Many of us have stories to tell about forestry. At ABC television’s recent Q & A session held in Hobart, disquiet seeped across the room the minute the word forestry was uttered. From the sneering, sniping and twittering that filled the screens, it was clear to all of Australia that Tasmanians have a lot of unfinished business in their forests. And it has nothing to do with felling more trees.

The Inter - Governmental Agreement (IGA) that is currently being negotiated is intended to bring calm and resolution. But it is a process that lacks a critical context and without genuine reconciliation, it will almost certainly fail. If current negotiations are to have any hope of succeeding, Tasmania needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to expose the stories and hear the suffering that Tasmanians have witnessed and experienced through the past 30 years of government policy.

A South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission would give victims and witnesses an opportunity to share their experiences in an open forum of public hearings. Such a Commission would need to be convened in a spirit of shared understanding that no-one who has stepped into the forestry debate has not been affected by it. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission model was first attempted in South Africa after the abolition of apartheid, it was generally regarded to be the crucial component of the transition to a full and free democracy.

Associate Professor Libby Lester, of the University of Tasmania, has been studying how public debate has played out in Tasmania in relation to the forests conflict as part of an Australian Research Council-funded project. She warns of the dangers of cherry picking only parts of the South African process - that is, the initial step of taking elite participants behind closed doors to establish trust and negotiate possible solutions, without then giving the wider community a forum to articulate wounds and imagine a shared future.

“As many people as possible need to feel they’ve had a voice in this process if they are going to accept the proposed solution,” she says.

The IGA representatives currently negotiating were not elected or nominated. The community has no knowledge of what is being discussed apart from the odd tantrum that sees someone leave the room, express their discontent to the media and run off to the far end of the field until they are lured back in. The word compromise keeps rearing its head and it seems no-one is willing to give ground. Why not? Because everyone feels they’ve paid too much already.

In our small community any one of us can name people who have suffered as contractors, been vilified as protestors, damaged as business people, insulted as advocates, and injured as residents and landowners through the past thirty years of unrest.

Too many good people have been marked as traitors by simply expressing their belief that Tasmania needs a new way forward beyond the current forestry model. We all have an opinion about seeing our landscapes cleared, our wildlife lose habitat and our economy slide backwards. There have been enough scandals involving claims of corruption, bias and acts of foul play to fill many full-length documentaries.

We deserve a full and free democracy in Tasmania where no-one lives in fear of what they may say, where they may work or what they may protest. With our economic outlook poor and our transition from a 19th century extraction economy to a 21st century creative economy riding almost solely on the back of MONA, Tasmania needs a new sense of community. For too long a bitter divide has been allowed to shadow our lives and limit our potential to imagine a new Tasmania. A Tasmania vested in the positive opportunities of our location. A Tasmania built upon the careful
use of resources we find in our natural environment and our growing agricultural, entrepreneurial and creative endeavors throughout this state.

We have an opportunity to transform an increasingly toxic inward-looking political and social environment. If a form of resolution did arise from a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the positive effects for Tasmania could be felt nationally and internationally. We may reclaim the unique sense of community solidarity Tasmanians once enjoyed. We may begin to understand the potential Tasmania has to embrace the future.

The emotional and economic prosperity that may flow from such an outcome is unquantifiable.

Isn’t it worth the attempt?

Heather Rose is a Telstra Tasmanian Business Woman of the Year, past Chairman of Festival of Voices and an award-winning novelist.