Peter Ker and Liz Minchin
The Age, November 18, 2006
Labor would prematurely dismiss an investigation it launched and immediately protect a parcel of Victoria's old-growth forest if re-elected next week.
In a move labelled cowardly by timber industry supporters, Premier Steve Bracks travelled to the far west of Victoria yesterday to announce plans to protect more than 33,000 hectares of old-growth forest, mostly in Eastern Gippsland.
The protected area would include 5000 hectares of old-growth forest known as the Goolengook block, which has several endangered species.
The policy, which Mr Bracks said balanced environmental and logging needs, also included plans to create a national park near Portland, create a forest link between the Errinundra and Snowy River national parks, and deliver about $4.5 million in support to the timber industry.
With many experts tipping the strongest ever result for the Greens at next week's election, Mr Bracks was stressing Labor's environmental credentials. "If you want to vote for the environment, vote for Labor," he said.
Funding for the timber industry included $250,000 for the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union. Mr Bracks rejected suggestions the money was an attempt to quell protests.
The CFMEU later released a statement praising the Government for not sacrificing any logging jobs in yesterday's policy.
The move to dismiss the report into Goolengook, which is being carried out by the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council, prompted an angry response from the National Party.
The council was last year asked to investigate the impact that extra forest protection would have on communities.
The report was due in mid-2007, but the Premier promised yesterday that Labor would "immediately wind up the investigation" if re-elected.
Members of the five-person board of the council — who met yesterday to discuss red gums in the Murray River regions — have been told not to comment.
But one member told The Age it was "business as usual" and the Goolengook investigation was still going ahead.
Yesterday's policy also promised to create a red gum national park, but only if recommended by the council.
National Party spokesman Peter Hall said Labor's promise would make a mockery of the Environmental Assessment Council, and said the Premier was a coward for not making the announcement in East Gippsland. "To make this announcement in Portland is one of the most cowardly decisions I have seen," he said.
The Wilderness Society said the policy was a good start, but would protect only a small portion of the estimated 400,000 hectares of old-growth forest in Victoria.
Greens forests spokesman and Western region candidate Marcus Ward said the policy was "underwhelming". "It's vintage Bracks: big headlines and terrible details," he said.
Predicting an electoral backlash over the policy, independent Gippsland East MP Craig Ingram argued the Government should not have extended the state's national parks because existing parkland was poorly managed due to inadequate funding.