, whereas the Coalition policy was truly smoke and mirrors. It was the tactics of launching and selling the policies which caused all the electoral pain for Labor.

It is clear now that the policy should have been released at the start of the campaign to allow time for the details to be communicated effectively into the Tasmanian community. It may not have saved Bass, but Braddon may well have stayed in ALP hands. It would have given time to properly answer the inane assertion that the ALP was trying to turn burly, tattooed loggers into waiters at trendy cafes. The CFMEU big wigs could have put more pressure on their Tasmanian colleagues to pull their heads in.

It should have been trumpeted and treated proudly for the brave and forward looking policy it was. Instead, Latham snuck into Hobart (which is not the loggers’ home territory), avoided the protesters that were there (thank you Paul Lennon), had private meetings and a low key media only launch, which was still followed by great media images of protesting loggers. Instead of being a central plank of the election platform, it was treated like a shoddy, back room deal that he just wanted to hide from.

Launched correctly, the pressure would have been on Howard to produce his policy for the rest of the campaign. If he held it until the last week, he would have looked like he was hiding something; if released earlier, it would have become clear that he was hiding something.

In terms of bang for buck, this was a beauty for Howard. He neutralised some of the threat of Liberals voting against the Coalition, a wedge was driven between the ALP and a traditional support base, the media images of him championing the workers reinforced his friend of the battler image, and it allowed him to grab all the momentum going into the last week of campaigning.

All for a measly $52 million over four years.

Oh yeah, and 3000 hectares per annum of a priceless, irreplaceable national asset.

(In the interest of readability, I’ve not referenced my sources. Anyone who wants them can email me).

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