20 July, 2010

Twice-shy Labor lets forest jobs policy slide

Phillip Coorey Chief Political Correspondent
The Age (article), July 20, 2010

The Gillard government is reluctant to produce a forestry jobs policy before the election because it fears getting its fingers burnt, as Labor did during the 2004 election campaign.

Talks between timber industry players are well advanced to end or reduce old-growth logging in Tasmania, and the big parties are under pressure to unveil a jobs-rescue policy to help the timber workers who will inevitably lose out.

But the government, while watching developments closely, is staying at arm's length from negotiations and will step in with a jobs package only when it is sure there will be no backlash.

At least two marginal seats - Bass and Braddon - are at risk.

''It's not going to happen unless everyone's in the boat this time,'' said a senior government source. ''We got burnt last time.''

In 2004, the Labor Party's then-leader, Mark Latham, had his campaign badly damaged when John Howard outflanked him on forestry policy. Mr Howard put more emphasis on jobs than trees, and wrested Bass and Braddon from Labor.

But since then the bottom has fallen out of the market for old-growth products such as wood chips and there is a growing consensus to start shutting the industry down.

A worldwide glut of wood and, more significantly, a public awareness campaign in key markets such as Japan, have significantly reduced demand.

Talks are well advanced between the industry, unions and conservation groups.

''Even the native-forest logging industry in this state and Victoria and NSW is in very hard times,'' the Greens leader, Bob Brown, said in Hobart yesterday.

''It requires government involvement at state and federal level. It's a key issue. It's a test of the government's and the opposition's recognition that biodiversity is a huge economic and environmental issue.''

Labor has already struck a preference deal with the Greens in key marginal seats, including Bass and Braddon.

The Labor source said there was a level of co-operation between interested parties ''that no one would have thought possible. There's a willingness to reach a settlement.''

However, he said Labor was in no rush to step in before the election and, at best, would release ''a statement of general principles'' before August 21.

He speculated that negotiations could take another three months because of the details that need to be sorted out.

These include what constitutes high-value forests which would warrant complete protection. There is disagreement over details such as whether a forest damaged by fire is still a natural forest or could be classified as regrowth and be logged.

''The Liberals are running around, they want a Latham deal, they want to say thousands of jobs will be lost,'' he said. ''It's not going to happen.''

Asked on Saturday whether she envisaged intervening before the election, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, said she expected negotiations to continue for some time.

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

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