Is the Tasmanian forest agreement collapsing?

What all the fighting is for. epidemiks/Flickr

On 18 May 2011, The Wilderness Society suspended its participation in Tasmania’s forest peace talks. Is this the beginning of the end for these negotiations?

Perhaps, but only because the solution emerging from the talks is predicated on a deal that many Tasmanians find objectionable.

What’s the background to this agreement?

In the dying days of the 2004 Commonwealth electoral campaign, Mark Latham, then leader of the opposition, offered the Tasmanian forest industry and its workers an $800 million restructuring package in exchange for protecting 250,000 hectares of high conservation value forests.

The proposal backfired, however, and the impressive package was spurned by Tasmanian politicians, industry and workers.

Those workers subsequently gave John Howard a standing ovation in the Albert Hall, Launceston, when he promised to abide by the terms of the 1997 Regional Forest Agreement, providing $50 million to reserve an additional 150,000 hectares.

In what has turned out to be a cruel irony, Howard also reassured them that no jobs would be lost in the forest industry.

The whole thing started with a little walk in the woods. AAP

In hindsight, it’s clear that Tasmania’s forest industry looked a gift horse in the mouth. But back in 2004, industry strategists were convinced that their high-volume, low-value, all-eggs-in-one basket industrial forest strategy was a winner.

Boom, then bust, for Tassie forestry

Between 1999 and 2004, exports of hardwood woodchips from Tasmania almost doubled from 2.6 to 5.1 million tonnes. The industry launched its newly minted Australian Forestry Standard (AFS) certification scheme to prove its sustainability credentials to overseas buyers.

A booming Japanese market enabled Gunns, the State’s forestry behemoth, to earn $105 million in profits and Forestry Tasmania to return over $5 million to the State’s coffers.

Things were not as they seemed, however. Lurking beneath the 2004 boom lay several worrying developments that should have triggered a strategic rethink.

These included rapidly expanding volumes of plantation hardwood in mainland Australia, Asia and South America; a growing Asian preference for Forest Stewardship Council — not AFS — chain-of-custody certification; and a shift in Japanese buyer preferences away from controversial, native forest sources.

Competitiveness was also boosted by the relatively low Australian dollar, which averaged around 75 cents against the greenback for most of the year. These developments, exacerbated by the global financial crisis, have devastated the Tasmanian forest industry.

Logging’s not worth what it once was. ngaur/Flickr

The Tasmanian forest peace talks that commenced a year ago this May must be seen in this context. With mills closing, workers being laid off, and logging contractors going to the wall, the industry finally realised it needed to restructure and work with its environmental foes.

Things are going badly: let’s talk

Following informal conversations, ten organisations eventually took part in the talks. The Wilderness Society, Environment Tasmania, and the Australian Conservation Foundation represented environmental interests.

The Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, the Tasmanian Forest Contractors Association, the Tasmanian Country Sawmillers Federation, the National Association of Forest Industries and the Australian Forest Contractors Association represented business.

Forest communities and workers were represented by Timber Communities Australia and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) respectively.

While broadly representative of the three economic, social and environmental constituencies required to broker a compromise, these organisations were self-appointed, not elected by their constituencies.

In addition, some important actors were missing: State and Commonwealth government, local councils, Forestry Tasmania, Gunns, and a representative from the Tamar Valley.

An agreement, but no one can agree

Meeting regularly behind closed doors but with “contact groups” in the wider community, the parties reached agreement on 14 October 2010 on the Tasmanian Forests Statement of Principles.

The Statement was predicated on a bargain that saw business and workers agree to reserve substantial amounts of Tasmania’s high conservation value forests in exchange for environmentalists agreeing to “a” pulp mill.

The use of the indefinite article enabled the parties to equivocate over whether this was a reference to the general idea of a pulp mill or to Gunns’ highly controversial, fast-tracked proposal in the Tamar Valley.

The Statement of Principles is remarkably vague and ambiguous. To tease out the detail, the federal government appointed former union leader Bill Kelty to undertake further negotiations, with the agreement of the parties.

Kelty released a pessimistic interim report in March noting there was a greater chance of no agreement than agreement being reached. One reason for his pessimism was the fractious debate in Tasmania over the Gunns pulp mill.

Kelty’s interim report proposed appointing an independent person to review the mill’s assessment. But it is now clear that only a public, independent and comprehensive assessment with the power, if necessary, to recommend against construction would be acceptable to most Tasmanians.

It seems like Tasmanians don’t want a pulp mill at any price. AAP

Unfortunately, a review with those powers would be vetoed by Gunns, which already has State and Commonwealth approval to construct and operate its mill.

While the pulp mill lives, the agreement dies

The Wilderness Society’s decision to suspend its participation in the forest peace talks reflects these dynamics.

It signed on to the Statement of Principles on the understanding that quick progress would be made in implementing a moratorium on high conservation value forests. That has failed to materialise.

Neither level of government has put up the money and Forestry Tasmania continues to drag its feet.

It seems The Wilderness Society believed Tasmanians would accept a deal that traded stunning conservation outcomes for a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley.

But with its server running hot from pointed emails sent by outraged members and by the wider environmental community, The Wilderness Society appears to have succumbed to pressure to reappraise its decision.

Its decision to suspend involvement in the peace talks does not necessarily mean the death of “a” (not “the”) forest peace deal. But it sends a signal to both levels of government and the forest industry that there can be no simple deal based on trading high levels of forest conservation for the Tamar Valley pulp mill.

But if the mill were to be suddenly removed from the equation — and the prospects of its being built seem ever more remote given the company’s high indebtedness, languishing share price, and increased competition from other regions exacerbated by the high Australian dollar — it would be a game changer.

Whether it would improve or hamper the chances of reaching agreement depends on how the parties responded. At the very least it would put to rest the unedifying debate over “a” or “the”.

For a detailed examination of the assessment of Gunns’ Tamar Valley pulp mill see Fred Gale (ed), Pulp Friction in Tasmania (Launceston: Pencil Pine Press 2011).

For more on the Tasmanian forestry talks, see Tuesday’s “The Conversation”.