With Gippsland’s Hazelwood power station set to close in March next year with the immediate loss of 750 jobs, it is astonishing that the Andrews Government appears to be preparing to declare new forested national park/s that could potentially result in the loss of up to a further 2,200 jobs and annual economic activity of $570 million largely in the same region.
Central to this is the so-called ‘Great Forest National Park’ proposal developed by environmental groups and backed by the Greens. Its initial rationale was the protection of the endangered Leadbeater’s Possum from timber harvesting, but in the face of an evolving reality that the possum is thriving rather than facing imminent extinction, the pro-park rhetoric has broadened to include spurious claims about more tourism, and better carbon and water outcomes. If declared, the new park of over 350,000 hectares would virtually kill-off Victoria’s native hardwood industry.
Already, one-third of Victoria’s public native forests are in national parks, and a further one-third is contained in other formal and informal conservation reserve categories. Most of the rest is unsuited to commercial use and so is effectively also acting as a lesser form of conservation reserve. Overall, just 7% of Victoria’s public forest is available and suitable for the most contentious use, timber production.
Declaring national parks has become politically attractive for State Governments over the past 20-years as a means of showcasing their environmental credentials. However, the original national parks concept of protecting areas with special or unique conservation values has now been largely debased by its regular misappropriation as a populist political tool to evict resource use industries even from areas containing few conservation values. Just two recent examples are the reservations of extensive cypress pine woodlands in central-western NSW, and the Murray Valley river red gum forests/woodlands in both Victoria and NSW. Both areas are amongst the most modified landscapes on the continent and had supported significant timber industries for at least a century.
In Victoria, the politically-expedient misuse of the national parks concept began under Labor’s Bracks Government when it became common-place to announce new national parks during election campaigns prior to any scientific evaluation of conservation values. Bracks admitted in his 2012 biography that his party had an unofficial policy to ultimately end all timber harvesting in Victoria’s public forests.
That this remains a dominant view within the party was exemplified soon after the election of the Andrews Labor Government when its newly appointed Environment Minister publicly expressed delight that the ‘Great Forest National Park’could now proceed ... before later adding as an afterthought that, of course, this would only be after an appropriate process of consultation and evaluation. This says much about Victorian Labor’s approach to forest policy determinations during and since the Bracks era, whereby evaluation and community consultation has lacked objectivity and genuine consideration of alternative views while exhibiting all the hallmarks of ‘going through the motions’ to meet an already pre-determined outcome.
After a year in office, the Andrews Government established the Forest Industry Taskforce (FIT) in late 2015. This forum of environmental group, union, and timber industry representatives is expected to map a future direction for Victoria’s wood production forests. This is a re-run of the similar process overseen by Tasmania’s Labor-Greens minority government from 2010 – 13 which, after $2 million and two-and-a half-years expended in often fraught negotiations, would in all likelihood have ended in stalemate but for last-minute interventions by the then Federal Labor Government offering hundreds of millions of dollars to the industry to force a politically acceptable ‘agreement’. Within a year, a new State Liberal Government had overturned it.
It isn’t hard to see why such a ‘talk-fest’ is attractive to a government intent on forest policy reform. It shifts the pressure make a decision onto the main protagonists, and while it may be harder to control the outcome, there is always hope that the industry may unexpectedly agree to its own partial or full demise. However, as was found in Tasmania, the downside is that such a mechanism effectively outsources democracy to just two self-interested and polarised stakeholders and thereby denies a voice to the full range of other community stakeholders who use forests; as well as ignoring the input of the scientists and practitioners who actually manage the forests.
In so doing, it elevates the arms-length observations, romantic notions, conspiracy theories, and skewed opinions of environmental activists far above what they deserve. This creates an inherently unequal negotiation between one side with nothing material to give and nothing to lose (the environmentalists) against another that has a material stake in the outcome and can really only lose (the industry). All that the industry can gain from agreeing to a compromise is a hopeful promise from its opponents to desist from future protest – a hugely optimistic expectation given the Tasmanian experience where four groups, as well as Greens luminaries Bob Brown and Christine Milne, had vowed to keep protesting even if an agreement was reached.
Understandably, environmental activists like this approach and a recent online statement by the ACF’s FIT delegate suggests it may have been instigated by the Andrews Government at their behest:
We tried this approach to protect Tassie's forests and it worked – until it was derailed by political self-interest. We all learnt invaluable lessons. We’re trying again in Victoria and it seems to be working.
While the dire and complex situation facing Tasmanian forestry in 2010 in the wake of the global financial crisis may have warranted trying such an approach, the situation in Victoria in 2015 was vastly different. Unlike Tasmania, the Victorian industry had already endured cut-backs and rationalisation over the past 15-years and was in a relatively stable place, not withstanding pulpwood market challenges in East Gippsland.
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