Last week, Tasmania’s so-called ‘forest peace talks’ broke down after two-years of negotiation between timber industry and environmental lobby representatives. Soon after this was announced, the Wilderness Society’s Lyndon Schneiders was arrogantly asserting on ABC News that: “The big sawmillers have refused to move so we have to go where its going to hurt...and where we’re going is into the domestic market place...we are going to the buyers of their products”.
Within days, online lobby group GetUp! had launched a ‘Save Tasmania’s Forests’ campaign against Harvey Norman and Bunnings. GetUp!’s campaign director and former Wilderness Society operative, Paul Oosting, reportedly justified this on “information that large sawmillers blocked a deal on the basis that reduced (timber) volumes would prevent them meeting contracts”. Clearly, the timber industry is slated to lose irrespective of whether or not it signs a ‘peace’ agreement.
A day later in Hobart, a protest against timber company Ta Ann Tasmania was manned by just 10 placard-bearers amidst insider reports that the forest protest ‘community’ are fatigued. Meanwhile, Schneiders himself followed-up with an opinion article published by the Fairfax media in which he blamed the industry for the breakdown of the ‘peace talks’. By the week’s end, timber harvesting had been halted at a coupe blockaded by environmental splinter group, Still Wild Still Threatened.
The speed with which these protests were enacted suggests that the environmental lobby may have orchestrated the breakdown of the ‘peace talks’. If so, it would mirror tactics used for over 20-years by environmental lobbyists who have entered past processes, such as the Salamanca Agreement and the Regional Forest Agreements, espousing compromise, only to subsequently withdraw in a blaze of publicity and new protests when their demands are not met. It seems that they see the publicity flowing from protests as being far more likely to deliver their wish lists.
While the media described these new protests as signifying a resumption of Tasmania’s ‘forest wars’, they’d never really ended. During the conduct of the ‘peace talks’, various non-participatory environmental lobby groups had continued their campaigns, including the targetting of international wood products customers by ‘Markets for Change’, and an idealistic young school teacher sitting atop a Tasmanian tree using the Internet to broadcast skewed anti-forestry pespectives to the world. Several environmental groups had gone further and declared that they would continue protesting even if a ‘peace agreement’ was signed if it was to sanction some semblance of an ongoing timber industry. Clearly, zealotry and compromise are difficult bedfellows.
However, Schneiders' intemperate 'call-to-arms' and these subsequent new protests have also shone a light on the nature of the 'peace talks'. In particular, that they were conducted against a thinly-veiled backdrop of threat whereby the industry was expected to either agree to an unbalanced outcome or be destroyed by a resumption of spurious campaigns of misinformation targetting its banks, shareholders and markets - similar to what had played such a critical role in bringing them to the table in the first place. It is common knowledge that at least one industry representative was told that 'we will do to you what we did to Gunns unless you agree to our demands'.
The Gillard Government could be construed as being a party to this blackmail by dangling a $100 million carrot for Tasmania to be issued only if the timber industry agreed to capitulate to demands for huge new national parks nominated by the environmental lobby. Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke described this as a “wonderful, wonderful opportunity for Tasmania” as though a one-off $100 million payment spread over a 14-year period, could in any significant way make-up for the loss of more than half of an industry that just a few years ago was generating $700 million per annum and employing thousands.
Also, the conduct of the talks against a backdrop of ongoing anti-forestry campaigns could never give the industry any confidence that an agreed peace negotiated with those environmental groups repesented at the negotiating table would be respected by other elements of the environmental lobby, who in most cases, were outraged at being excluded from the negotiations.
As the survival of both the federal and state minority Labor Government’s relies on largely aquiescing to the demands of their Greens political partners, the unbecoming nature of this process has been ignored and few are questioning the morality of allowing the environmental lobby to force ideological outcomes through the reputational slander of resource-use industries.
Regardless of the broader Tasmanian forestry outcome, it is clear that the earlier success of targetting Gunns and its pulp mill project in this way has vindicated a tactic which is certain to be re-deployed in the future. Indeed, mining companies showing interest in mineral resources in north western Tasmania are already on-notice as the next target for campaigns of misinformation intended to erode the support of their bankers, shareholders and customers.
The Competition and Consumer Act 2010 (formerly the Trade Practices Act) protects companies from campaigns to incite boycotts which unfairly restrict trade. However, it gives an exemption to boycotts which ‘relate to environmental protection’ thereby denying targeted resource-use companies their normal right to complain to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).
This might be a justifiable exemption where poorly regulated primary industries are likely to substantially damage the environment. However, where this is not the case, it gives environmental activists an extraordinary carte blanche to prosecute unwarranted consumer boycotts by distorting or exaggerating the true nature of environmental threats posed by targeted companies and their products.
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