The Age, December 19, 2006
KEVIN Rudd has infuriated green groups by shutting them out of a key national environment debate, the formation of Labor's Tasmanian forest policy, and pledging strong support for the island state's forest industry.
In one of his biggest policy moves since assuming the Labor leadership, Mr Rudd has rejected the party's previous position on Tasmanian forests and backed existing deals between the Howard Government and the pro-logging Lennon Government.
Stopping in Tasmania on his national "listening" tour, Mr Rudd declared that former Labor leader Mark Latham had got it wrong with his pledge on forestry conservation before the 2004 election — which was blamed for Labor losing two seats.
In rejecting the Latham policy, Mr Rudd confirmed that there was no place for the conservation movement in shaping Labor's new policy on Tasmania's forests.
Green groups reacted angrily, with the Wilderness Society saying Mr Rudd had paved the way for a sell-out on forests.
Mr Rudd also came under fire from Australian Greens Leader Bob Brown and conservationists for not taking new Labor environment spokesman Peter Garrett with him on his trip to Tasmania.
But the local forest industry warmly welcomed Mr Rudd's pledge to support the existing Regional Forests Agreement and Community Forests Agreement, negotiated between the state and the Howard Government.
Mr Rudd's statement on forests came days after he pledged to push for relaxation of Labor's restrictive policy on uranium mining — a move that has put him at odds with Mr Garrett.
On Tasmanian forests, Mr Rudd said Labor's guiding principle was that it wanted to see a long-term sustainable industry, based on three pillars:
- Close consultation with the State Government, unions and forest industries.
- No overall loss of jobs.
- Consultation with the State Government over conservation and protection of old growth forest areas.
Mr Rudd said he was in Tasmania to listen carefully to local communities, but confirmed that he had spoken to no-one in the forest industry on his visit. He said he would talk to the conservation movement from time to time. "But when it comes to the architecture of our forests policy here in Tasmania, it is as I've described before, based on those three principles and two sets of agreements which we support."
Labor's loss of two seats in Tasmania at the last election, Bass and Braddon, was attributed to Mr Latham's $800 million package that would have secured nearly all remaining contested old growth areas.
Industry and unions instead backed the more modest Howard conservation package in what was widely portrayed as a poll-eve political coup by the Prime Minister.
Mr Rudd followed his predecessor, Kim Beazley, in distancing himself from the Latham policy. "Labor got it wrong. Part of the reason it got it wrong was that it didn't listen to the local community," he said.
His statement yesterday was welcomed by the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania. "We support and endorse the approach that Kevin Rudd has outlined," said executive director Terry Edwards.
The conservation movement, which has fought for more than 20 years for the protection of the state's old growth forests, came out swinging.
"The policy Kevin Rudd is set to adopt is the one endorsed by the Lennon Labor Government which is destroying our forests," said the Wilderness Society's campaigns manager, Geoff Law.
"It is desperately ironic that it comes almost 20 years to the day after Peter Garrett came to the Lemonthyme forest in Tasmania, and stood beside Bob Brown and said these forests must be saved."
The Australian Conservation Foundation said it was surprised that Mr Rudd was closing doors during a "listening" tour.
"I think he should be certainly talking to the wide range of environmental stakeholders to get a full picture of issues as complex as these," said Matt Ruchel, Manager of Land and Water for the ACF.
Mr Rudd deflected questions about Mr Garrett, the former rock star and ACF head who now holds the Climate Change and Environment portfolio on Labor's front bench.
In 2004, Mr Garrett described the Tasmanian timber industry as logging gone mad and carnage in the forests.
Mr Rudd said that he was now leader of the party, and Mr Garrett had a job to do on climate change.
Mr Rudd was speaking on a visit to bushfire-ravaged areas of Tasmania's east coast, where he said he had seen no indication of any gaps in the federal response to the fires. The main east coast fire has burned more than 20 homes and 25,000 hectares of land.
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