Australia’s Abbott Turns Chainsaws Loose on Tasmania

Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott set the cat among the pigeons -- or the chainsaw among the trees – on March 4 when, speaking at a forestry industry dinner, he said Australia had “too much” protected forest.

Abbott called foresters the “ultimate conservationists” and suggested 74,000 hectares of protected forest in Tasmania be unlocked for use. Was he playing to the gallery? It would sound so. However, the deafening silence from the industry itself in the next day’s media was more telling than predictable outrage by environmentalists and the Greens, Australia’s left-leaning environmentalist party. Many in the industry do not wish for a return to the rabid environmental protests of the past.

Abbott’s speech seemed more pitched directly to Tasmania, where an election 11 days later was already predicted to swing in the Liberals’ favor for the first time in 16 years. Will Hodgman, now the premier-designate after his March 15 win, was campaigning strongly on repealing forestry laws. His win is seen as a mandate now to do this and he has said as much.

It is important to understand that although logging and forest use are contentious issues around the world, certainly in Australia’s closest neighbor and former protectorate Papua New Guinea, they have been particularly protracted, bitter and vicious in Tasmania. It was partisan environmental disputes that led to the formation of the Greens, a party that began with unwavering environmental ideologies but has now become a legitimate third force in Australian politics, traditionally dominated by the two-party struggle between the conservative Liberals and Labor.

The Tasmanian Forestry Agreement or TFA of 2012 essentially ended decades of unhappy, and very unproductive, conflict between loggers and environmentalists. Its mandate: “To a genuine, lasting end to conflict over Tasmania’s native forests.”

Abbott’s sentiments aren’t new. Last year he was already looking at de-listing sections of Tasmania’s World Heritage-listed forest. Many industry spokespeople and players told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that tearing up the forestry agreement, which Hodgman now has a mandate to do, would be worrisome. The ‘peace deal’ which listed half a million acres as protected has meant protesters have backed off and those in the timber industry have been able to operate more easily. The compensation paid out to industry has likely also helped (according to the ABC Malaysian company Ta Ann received A$26 million for relinquishing 40 percent of its wood supply. Businesses reported an upswing in demand but were concerned that scrapping the fought-for agreement would lead to more protests and so lost productivity.

The Tasmanian Liberals argue it is all about more than industry: it is about jobs. Employment was one of the cornerstones of the recent election. The state has the highest unemployment rate and also the smallest population (around half a million). Liberals have argued that the TFA has cost many jobs and that industry, not citizens, is the beneficiary. However, the timber industry overall is not a huge employer in the state. Actual estimates of those employed in the industry vary depending on whether those working in run-on sectors are counted; however, it may stand at five per cent or less in total. This article from website The Conversation may be useful. But it is important to note that whilst much of the population resides in Hobart, Launceston or Devonport many small towns rely more on the industry.

Protests aside, another worry in scrapping the TFA is more basic: markets. Unlocking 74,000 hectares, which Abbott argues is “degraded” in any case and not pristine old growth worth protecting, might take care of the supply side but demand needs to be there. Wood chips, once contentious, are less an issue as Asia sources product closer to home. Other markets are concerned with certification. Forest Council Stewardship certification is important and many buyers demand it. Even years ago Japan officially stopped buying from old growth forests although illegal logging still delivered lumber to the country.

Jane Calvert, of the forestry industry union, told the Australian Financial Review that repealing or variously “tearing up” or “ripping up” the forestry agreement could be problematic regarding certification and, as yet, Hodgman had not envisioned a plan beyond this first move. He had “articulated how we get more resource, but he hasn’t articulated the other end, which is the market end. And one is no good without the other,” she told the AFR. She also did not believe it would create more jobs.

The Liberals at the Federal level under Tony Abbott have drawn opprobrium from many corners for their environmental policies, or some would argue disregard for such. But it must be asked: if even industry is against this “trashing” of the forestry agreement, if more jobs are questionable, in a sector that does not employ a large number of Tasmanians in any case, if a return to bitter acrimony and protests are a given and there is no clear market for these unlocked timber products then what is the point? No one has yet explained.