So Julia Gillard has declared that she wants the parties who started the so-called Tasmanian forest peace process “to do everything they can to use their abilities to silence those who haven’t gone with the mainstream consensus”.
I lived with the silence of Tasmania for too many years. And now the leaders of The Wilderness Society, Environment Tasmania, the ACF and the Tasmanian Greens have signed up to a deal that seeks to achieve what even Gunns failed in doing: silencing the rage Tasmanians felt with the destruction of their land and the corruption of public life that for a time became its necessary corollary. It is perhaps the greatest own goal in Australian political history.
For these environmentalists have managed to negotiate a deal that extraordinarily manages to resuscitate at vast public subsidy (reportedly $350 million) the worst aspects of a dead forest industry employing less than a thousand people; lock in social conflict for another decade; empower in Forestry Tasmania a rogue government agency that sees itself as the real power on the island and which works to undermine governments; and delivered the island to political stagnation by ensuring forestry remains the island’s defining political issue.
If this wasn’t grotesque enough the Federal Government’s National Audit Office’s report into the mishandling and misspending of some of the early rounds of this money by Tasmanian government instrumentalities can give the Australian taxpayer every confidence that much of the rest of the $350 million will be misspent, misdirected and misused. Taxpayers can also be assured that if past government bail-outs of the Tasmanian forest industry are any guide, a not insignificant sum of their money will end up funding political groups and campaigns seeking to promote the self-serving interests of a Soviet style industry by entrenching division and stymying political debate and economic change in Tasmania. Some millions of dollars allocated for ‘communications’ will no doubt communicate very well just one message about Tasmania’s logging industry.
And all this in return for what?
The only environmental outcome that is locked in was one already in place: the 123,000 hectares of World Heritage Area secured by Bob Brown and Christine Milne in negotiations with Tony Burke in February. And this in the face of initial opposition from NGO negotiators who worried it might damage their forest deal process. Nick McKim’s claim that there was “legislated protection from logging for over 500,000 hectares”, is misleading. There is a moratorium on logging in those high conservation value forests that could fall over at any time, and almost certainly will.
Astonishingly, in a day that will become historic in their own annals, the environmentalists’ leaders have managed to split their own movement in a way that will take many years for it to recover from. The greatest sadness is that it locks Tasmania into a conflict it should have ended.
Beyond that there is only what State Greens leader Nick McKim and Environment Tasmania head Phill Pullinger have called ‘pathways’ to future environmental outcomes.
What is a pathway? Is it a forest? Is it a job? Well, no, it’s nothing really, just a confusion of two words, management babble disguising the truth that everything else is but a promise that may or may not happen later.
The formal protection of areas as reserves and national parks will not begin until October 2014, and then only if conservationists meet conditions that realistically will never be met.
Of the many disturbing aspects of the deal, perhaps the most grotesque is the already infamous ‘durability’ clause, under which conservation leaders sitting on a special council with loggers are expected to police and silence conservationists who protest. If they fail to silence their own, the deal is seen to have failed its durability criteria and new reserves promised in the deal do not go ahead and return to the loggers. But of course people will protest and they will be right to protest. The only thing the deal guarantees is the conservation movement at war with itself. Some deal. Some durability. The conservationists’ leaders may as well have self-immolated at the foot of Parliament House.
The second condition is that the forestry industry achieve Forestry Stewardship Council accreditation for its logging — something the industry spat on when conservationists urged it several years ago. Given its abysmal record and third world practices along with inevitable community opposition, this seems as likely as Julia Gillard winning The Voice. But the condition locks in those conservation groups that are signatories to the deal to campaigning for the industry’s logging practices, no matter how dreadful they are, in order to keep alive the promise of saving the forests.
Compounding these perversities there is the simple matter of power. By October 2014, all observers expect Liberal governments to be in power in both Tasmania and federally. In Tasmania the Liberal Party has been explicit that it will tear up the agreement. What then of the moratorium? Well it ends with those areas being once more logged using taxpayer subsidies.
Many fear that both governments will endorse and subsidise a grotesque new forest industry that logs native forest to fuel forest furnaces—so called bio-mass electricity generators — that could by government fiat be defined as a renewable energy source.
Such then is the pathway chosen.
It is possible for good people for the best of reasons to sometimes do the worst of things. If the integrity of the leaders of the environmental NGOs and the Tasmanian Greens Party should not be questioned, their judgement certainly can. Full credit though must go to Terry Edwards of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, Evan Rolley running the dubious state-subsidised Malay-owned Ta Ann, and Bob Gordon and Bob Annells at Forestry Tasmania. From a position of almost complete defeat they have returned the forestry industry to its pre–eminent position in Tasmanian public life and persuaded the environment movement to destroy itself. With bluster, flattery, bullying, and dogged persistence they have achieved the near impossible.
But if you care about the environment in Australia you will henceforth have to ask whether The Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation any longer serve your interests. Will they in the future question and campaign against corporate power or will they side with it as they have in Tasmania, recently trooping off to Japan to promote the Malay forest veneer company Ta Ann’s products? Will they stand up to governments or will they be seduced by their attentions, believing the flattering lie that their way is the way of environmental politics in the future?
While nationally the Greens Party under Christine Milne has been resolute in defending the environment and Tasmania’s forests, Tasmanian environmentalists would be right to ask if the Tasmanian parliamentary Greens (other than Kim Booth who showed courage in voting against the bill and his party) any longer particularly represent their interest or aspirations. At the forthcoming state election there would be many reasons for environmentalists to not vote Green and very few to support them. In their determination to achieve respectability, they seem to have become simply the third aspect of a conservative Tasmanian polity with no ideas or vision for the future. Could it be, that for Nick McKim, the decision to support the package proves his Meg Lees moment?
Julia Gillard’s celebration of the peace deal and her call for silencing came on May Day, the day that celebrates all those who went against the ‘mainstream consensus’ that workers shouldn’t be paid a living wage, that workers shouldn’t be treated with respect and dignity. Democracy is about many things, but silence and silencing are the death of democracy.
The forest peace deal was born in ignominy, with Gunns seeking to set up a native-forest-for-pulp-mill swap, a fact denied by environmental leaders at the time but acknowledged by Premier Lara Giddings in parliament. It continued in secrecy and was oiled with evasions, and concludes as a tragedy for Tasmania. Somehow, the conservationist leaders—instead of using the commercial death of the logging industry, changing social values, and new ideas of a renascent Tasmania to help build a different, better and united society — have condemned us all to endlessly repeat the sadness of recent decades.
I am writing this for all the people who for the last thirty years have stood up again and again against the Tasmanian ‘mainstream concensus’— who stood up for the land they loved and for an idea of a better Tasmania. They have watched, ever more distraught, as their battle has culminated in the last three years of secret deal making that has sold their sacrifices and beliefs down the drain.
At the end the only certainty and hope I have is this: I never signed up to the forest deal, not then and certainly not now. I don’t give a damn for durability clauses and special councils of loggers and conservation police. And I didn’t agree to be silenced, not by Paul Lennon, not by Gunns, and I won’t be now by The Wilderness Society and the ACF.
And in all this, I know I am very far from alone.
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