April 24, 2007
A bruising showdown between Labor's environment spokesman, Peter Garrett, and the head of the forestry union, Michael O'Connor, over logging in Tasmania is threatening to overshadow the uranium debate as the most fraught dispute at this weekend's Labor Party conference.
Yesterday Mr Garrett made it clear he would fight plans by Mr O'Connor, who heads the forestry division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, and the logging industry to water down the party's draft forestry policy. The union boss wants to remove a crucial clause giving a future Labor Government the option of protecting more of the state's old-growth forests.
Mr Garrett said the policy was a clear balance between job security and conservation and should not be weakened.
Mr O'Connor's plans have angered his opponents inside and outside the party. They have released scores of documents and tape recordings revealing the union's heavy-handed tactics and ties to the logging industry.
Mr O'Connor's opponents are still smarting over his actions in the final days of the 2004 election when the union swung its support behind John Howard after the then Labor leader, Mark Latham, supported a pro-conservation policy in Tasmania.
Images of Tasmania's forestry workers cheering Mr Howard sent shock waves through Labor and helped the Liberals pick up two seats in the state. The current draft policy was subsequently born out of painful compromise.
After Mr O'Connor reopened the debate over the new draft policy two weeks ago, the Herald was given material showing his union had produced a ferocious television ad against Labor in the final days of the 2004 campaign. Party figures confirmed the damaging ad, designed to run in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, forced Labor's national secretary, Tim Gartrell, to take legal action to block its release.
Then last year Mr O'Connor threatened the NSW Labor Party secretary, Mark Arbib, with legal action to shut down the entire state party conference on the eve of Morris Iemma's first appearance as the new leader. Leaked letters from Mr O'Connor's lawyers show the dispute was over the number of his union delegates and warned Mr Arbib "proceedings will, among other things, seek an interlocutory injunction restraining the holding of the conference in the absence of the delegates concerned".
Mr O'Connor would not comment on the legal disputes with the party secretaries or on tape recordings of his union colleagues discussing financial help from the timber industry lobby group, the National Association of Forest Industries.
In the taped interviews with a University of NSW law student last year, the union's former national secretary Trevor Smith and its Tasmanian secretary, Scott McLean, conceded the union accepted a "very little" financial contribution from the forestry lobby in a legal case with green activists.
The case, which is still before the courts, stemmed from a confrontation in which forestry workers encircled a conservationists' campsite in Victoria for five days.
The tapes are problematic for the union, which has long fought claims by its ALP and green critics that it is too close to the industry. More embarrassing for the union is that the law student who interviewed the officials for his thesis was a prominent green activist, Neal Funnell, who masterminded a spectacular anti-logging stunt for the maiden voyage of the Spirit of Tasmania in 2004.
Mr Smith denied speaking to Mr Funnell despite his voice being on the tapes. Mr McLean did not comment on the tapes.
Kate Carnell, the former executive director of the forest industries association, said it had contributed to the union's legal case but she believed it was less than $10,000. "It wasn't a lot. It was more a sign that we were one; that we were working together on this," she said. Mr O'Connor's efforts to weaken Labor's draft forest policy at the conference have been strongly supported by the association.
This week senior Labor figures were trying to find a compromise to avert a showdown at the conference. The negotiations have been complicated by Mr O'Connor's allies lobbying for him to get a seat on the ALP's governing body, the national executive.