May 1, 2007
Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd:
"We intend to have a viable, long-term forestry industry in Tasmania. We intend to make sure that there is appropriate conservation of environmentally sensitiveforest areas."
Kevin Rudd's well-oiled Labor machine is out to tame Tasmania - and exorcise Mark Latham's disastrous electoral legacy.
The winter cold is sweeping into the Upper Florentine, a seasonal change that makes this remote Tasmanian valley seem even more forbidding.
From the Florentine's furthest ridges, you can look out to a long westerly horizon untroubled by any human presence, and watch the rain march towards you in lines of gray from distant mountain ranges.
Shafts of sunlight occasionally break through clouds to spotlight otherwise untracked ground. The shrieks of black cockatoos and currawong song coast across the treetops to meet chainsaw buzz and machinery clank.
The Florentine is on the fringe of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. It's where tall, old-growth forest borders the island's uninhabited south-west. And on some of the valley's upper slopes, logging is under way as it has been in more accessible reaches of the Florentine for generations.
Since October, Ula Majewski's friends in the group Still Wild, Still Threatened have been blockading in the Upper Florentine. There have been 23 arrests so far. And loggers, supported by Barry Chipman's Timber Communities Australia, have been cutting it. They are extracting high-value sawlog and veneer timber, along with a great weight of logs for woodchips.
These people stand at opposite poles of Tasmania's intractable forests dispute. Neither Majewski nor Chipman are happy with Labor's new forests platform. But it is in a domain such as the Upper Florentine that this reinvented strategy will be tested.
Tasmanian forests policy came to symbolise the collapse of Mark Latham's Labor at the last federal election. It split the ALP in the final days of the campaign, was rejected and then ditched.
Nearly three years later, the ALP appears to have learnt a lesson. Last weekend the party's national conference agreed to a resolution with enough broad support to allow hope within the party that it could succeed. The platform, on which Labor's more detailed federal election policy will be built, calls for a sustainable forest industry in the state, with no overall job losses, and further protection of some forests.
So what will this mean for the Upper Florentine?
In early 2004, Latham flew over these forests by helicopter as Labor leader on a two-day tour in which he was first hosted by the industry, and then Greens leader Bob Brown.
Latham pointed to the existence of other protected forests in the area as proof that there was a reasonable balance, only to drop a bombshell on the Tasmanian Labor government, forest industry and unions in the election campaign's last days. He vowed to end logging in the "overwhelming majority" of Tasmania's old-growth forests - 240,000 hectares of forests with disputed high conservation values, offering an $800 million package.
It was a gamble that was trumped by Prime Minister John Howard. Within 48 hours, Howard announced his own package that would protect 170,000 hectares of Tasmanian forest. But, crucially, he had the support of the industry, the union and even some desperate state Labor figures.
Again, the bidding included the Florentine.
After the Howard Government convincingly won the election, development of what was called the Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement took another six months. The industry was offered $250 million in restructuring money to develop plantations and help country sawmills retool.
The Coalition claimed that its extra 170,000 hectares of reserves would take the total area of Tasmania's old growth now in reserves to 1 million hectares.
In fact these "old-growth" reserves include scrubby coastal dry forests and melaleuca swamps as well as myrtle rainforests. Many of these old-growth trees were also left outside the level of protection given by a national park or world heritage listing.
Gains in the protection of rainforest were countered by losses among tall eucalypts where the community forest agreements fell far short of their own benchmark. Contentious areas of the Upper Florentine and nearby Styx missed out. Instead of reserving the 18,700 hectares. pledged at the election, the agreement set aside only 4730 hectares.
The battle over the symbolic trees of Tasmania - tall, old-growth eucalypts - was unresolved. The king of the forest, old-growth eucalypt regnans, gained only 970 hectares in protection under the Howard package. About 44 per cent, or 5800 hectares was still available for logging.
This is part of the legacy for the next election. This, and an industry already in upheaval as Tasmanians await the decision on the $1.5 billion Gunns pulp mill, which will generate employment, and consume more native forest.
Despite the cold and wet, Majewski and Still Wild, Still Threatened have been out in the Upper Florentine trying to draw attention to what she calls "this beautiful forest" for about six months. Access to it has been restricted. Sporadically, small groups of protesters walk in to the logging coupes and erect precarious seats in trees to halt work.
The state agency, Forestry Tasmania, describes this forest as an important source of valuable eucalypt sawlogs, veneer and special species timbers. "Ninety per cent of the Upper Florentine remains unavailable for harvesting," says assistant general manager, Steve Whiteley.
But groups such as Majewski's are arguing for an end to all old-growth logging, not only for these forests' physical attractions, but because as carbon sinks they enter the climate-change equation.
Against them stands the industry group Timber Communities Australia. "TCA said loud and clear that the boundary has been achieved," says Chipman, the organisation's Tasmanian manager. "There is no room to rejig. We cannot accept one more hectare of forest being reserved."
As they absorbed the new Labor platform, each side focused on the role in its development by Michael O'Connor, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union's forestry division national secretary.
Famously, O'Connor stood on the same stage as Howard on the eve of the 2004 election. Images of Tasmania's forestry workers cheering Howard helped the Liberals pick up two seats in the state.
The ALP is not about to make the same mistake twice.
Before last weekend's ALP national conference, Brown suggested that O'Connor should get the boot from Labor. Instead he was given the stage to publicly back the new platform.
"I can, with 100 per cent support, recommend this (deal) to the (ALP) conference but more importantly recommend it to our members." O'Connor said at the weekend.
It was a deal struck behind doors with Rudd, O'Connor and Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon. It ensures Labor consults Lennon and the union before announcing its final forests policy.
"We are concerned about any secret deal between Mr O'Connor and (Opposition Leader) Kevin Rudd," says Majewski.
For his part, Chipman says that despite respect for the CFMEU, Timber Communities Australia is worried about two elements of the ALP platform: the proposal to increase protection of some forests, and the pledge that there would be no overall job losses.
"We would much prefer to see job enhancement," he says.
O'Connor just seemed glad to have a platform he could put his name to. "At the last election we had a ludicrous policy," the union leader says. "It was put together without any understanding of its consequences. To us, what we have now is a resumption of a sensible policy development process where agreements are made, and commitments are kept."
Lennon, who also rejected the Latham policy, has signed on for Kevin Rudd too. "The platform provides no concern to me," he says. Instead, he sees useful trade-offs ahead.
"I want value-adding timber projects in Tasmania, employing Tasmanians," Lennon told the ABC. "If we can achieve that, then that will enable us to give the necessary consideration to conservation of other areas of forests that in the past have been subject to political debate."
Labor's shadow environment minister, Peter Garrett, denies that any deal has been struck to protect jobs. But in the bitter politics of Tasmanian forests, the industry worries that it will again be caught in a struggle for votes - perhaps this time for Greens' preferences.
Federal Forests Minister Eric Abetz stoked these fears as he warned against taking the risk of supporting Labor.
"There are some strong and loud voices at play which are determined to shut down the forest industry, no matter that it has great environmental and economic credentials," Abetz says.
Labor's task in developing the policy - in deciding whether a forest such as the Upper Florentine will finally be protected, or its loggers' jobs - is full of hazards.
The novelist Richard Flanagan wrote a long essay on the state forest industry's power that was published yesterday in The Monthly magazine. His conclusion? The battle for the forests in Tasmania is as much about free speech and democracy as it is about wild lands.
THE ALP PLATFORM
- Labor supports the Tasmanian Community Forest Agreement.
- Labor is committed to sustainable economic, environmental and community outcomes for Tasmania's forests, based on the principles of: a sustainable forestry industry plan, developed in consultation with unions, industry and the Tasmanian Government and based on the use of plantation timber, selective use of native timber, value-adding and downstream processing; no overall loss of jobs in the forestry industry; further protection of identified Tasmanian high-conservation- value, old-growth forests, rainforests and other ecosystems.
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