As 2013 drew to an end, the days of warring over forest resources in Tasmania were dwindling in number and frequency. For the first time in over a decade, the annual summer protests held in forests, such as the Styx, did not take place. The catalyst for peace was the installation of the Tasmanian Forests Agreement (TFA), which came into effect on June 3, 2013. While imperfect in nature, this historic piece of legislation was unprecedented. The agreement was the result of years of negotiations between the forestry industry, unions, and environmental organisations. Unanimously achieved, it nominated half a million hectares of forested land to be protected from logging, and preserved for conservation. Of this area, 170,000 hectares was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Area. The Commonwealth and State governments promised almost $200 million to help implement the agreement and compensation for those employed in the industry. A further $120 million was provided – over 15 years – by the Commonwealth to aid in the diversification of the Tasmanian economy.
In the lead up to the Tasmanian state election, the tenuous truce between the forestry industry and the environmental movement became volatile. In the spirit of the Federal Government’s commitment to engage in environmental vandalism following the approval of dredging in the Great Barrier Reef, Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, made a request to the World Heritage Committee to remove 74,000 hectares of the 170,000 which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Area under the TFA. The move was the first of its kind; no country on record has ever sought to retract areas nominated for UNESCO protection. In line with his Federal counterparts, Tasmanian Liberal party leader, Will Hodgman announced if the opposition were to win the election, his first act would be to tear up the TFA.
This move was intended to differentiate the Liberal party from the Labor-Green government, which had become widely unpopular in the state. Hodgman reignited the belief that resurrecting the dying forestry industry could reinvigorate the state’s economy. Days before the state election, Prime Minister Tony Abbott jumped on the bandwagon, and speaking before a timber industry dinner in Canberra declared:
When I look out tonight at an audience of people who work with timber, who work in forests, I don’t see people who are environmental vandals; I see people who are the ultimate conservationists…
The Prime Minister’s remarks would be laughable if the intended consequences of his words were not so frightening. There’s too much forest locked away in national parks, Abbott lamented. “We have quite enough national parks. We have quite enough locked up forests already…Why should we lock up as some sort of World Heritage sanctuary country that has been logged, degraded or planted for timber?” And so it was on the back of Abbott’s support that the Liberal party was elected to power in Tasmania on March 15, 2014.
The Prime Minister and Federal Environment Minister now claim that the 74,000 hectares requested for excision from the previously nominated UNESCO World Heritage area, as part of the TFA, are in fact, not pristine and have been seriously degraded. Professor Brendan Mackey, a member of the Independent Verification Group created to assess the protection claims however found that of the “74,000 hectares, 86 per cent is natural forest has not been industrially logged and 4 per cent is heavily disturbed.” Much of the area contains tall eucalypt forests, which the World Heritage Committee has recognised as having outstanding universal value.
The Prime Minister’s ostensible motivation for removing the 74,000 hectares of forest from the UNESCO protected area is to stimulate the Tasmanian economy by reenergising the forestry sector. He has capitalised on a common misconception held by the public: that 20 per cent of the state’s economy lies in the forestry sector. However statistics indicate that figure is really 1.4 per cent, and a report conducted in 2012 for the Federal Government, Diversifying Tasmania’s Economy: Analysis and Options, found around 3,500 jobs were lost in the industry before any forests were removed for UNESCO protection as part of the TFA.
For many years, forestry was the dominant industry in Tasmania and the backbone of the state’s economy; external factors and pressures have now brought the industry to a near standstill, including the decline in demand for native forest products internationally and the high Australian dollar. Unlocking forests and tearing up the TFA are simply political point scoring acts for the both the Federal and State governments. Abbott and Hodgman identified a disenfranchised section of the electorate who suffered financial loss due to the decline of the industry and went ahead and made empty promises in return for votes. A Tasmanian forestry industry which derives resources from areas that contain high-value forests cannot prosper in the international market. The sector will inevitably become reliant on Federal government subsidies and cash handouts. This undermines the Liberal party’s own philosophy of economic liberalism, which espouses the view companies and industries should be left to their own devices and are at the whim of market forces.
Forestry as an industry does not have to cease in Tasmania, so long as wood products are derived from plantation rather than native forest. The area proposed by Abbott for removal from the World Heritage Area is of high conservation value and does not fall within these parameters.
Instead of tearing up the TFA and unlocking land nominated for UNESCO World Heritage protection to achieve quick-fix solutions, both the State and Federal governments should instead invest in sustainable economic diversification in Tasmania. The dominant model of economic development which relies upon the commoditisation of resources is not only environmentally irresponsible but no longer provides the financial returns Tasmania desperately needs.