Can Tasmania’s forest deal secure ‘peace’ for workers?

The peace package will have to work hard to bring forestry workers into the modern economy. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

The recently announced $276 million Tasmanian forest agreement agreement sets out to end the war between loggers and conservationists. But the war has been bitter, and forest industry workers have often felt like the cannon fodder. How will they fare as this agreement is implemented?

Whether this agreement achieves peace depends on many things. If the agreement and the way it was developed and agreed on are perceived as unfair, it is likely to intensify conflict rather than reduce it. The objections expressed by several groups since its announcement suggests this is a key roadblock to achieving peace.

In the longer term, the success of the process also rests on how well the $276 million funding package is used. It must find ways of assisting often unskilled forestry workers to find new jobs in a flat Tasmanian job market. It will have to address the legacy of bitterness left by three decades of forest conflict, and the sense of injustice many forest industry workers feel.

We’ve learned a lot, but will we apply it?

The Federal and Tasmanian governments need to draw on the lessons of the past. Many structural adjustment packages have been delivered across Australia in recent decades, helping those affected as we move away from native forest harvesting. Much has been learned. This should now be incorporated into the design and delivery of assistance mechanisms.

Minimising job losses should be a priority: this reduces the flow-on impacts of change for workers, families and communities.

A key part of this is helping forest industry businesses to think creatively about their future. Can they redevelop their business to remain viable as the flow of logs from publicly owned native forests falls?

This help could take the form of grants, loan guarantees, business planning and marketing advice.

Business redevelopment can take a long time. For example, in Tasmania many sawmilling businesses would need to completely change their capital infrastructure, develop new markets, and retrain staff if they were to integrate plantation-grown wood into their business.

Recent research found it will be a decade or more before there is plantation-grown timber that’s suitable for sawmilling into current product grades/classes. Businesses will require at least 10-20 years to adapt.

Tasmania’s economy is already under pressure. Ambernectar 13/Flickr

Other businesses, such as contractors who work planting trees or maintaining roads in forest areas, may be able to shift to operating outside the forest industry more easily and rapidly.

Tasmania’s fragile economy no friend to the jobless

There are risks in encouraging business redevelopment. A flood of start-up businesses may saturate these new markets, displacing established businesses rather than helping them survive. For this reason, redevelopment must (and does in this case) include investment to develop new and diversified economic opportunities in impacted communities.

Even with this, jobs will be lost. This will compound the 3500 Tasmanian forest jobs already lost since 2008 due to a substantial downturn in the industry.

Tasmanian forest industry workers typically have low levels of formal education, have usually spent most of their working life employed in the forest industry, and many have never had to formally apply for a job.

The Tasmanian economy is struggling. The state has a higher unemployment rate than most other parts of the country.

There are many ways the $276 million from the deal could be spent to help workers find new jobs. It could:

  • provide employment referral services, training, and assistance with the costs of seeking new work

  • identify where there is demand for the skills of forest industry workers and target retraining to those areas

  • stimulate economic activity in a depressed economy, providing employment opportunities.

For many workers and businesses, thinking about issues such as their future career or redevelopment of their business is currently impossible. They are just too stressed and anxious.

A person who is struggling to cope with day-to-day stresses has few resources to invest in planning for the future. Many forest contractors face the real prospect of losing their homes as they struggle to cover debt repayments. For these workers and businesses, immediate financial and mental health support is urgently needed.

Where this package hits the mark

Can a $276 million package achieve all these things? If appropriately targeted, it can certainly go some way towards it; the adage that what counts is not the size of your package but what you do with it applies even to government programs.

The package addresses several key areas. It includes immediate support for those in financial distress, has some funding for psychological support, and focuses on worker retraining and employment referral.

Forestry workers may have spent their whole life in the industry. Jens Olaf/Flickr

There may be business redevelopment assistance as part of the $120 million Economic Diversification initiative (part of the package).

Business exit assistance forms a significant part of the funding, but it is not clear what types of support will be included in this assistance.

This is crucial: if exit assistance supports businesses to exit from native forest harvesting through helping them develop activities in other areas, it will be more effective than if it focuses on payments to support business closure.

Exit assistance must also go beyond cash payments. It has to give business managers, workers, and upstream and downstream businesses support such as employment referral and financial planning advice.

The package includes $120 million to support affected communities, funding that will be used to support economic diversification in these regions. This funding is spread over 15 years. An initial payment of $20 million will identify and fund regional development projects.

Many communities are already struggling because of job losses in the forest industry. If assistance is delayed, the task will get bigger: more jobs will be lost, and the funding will have to go further.

To be most effective, funding should be “front loaded”. A large proportion of the money should be spent in the near future. Supporting economic diversification early has best potential to offset the impacts of loss of business activity associated with loss of employment in the forest industry.

Money won’t be enough - workers need justice too

Good targeting of limited funding requires investment in on-ground administrative support. Assistance will be more effective if there is investment in adequate staff to coordinate and deliver the various programs, and help businesses and individuals to access them. Staff can make sure help reaches the people who most need it while avoiding duplication in delivery of assistance.

Using existing programs and services that know how to deliver assistance well is often the best way to achieve this: the package uses this approach.

Even if all the workers who have lost jobs find new employment, for the “peace deal” to truly achieve peace it must address the cultural legacies of decades of forest conflict in Tasmania.

For many forest industry workers, a strong sense of injustice at their loss of access to public native forests will linger even if they successfully find new jobs.

Addressing this is perhaps the most difficult aspect of attempting to find peace in the forests. Rebuilding the social capital of communities that have been divided by conflict is an ongoing task that cannot be delivered only by a government support package, but needs the active engagement of all those involved in and affected by the “forest wars”.