When a voluntary media spokesperson for the Institute of Foresters of Australia calls for the silencing of critics, alarm bells should ring. For Mark Poynter’s piece (“Crossing the line from academia to activism” 9 April, 2010) those bells ought toll loudly. In response to a call for reforms made by 26 University of Tasmania academics in relation to the regulation of forestry in Tasmania, Poynter seems to be of the view that academics should be “seen, but not heard”; or at least when it comes to the contentious debate about governance of Tasmanian forestry.

Poynter’s criticisms relate to an open letter from these academics, which was reported and published in The Mercury newspaper in the lead up to the recent Tasmanian state election. The letter called for major reform of Tasmanian legislation, so far as it applied (or failed to apply) to the regulation of the forestry industry.

Regrettably, it seems that Poynter has failed to carefully read the very letter that he attacks. In his opinion piece, he says that “Tasmanian forestry is not exempt from environmental, planning and resource management laws”. He points to “the development of state-based Codes of Practice” and makes the unfounded assertion that “forestry operations are more highly regulated than other land use activities and so do not need to follow the same approval procedures.”

Firstly, Tasmania’s so called “regulation” of the forestry industry is self-regulation. The basic unit of regulation is a Forest Practices Plan. Such a plan controls how forest practices can be conducted on any land. However, the regulator of forest practices, the Forest Practices Authority, delegates the responsibility to certify that plan. In almost all instances, that power is delegated to an employee of either the state forest manager of the land to be logged (Forestry Tasmania), or the company that is responsible for the logging operations (invariably, Gunns Limited). In other words, the industry regulates itself through a system of entrenched conflict of interest.

Further, forestry operations in Tasmania side-step the state’s resource management and planning system; this ensures the forestry industry does not have to face independent assessment by the Tasmanian Resource Management and Planning Appeal Tribunal, or third-party appeals against land use decisions or other mechanisms of accountability. In other words, the forestry industry is only accountable to itself.

Poynter next attacks the “relevant knowledge” of the academics who were signatories to the letter. With great audacity, Poynter notes that some of the academics in question work in “unrelated disciplines, such as philosophy, sociology, accounting and economics”. It is an extraordinary claim that accounting and economics are disciplines unrelated to the regulation of the forestry industry. If Poynter had paid attention to the public debate about the forest industry over the last 30 years in Tasmania, he would be aware that accounting and economics have been major components of that debate. If he had paid attention to the developments in Tasmania over the last 10 years, he would note that one of the big drivers of the public debate about forestry has been the proposed Gunns pulp mill, with the claimed financial benefits for Tasmania. If Poynter had examined the forestry industry over the last 30 years, he would have noticed that there was an ongoing decrease in employment in the industry as a whole (with the ongoing sociological consequences) and constant tension between log truck businesses and Gunns Limited, with regard to payments under logging contracts.

The fact is, the forestry industry is large, complex and has huge economic, accounting, corporate, social and ethical implications for Tasmania.

The collective expertise of the letter’s signatories (who also include biologists specialising in forest ecology) eminently qualifies them in terms of the letter’s content. Poynter’s argument that only foresters should comment on the regulation of forestry is a recipe for further self-regulation, a manifestly inadequate approach to management of public forests.

Poynter’s argument suggests the introduction of censorship, which would have the effect of preventing academics from airing their own views. If academics are prevented from speaking publicly because their views are not expressly endorsed by the university within which they are employed, then we will see a significant stifling of academic freedom and public debate. That may well be what Poynter aims for.

Tasmania has a small scientific community, and research work in the forestry industry is limited and the funding in a large part is controlled by the Forest Practices Authority and by Forestry Tasmania. Academics that are critical of either of those institutions, or of the wider industry, face ostracism.

Tasmania, like any society, benefits from free speech. It benefits from academics expressing their views. This is even more so because the public debate is skewed by the enormous resources of the institutional players of the forestry industry, including Forestry Tasmania, Gunns Ltd, the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, Timber Communities Australia and, also, Poynter’s very own organisation, the Institute of Foresters of Australia.

Roland Browne has been a legal practitioner in Tasmania for over 20 years. 10 of those years were spent at the Legal Aid Commission of Tasmania, where he rose to the position of Manager of the state’s legal practice. Since 2001, he has been in partnership in private practice, conducting general civil and criminal litigation and anti-discrimination cases. He has particular interest in firearm control and environmental issues.

First published on Online Opinion HERE

Excerpts of Mark Poynter’s original article on Tasmanian Times, HERE

The academics’ Open Letter, published on Tasmanian Times HERE