23 October, 2010

CFMEU declares forests war is over

Matthew Franklin, Chief political correspondentThe Australian (article),  October 23, 2010

CFMEU forestry division national secretary Michael O'Connor in parklands in North Melbourne. Picture: Aaron Francis Source: The Australian
The union representing forestry workers has conceded logging in the nation's natural forests must stop.

It has declared an armistice in its 30-year war with the environmental movement.

But the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union now wants the green lobby and governments to secure the industry's long-term survival by agreeing to a dramatic expansion of plantation forestry.

The CFMEU also wants a new focus on value-adding through investment in sectors such as pulp and paper, and veneer board. "Our industry is on the verge of collapse," CFMEU forestry division national secretary Michael O'Connor told The Weekend Australian yesterday.

"We've got to come up with a solution. The only way to do that was really to sit down with people we've been opposed to for 30 years and see if we could come up with one."

Mr O'Connor's comments, welcomed by the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Australian Greens and the Gillard government, represent a fundamental shift after years of often physical conflict over logging in native forests, particularly in Tasmania.

They suggest his union will dig in over its support for the proposed Gunns pulp mill in the Tamar Valley, strongly opposed by conservationists.

Last week Tasmanian environmentalists and loggers agreed to begin talks over a moratorium on logging in high-conservation areas and, ultimately, a shift out of all native forests and into plantation timber.

Yesterday, Mr O'Connor broke with employer groups to call for the Tasmanian deal to be treated as a template for nation-wide reform to provide a lifeline for more than 100,000 Australians employed in the timber industry.

"The hard truth is that the native forest industry in every state is in crisis," he said in his first interview about the Tasmanian deal.

Mr O'Connor is well known for his union-first stance and came to prominence in 2004 by making a forestry deal with John Howard to protect jobs.

Yesterday, he said successful activism by the green lobby had "trashed" the Japanese wood chip market and the hardwood sector was in deep trouble. His union had decided the best way to help its members was to secure green backing for an expansion of plantation forestry and encourage investment in value-adding projects.

"If we require a comprehensive plantation strategy that's going to increase the amount of saw logs available to the industry, perhaps the environmental movement will support us in a proposal about that.

"Maybe we can harness their effective political machine for an outcome."

Australian Conservation Foundation executive director Don Henry welcomed the CFMEU's shift and promised to help.

"This is a unique opportunity to lay down our arms and work respectfully together to build a strong and sustainable value-adding industry based on plantations," he said.

"The ACF is a strong supporter of plantation forestry and value-adding at world's best practice."

Greens leader Bob Brown, a veteran of Tasmania's forest wars, was not available yesterday but deputy leader Christine Milne said Mr O'Connor's comments were a cause for celebration because it meant forests would be protected.

"The Greens have always supported an assisted transition for forestry workers out of native forest logging, and we have always been confident that the transition will bring benefits to workers, industry and community," Senator Milne said.

Sustainability Minister Tony Burke said he was not certain other states could mirror the Tasmanian agreement, which was linked to the building of a pulp mill and involved high-value forest areas such as the Styx and the Tarkine.

He said he was pleased the warring parties had found their own agreements rather than having deals imposed by the government, but warned change would not happen overnight.

Mr O'Connor called for an immediate change in the way logging volumes are determined. Under the existing regional forestry agreement process, governments took submissions from employers and unions as well as environmentalists and then acted as umpire.

"It didn't work," Mr O'Connor said. "We are saying why don't we see if we can get an agreed position with the environment movement and take that to government?"

Asked how his members would feel about the sudden change in tactics, Mr O'Connor said his job was to secure the best outcome for his members. "I think we've got a track record showing that we're not scared of a fight," he said.

"But if a better outcome can be achieved by negotiating or having dialogue with people we've traditionally been opposed to, then certainly we take that path.

"This next stage is going to be critical. But really the implementation of anything that comes out of it could be over a 15- or 20-year period. This will probably outlast the rest of my working life."

Mr O'Connor's comments come ahead of a union ballot next month to approve the Tasmanian deal.

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