A forest ‘peace deal’ may, or may not, emerge from the backrooms, possibly enabling Parliament to consider the Tasmanian Forests Agreement Bill 2012 tabled just prior to the June 30th deadline.

We as Parliamentarians are bombarded with submissions and reports prior to the debate on important legislation. Interestingly, one such document on my desk this week was a précis of a Report into the financial position of Tasmania.

On the matter of the forest industry the Report had this to say:

“The whole question devolves upon the commercial accessibility of marketable timber as a payable proposition, and I suggest that consideration of any assistance by the Commonwealth must be deferred until that question is fully investigated and determined.”

The question in other words is logging native forests a paying proposition? Do we need the IGA money?

The Report underlies the desperate state of the industry but laments that there are few constructive proposals on the table as to how to move forward.

Specifically the Report said:

“I received from the Hobart Chamber of Commerce a statement on “The hardship suffered by the timber industry in Tasmania,” in which it is stated “For the past few years….... the sawmilling industry has been in a very bad state, until now, with the added effect of the general depression, the position is really desperate.”

“While the Chamber of Commerce of Hobart considers “there is every justification, nay, necessity, for assistance and relief being granted by the Commonwealth to this State,” no useful information is afforded in the shape of any practical proposal for the betterment of the methods of production.”

In other words there appears to be a prima facie case for assistance but no practical proposal to better the industry.

This Report was of an Inquiry into the Financial Position of Tasmania as Affected by Federation. The author was Sir Nicholas Lockyer, a retired Commonwealth public servant appointed by the Commonwealth government to inquire into the financial position of Tasmania, dated April 1926.

Whilst there are eerie similarities in 2012, the effects of a recession and high freight costs across Bass Strait for instance, the prediction was that 60 million super feet of sawn timber (142,000 m3) could be obtained each year for the next 90 years.

Given reasonable recovery rates this implies higher rates of log harvesting than is currently on the table with the current peace talks.

Maybe the sustainability estimates were wrong, maybe it’s due to more reserves or maybe extraction rates have been higher. Whatever the reason we can’t unscramble the egg.

Arguably, we as legislators need to give due and proper consideration to the Bill, regardless of the flawed and unrepresentative processes that have tediously preceded it.

There are some who say the Agreement should be ignored, Government funds aren’t required and all the industry needs is sufficient access to resources. I believe more of the same is not the way forward and we seem to be sadly lacking alternatives for this important industry.

We must look at new ways of value adding. Barring the rise of a phoenix from the ashes in the Tamar Valley the days of a high volume timber industry have gone, to be hopefully replaced by a lower volume, higher value alternative.

As was the case in 1926 and noted by Sir Nicholas Lockyer, no practical proposals have been revealed that will overcome the depleted capital of the industry.

The Auditor General recently noted that Forestry Tasmania needed $250 million in fresh capital, the last Budget obliged with an appropriation of $110 million contingency funding. Timber companies such as FEA and Gunns have seen most of their capital disappear.

It may be a little indulgent to ascribe the greater than average capital losses suffered by the industry since the GFC to environmental protests. It’s more likely to indicate the end of an era. But as we wait to ponder the merits of the Bill, we have no real idea where the new road will lead.

The Bill may be regarded as a historic achievement but it is only the beginning to re formatting the forest industry as an important contributor to our State. The industry downturn demonstrates the integrated nature of the Tasmanian economy. It is clearly evident that no major industry is immune to the change in fortune. Forestry and other major industries contribute significantly to maintenance of, and investment in, infrastructure including roads, rail and access to sea links to the world and our markets. They also contribute to the services and benefits we all enjoy from parks and reserves to health and education. Industry also keeps skilled and clever people in our State, people we can’t afford to lose.

The Government and Opposition will need to clearly articulate their plans for the future of the entire industry if the Agreement is signed and we contemplate the Bill as well as if no agreement is reached as more of the same clearly won’t do.

Both have had long enough to prepare contingency plans. We need not only a plan for the native forest industry on public land, but its plan for the native forest industry on private land, and the plan for 300,000 hectares of hardwood plantations dominated by Managed Investment Scheme crops unlikely to be replanted. The crops have been disappointing to growers and the underlying land has fallen in value.

Falling values also affect resource allocation decisions. It is no longer clear what benchmarks to use when assessing the use of public land for forest and non-forest purposes.

The recent sale of Forestry Tasmania’s jointly owned softwood plantations has resulted in the purchaser, in effect, obtaining use of 45,000 hectares of public land rent free for 57 years, a fact that didn’t figure very prominently in the Minister’s Media Release announcing the sale.

Furthermore orthodox accounting and valuation principles give a low value to native forests due principally to slow growth rates and longer rotations. Much of Forestry Tasmania’s native forest land has a nil or even negative value because it costs more to look after than any nominal rental return.

Here we are, eighty six years after Sir Nicholas Lockyer’s Report with even more unanswered questions. That we are still grappling with the same underlying issues is evident from his further prescient observations.

“Not the least of the disabilities under which Tasmania is suffering is the pessimism on the part of some of the leaders of public opinion as to the future progress and development of the State. This want of faith is exercising a disturbing influence on the minds of the people, and constitutes a danger of engendering a spirit of helplessness and dependence which is about the worst thing that could happen to any country.”

“My investigation leads me to the conclusion that the question of first importance is the further development of the primary industries of the State, the agricultural, horticultural, pastoral, mining, and timber industries; that expert guidance as well as financial assistance is necessary for this purpose, and a scheme to this end, if under proper control and supervision, should lead to substantial progress, with a more contented as well as increased population.”

“The ultimate success of any assistance which the Commonwealth may extend to Tasmania in relief of its present financial difficulties and to further the development of its natural resources will not, however, be possible unless it be accompanied by greater confidence on the part of the leaders of public opinion and the people in the future of their country, and by a far wiser Government administration than has been characteristic of past years.”

Excerpts of Sir Nicholas Lockyer’s Report are taken from The Mercury Tuesday April 20th 1926

• First published in The Advocate here

• Tassie forest negotiators stuck between Stockholm and Abilene

Bruce Montgomery, former Tasmanian political correspondent for The Australian, writes in CRIKEY:

In 1974 US newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Over the course of the next three months she warmed to their cause and embraced it; she slung an M1 carbine over her shoulder and pulled a bank robbery for them.

Hearst may be the classic example of the Stockholm syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which hostages eventually identify with their captors.

I bumped into a professional negotiator in the street in Hobart this week. We discussed the interminable Tasmanian forest peace talks that have gone on for something like two years now. “It’s a mess, a blend of the Stockholm syndrome and the Abilene paradox,” he mused.

If you have never heard of it, you will soon comprehend the Abilene paradox and appreciate how common it is. A family member suggests that they all drive 53 miles to Abilene that night for dinner. One by one they agree. Great idea. They drive to Abilene; the meal sucks. And on the way home they all confide they actually didn’t want to go to Abilene in the first place.

So do we have the Tasmanian forest negotiators stuck somewhere between Stockholm and Abilene?

Last night, they revealed the detail of an interim agreement to end the 30-year war in the Tasmanian forests, the war between an industry that goes back to European settlement and an environmental movement that goes back to the battle to stop the Hydro Electric Commission flooding Lake Pedder and that then evolved into the battle to save the Franklin River and then the forests.

The forest negotiators, representing the industry, contractors, unions and conservationists, own no trees but lay claim to the public forest estate for their own ends. At stake is 572,000 hectares, purportedly the latest holy grail for conservationists (though Bob Brown reckons it should be 585,000 hectares and all protected as World Heritage or in national parks).

As the negotiators pore over the maps to share the spoils and run their calculators over compensation to sawmillers and contractors for lost opportunities, Deputy Premier Bryan Green and federal forests minister Tony Burke shout the pizzas.

Meanwhile, the private forest industry, mainly farmers responsible for 26% of the total forest cover here, don’t get a look in, don’t figure in the calculations as the infrastructure of a key component of their industry (fellers, trucks, sawmills) is decimated.

The interim agreement revealed yesterday does not expose how much land the industry has been prepared to cede to the conservationists, nor where, nor their protection status. Nor do we know where the industry will source sufficient timber to maintain viability.

It is understood that they have agreed to lock up about 525,000 hectares, most of it in the original ambit claim and that the sawlog target is down to 130,000-140,000 cubic metres a year. (In 1997 Tasmania’s Regional Forest Agreement had provided for a minimum 300,000 cubic metres.) The latest proposition has been sent off to Forestry Tasmania to do yet more modelling to determine if it can work. We wait another four to six weeks for the response. The previous modelling work does not provide any confidence that the targets can be matched.

Devoid of that detail, the interim agreement is a collection of motherhood statements. While it talks about government compensation to those leaving the industry, we are not told of the guarantees the conservation groups—the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Wilderness Society and Environment Tasmania—are able to give that will rein in the opposition to, and the market sabotage of, the Tasmanian forest industry. Today these three groups are the moderates in a field of campaigners.

So, we look at the faces of the principal negotiators, Terry Edwards of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania and Phill Pullinger of Environment Tasmania, to try to glean whether they are in Stockholm, Abilene or really going nowhere.

*Bruce Montgomery is a former political correspondent with The Australian and former communications manager with the Forests and Forest Industry Council.

• Download, read for yourself,  the Interim Agreement:

• Jan Davis, TFGA CEO: Forestry agreement a joke

According to the state government, an agreement has now been reached that will end ‘the forest wars’ in Tasmania. They are deluding themselves.

That part of the interim forests agreement that has been publicly released confirms the worst fears of Tasmanian private forest growers, the Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association (TFGA) said today.

“In our view, this is more an agreement to agree that they might agree to something sometime in the future,” TFGA chief executive Jan Davis said. “There is nothing in it but motherhood statements and repetitious self-interest, self-interest that excludes everyone else in the industry who is not represented round the table.

“If that’s the best they can come up with after two years, they should give up now.” Ms Davis said.

“Yet again private foresters have been done over in this so-called agreement. The private forest industry, mainly farmers responsible for 26 per cent of the state’s total forest cover, didn’t get a look in, didn’t figure in the calculations as the infrastructure of a key component of their industry (fellers, trucks, sawmills) is decimated.

“In fact, the only time private forest owners get a mention is when these negotiators pledge to impose Forest Stewardship Council certification on all native forests, including the private forest estate.”

Ms Davis said the negotiators had refused to reveal how much land the industry had been prepared to cede to the conservationists, its location, protection status or where the industry would source sufficient timber to maintain viability. It reinforced the view that this was a farce, a sham and unrepresentative.

“The conservation groups have offered no concessions and nor can they give guarantees that they will end the economic sabotage of this industry by their fellow-travellers,” she said.

“The Huon Environment Centre has said it will not be bound by the agreement; the Tarkine National Coalition has announced it will lobby prospective investors against investing in a mining project in the NW Forest area, Miranda Gibson is still up her tree, and the Greens want another 585,000 ha in World Heritage or national parks. Where’s the durability in that?”

According to Ms Davis, Deputy Premier Bryan Green’s declaration yesterday that the ‘interim agreement marks the end of the forest wars’ shows just how out of touch the government was with reality and with the views of the mainstream Tasmanian community.

“Both state and federal governments have made it clear they want an agreement, irrespective of the details so they insist that the parties continue at the table.

“They have no Plan B. For them, failure would mean egg on all their faces.

“Imagine if all the effort that has gone in to closing down the forestry industry in Tasmania had instead gone in to strengthening the sector, in developing markets rather than undermining them, to research new products, rather than ignoring the value of such research, to recognise the value of biofuels, rather than condemning them,” she said.

“Politicians should draw a line under this flawed process and swallow their pride; they should stop thinking about how to placate a noisy minority and start focusing on how to get people back to work and keep jobs into the future.

• TCT Response to the Interim Agreement on Tasmanian Forests: forest practices code and threatened species under threat

The Interim Agreement on Tasmanian Forests Wood Supply and Conservation (the Interim Agreement), released on 15 August 2012, has reinforced the TCT’s long expressed fear that the forestry industry and ENGOs are negotiating a deal which will prohibit any future improvements to the Forestry Practices Code and possibly weaken it, putting increased pressure on the threatened species habitats and threatened forest communities which are found mainly outside proposed reserves on private land.

TCT Director Peter McGlone said today that: ‘Clause 31 of the Interim Agreement leaves the door open for a final agreement to support legislative changes to weaken the Forest Practices Code or to prohibit future improvements to it’.

Clause 31 of the Interim Agreement states that the signatories:
‘Support changes to the Forest Practices Act guiding principles and objectives to give effect to the agreed vision and objectives of the final agreement’.

‘We fear that the purpose of clause 31 is to allow forestry standards to be weakened to allow more intensive logging to sustain wood supply levels – to compensate for the loss of wood resource caused by the creation of new reserves,’ Mr McGlone continued.

‘This would cause massive environmental damage, especially to the biodiversity rich private forests, and be a perverse and horrific outcome of the supposed forests peace deal.

‘It appears that the ENGOs are being asked to support the trashing of the code and therefore trashing of threatened species habitats in exchange for new reserves and they must refuse such an environmentally destructive trade-off.’

‘The ENGO’s must refuse to sign a final agreement unless it commits to reducing wood supply volumes to levels which allow for delivery of new reserves and a stronger Forest Practices Code to protect biodiversity values in line with the 2007-10 scientific review.’

‘Our fears about the trashing of the Forest Practices Code are reinforced by the total absence of any commitment in the Interim Agreement to maintaining and strengthening forestry practices.’

‘The signatory groups cannot hope to deliver peace in the forests without including in the final agreement an explicit commitment to limiting the rate of logging to a level which allows for implementation of the 2007-10 review of the biodiversity provisions of the Code plus future improvements to forestry practices based on scientific evidence,’ Mr McGlone concluded.

The Interim Agreement focuses only on reservation on public land to achieve conservation outcomes and fails to commit to any conservation measures for forest outside reserves. Most of Tasmania’s threatened forests species and threatened forest communities are found on private land – these will not be protected by new reserves but rely entirely on a strong forest practices code for protection.

Peter McGlone,  Director
Tasmanian Conservation Trust Inc
Ph:  03 62 343552
2nd fl, 191-193 Liverpool St, Hobart 7000
Email : .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Fax: 03 62 312491