Sign of the Times: Picture taken last week at the Gunns ex (fairly recently) sawmill at Austins Ferry (between Granton and Claremont). This mill was one of the biggest old-growth mills in the state.  The sawn timber stockpile has all been removed. It is obvious that the machinery is being cut up for scrap.

The Tasmanian Liberals would have us believe they have the best economic credentials for managing this state. Opposition leader Will Hodgman, in his ‘State of the State’ address to Parliament in March this year said:

‘Over the coming months, over the year, indeed the next election campaign, it’s all about one key thing: it is all about the economy. It will be about who is best placed to get the economy moving in the right direction again. About who is best able to lay the right foundations to create and grow jobs.’

Of course Hodgman’s conclusion is that the Liberal Party is the party that best meets these criteria. And one of the main platforms on which the Liberals say they will base a successful Tasmanian economy is the forestry industry, described a year ago by Liberal forestry spokesman Peter Gutwein as ‘Tasmania’s most important and sustainable industry’. After the recent collapse of the IGA talks, Mr Gutwein said, apparently without irony,‘the Premier must swallow her pride and work with the Liberals to grow the forest industry.’

Hodgman and Gutwein have continually called for the growth of the forest industry, including the native forest industry, despite mounting evidence that due to changing world markets and the high Australian dollar native forest products from high conservation Tasmanian old growth forests have become increasingly unsaleable. 

Forestry Tasmania’s debts for the last financial year alone stand at $27.6M, and the true figure may be double that (1). The Tasmanian forestry industry has now swallowed up $1bn of government handouts and subsidies in the past decade, and is on track to burn through at least $100M more in the next 4 years or less.

All this for an industry that employs around 1% of the state’s workers. You don’t have to be an economist to realise this is not a viable industry; one that will lose, not make, money for Tasmania in the foreseeable future.  Irrespective of their environmental stance, it is increasingly dawning on the Tasmanian public that they have been sold a dream that is turning into an economic nightmare.

So why do the Liberals keep up the ad-nauseum mantra that the incumbent government has ‘failed’ and must ‘work with them’ to ‘grow’ an industry that clearly does not work in economic and governance terms?  It has a lot to do with perception, and the ability in today’s political and media climate to sell certain groups of voters simplistic, reductive statements that, while often not true, can appear true if repeated often and forcefully enough.  Slogans and phrases like ‘stop the boats’, ‘axe the tax’, and ‘illegitimate government’ have permeated Opposition tactics at a Federal level and the state Liberals have been only too happy to import them and even add a few of their own.

Read any media release by Hodgman and you will see he is unable to refer to the IGA forestry talks without first putting the word ‘disastrous’ before them. The peace deal genuinely hoped for by so many Tasmanians to put an end to decades of conflict in our forests is referred to always as the ‘so called’ peace deal. Hodgman can’t bring himself to allow even the idea of agreement without disparaging it, which isn’t surprising given his fundamental,  entrenched opposition to the peace process.  As he wrote on his website this week, the Liberals ‘have opposed it from day one’ (2).  ‘Job-destroying’, ‘failed process’, ‘tear up the deal’, ‘minority Labor-Green experiment’, ‘no mandate’ and ‘call an election’ all feature liberally in Hodgman’s communication around the IGA process.

The truth is, the Tasmanian Liberals don’t want the IGA peace talks to work. They want to see them fail. Hodgman constantly calls for bipartisanship and says Lara Giddings should work with him to fix the forest industry, yet he has spent the entire 2 years of the IGA talks actively obstructing and talking down the peace process at every turn. And despite the massive losses posted by Forestry Tasmania year after year, he continues to sell false hope to vulnerable Tasmanian timber communities that the native forest industry will somehow magically become profitable, despite the weight of economic data saying otherwise.
Many commentators (3) have noted that the current political and media climate seems to contain more negativity and personal attacks than ever before seen. In this climate it’s understandable that a proportion of the Australian public may have been seduced by the years of slogans and smear campaigns, and are only just now starting to question whether what they have been told by certain politicians and media outlets matches up with reality.

In the short term, politicians can get away with carping and criticizing, tearing at the performance and policies of the other side without their own performance and policies coming under scrutiny.  But voters are finally waking up to these kinds of tactics. In the long term, all political parties will be judged on their actions and not on the words or the mud they sling.

In relentlessly pursuing a native forest industry in Tasmania’s old growth forests despite overwhelming evidence that this industry is damaging the state economically, socially and environmentally,  the Tasmanian Liberal Party have abandoned all pretence of good governance.

Their policy to grow an industry that has bled our state of hundreds of millions of dollars flies in the face of commonsense and defies the laws of economics.  It’s time Tasmanians called the Liberal party to account for their flaky and irresponsible forest policy, and demand that the Opposition leader show true leadership to work with the IGA process, not against it.


John Lawrence on Tasmanian Times, Monday:  Forestry Tasmania: Wilful deception and crass incompetence