The Tasmanian Forest Agreement: too close to collapse?

The trees are falling, but is anyone listening? NatureNut3/flickr

Political scientists now commonly distinguish between ‘government’ and ‘governance’. The former refers to a hierarchical institution while the latter captures the idea of a general process of social steering. Although governments play a role, governance involves other actors in business and civil society.

The Tasmanian Forestry Peace Talks are a fascinating instance of governance in action. Composed of ten groups representing the environment, economy and society, the parties reached a compromise deal late last year to end the state’s long-running forest war.

Sadly, the initiative appears to be faltering now that governments have got involved. But all is not lost.

If governments can tweak their just-negotiated compensation package to provide greater up-front conservation outcomes, a deal can be sealed.

The Tasmanian forest agreement: basic elements

Building on the Statement of Principles negotiated between business and civil society groups, the recently-negotiated Tasmanian Forest Agreement between the State and Commonwealth governments contains three components:

  • an exit package for those losing jobs, contracts and livelihoods;
  • a transition arrangement to a smaller forestry industry;
  • and an increase in native forest protection.

On industry compensation, the two governments agreed to disburse a total of $155 million in 2011-12.

Tasmania has done well, as it is on the hook for only $15 million, a boon given the State’s parlous finances.

Of the $155 million, $85 million is earmarked for employee assistance, retraining, and exit packages to forest contractors and $43 million to buy out existing wood supply contracts and fund the Agreement’s implementation.

$20 million will be spent on regional development projects in especially hard-hit areas, and $7 million is available to cover the costs of managing the additional reserves the Agreement establishes.

Over the longer term, Tasmania is slated to receive ongoing payments of $7 million per annum for 14 years for expenditure on regional development; and annual payments of $7 million to cover the cost of placing forests in reserves.

In return for these payments, the industry accepts a substantial reduction in its annual sawlog quota, which is to be halved from 300,000 to 155,000 cubic metres. The industry is also guaranteed 265,000 cubic metres of peeler logs and 12,500 cubic metres of high quality saw logs.

On forest protection, 430,000 ha of the 572,000 ha of high conservation value forests nominated by environmental groups is to be placed in an informal reserve.

Rather than being immediately gazetted as formal reserves or World Heritage areas as environmentalists hoped, the Agreement provides for State and Commonwealth governments to appoint experts to a verification panel chaired by Professor Jonathan West of the Australian Innovation Research Centre.

The aim is to complete the verification process by the end of the 2011, although that looks ambitious given the requirement for substantial stakeholders and community consultation.

The Agreement also lists a range of “expectations”.

For example, it is expected that the Triabunna woodchip mill, a vital outlet for wood residues from sawmills in Southern Tasmania, will remain open. It is also expected that “relevant organisations” will support Forest Stewardship Council certification for the Tasmanian forest industry.

The first expectation looks somewhat unrealistic given that the Triabunna mill has just been bought by two environmental philanthropists interested in the region’s longer term potential for ecotourism.

As for the second expectation, while the State Government could direct Forestry Tasmania to obtain Forest Stewardship Council certification, neither government can compel it on private land.

Deadlock ahead?

While many yearn for an end to Tasmania’s forest war, the current agreement risks failure.

Four potential roadblocks lie ahead.

First, the decision by State and Commonwealth Labor to deliberately exclude the Greens is generating bitter recriminations. Bob Brown has dubbed the Agreement a “Labor-Labor-loggers” deal that provides a high level of immediate compensation now in return for weak forest protection later.

They have a point. Some accommodation of their views will be required in the next couple of weeks to prevent future legislative gridlock.

Another roadblock is division within the environmental constituency between signatories and non-signatories.

Environmental non-signatories fear that a government-appointed verification panel will deliver weak conservation outcomes. The legacy of past inquiries hangs over the process. Reassurances are required that a broad conception of high conservation value forests will be adopted and that the panel will include expertise in ecology and conservation biology.

A third roadblock is Tasmania’s Upper House, the Legislative Council. Many of its 15 members represent rural Tasmania and several wear two hats, being members of a local council as well.

Local councils are upset at being left out of the negotiating process and at the impact of the agreement on their regions. There is a possibility therefore that in a year’s time, with over $155 million spent to bail out the industry, that they will block legislation to expand Tasmania’s national park system.

A final roadblock is opposition by the Tasmanian Liberal Party. The Liberals dispute the view that there is no market for Tasmania’s native timber. They thus see no reason to downsize the industry. Rather, they argue efforts should be made to identify new markets in China and elsewhere.

Building on this perspective, they have argued for the compulsory purchase and sell-back of the Triabunna mill to industry. While popular with industry stalwarts, the economic viability of these proposals appears dubious. The view nonetheless reflects and fosters division in the industry.

Too close to collapse?

Crafting a peace deal over Tasmania’s forests that meets the minimal expectations of economic, social and environmental groups was never going to be easy.

We are, however, tantalisingly close to squaring the circle. It would be a terrible shame if the design flaws in the governance arrangement that brought us this far result in a historic opportunity passing by.

The flaws in the governance arrangement relate to representativeness, accountability, deliberation and transparency.

Governance works best when interests are adequately and equally represented.

Of the 10 signatories to the forest peace talks, two represented social interests, three environmental interests, and five industry interests. The arrangement was somewhat imbalanced. Observers from both levels of government should have been included.

The absence of elections meant the groups that partook in the negotiations were self-appointed and lacked a clear mandate.

While lengthy, detailed discussions occurred among the signatories, their deliberations do not appear to have embraced the range of new ecological and economic ideas now entering the mainstream.

The quality of deliberations has been impoverished as a result and there has been little evident transformation in groups’ preferences.

Finally, the process lacked transparency, leading to rumours and mistrust. While some level of confidentiality was undoubtedly required, the exclusive nature of the discussions meant that key groups and individuals in the wider community lacked information.

These design failures have weakened the willingness of key groups to accept the Tasmanian forest agreement.

In its current form, it is an impressive, but flawed, attempt to broker a final resolution to Tasmania’s forest conflict.

While the governance process adopted has brought us tantalisingly close to a final deal, we are in danger of falling at the last hurdle.

The signatories have done their bit; governments must now do theirs.

This requires them to make one last push towards a solution that strikes a better balance between compensation and conservation outcomes.

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