Native forest timber production has long been a vexed issue for the Labor Party in Australia’s most progressive state. For the Victorian ALP, including the incumbent Andrews Government, it has always necessitated striking a workable balance between the party’s traditional worker/union base and its now much larger, urbane middle to upper class base which is largely addicted to environmental causes.
Right now, it seems like the latter are winning handsomely as the Andrews Government presides over a crisis in the state’s native hardwood industry which is looking like turning tragic for several thousand, mainly rural, workers who plan and manage commercial forestry, log forests, haul logs, process logs, manufacture products from processed wood, and retail those products.
The crisis has been manufactured by the Andrews Government’s delay (or refusal?) in signing a Timber Release Plan (TRP) which was submitted to it last July. The TRP is an instrument by which the Government periodically releases specific harvesting coupes to the timber industry, via its commercial forestry agency VicForests.
By not signing the new TRP, the Government has forced the industry to access a few remaining coupes still available under the previous TRP, many of which have been significantly diminished by the government’s application of new reserves for every detected presence of various fauna species. As these coupes have progressively dried-up, the industry has been tipped into a crisis that is effectively crippling the livelihoods of its businesses, their contractors, and workers through-out the supply chain. As a result, some have been forced to seek work elsewhere, and may never return to the industry.
This comes at a time when the government is considering the renewal of Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs) which apply to Victoria on the one hand; while on the other hand it continues to face incessant demands from environmental activists and their ‘green-left’ supporter base to either close down the industry outright, or to transition it into imagined plantations.
When asked to explain the situation to Parliament recently, Premier Andrews said the Government had yet to sign the TRP because they are “following the process to get the planning right”. This was a curious statement because the TRP has been ready to sign for so long, but is apparently rooted in an undisclosed Government plan to further expand the state’s parks and conservation reserves system. This will reportedly include creating substantial new reserves along a proposed ‘Sea to Summit’ bushwalking track in East Gippsland which has been planned by local environmental activist groups in conjunction with personnel from the Department of Environment, Land, Planning and Water. The government’s commercial forestry agency, VicForests, wasn’t even consulted despite the proposed bushwalking track being designed to traverse through State Forest wood production zones in which planned harvesting was due to start. The whole process seems to have been specifically designed to ensure that new buffers and reserves established along the planned track route would reduce the timber supply available to regional sawmills.
The current impasse denying the industry access to its resource, suggests that the Victorian Government would prefer to suspend the industry (in the peak of its harvesting season) while it makes new forest policy on the run, despite having already initiated a long-term process – the RFA Modernisation Project – which is meant to determine the future of native forest timber production. In the absence of any public disclosure of why the government continues to delay/refuse to sign to TRP, Premier Andrews recently tried to reassure those affected that there is nothing to worry about because his government’s position “is not to be playing politics with these industries, these jobs and these communities."
Unfortunately, this doesn’t fit with the government’s behaviour in the ‘Sea to Summit’ episode, as well as its 2018 outsourcing of oversight of the RFA Modernisation Project to the Royal Society of Victoria – a body of mostly conservation scientists – which openly supports the Victorian Greens’ so-called ‘Great Forest National Park’ policy. If this proposed new national park was to be declared, it would kill-off most of the state’s timber industry with the loss of over 2,000 jobs. Indeed, prior to last November’s Victorian Election, the Andrews Government was reportedly poised to commit to declaring the ‘Great Forest National Park’ but was eventually dissuaded by the CFMEU.
It seems clear that the Andrews Government has little enthusiasm for maintaining the state’s native forest timber industry. Indeed, when questioned about the current industry crisis several weeks ago, Premier Andrews said: “I think this industry faces challenges far beyond the Timber Release Plan, as important as that is, I think there are some broader considerations." A reasonable interpretation of that comment is that the Victorian Government believes the greatest challenge facing the industry is its unpopularity – both politically and socially – and its recent actions suggest that the government is addressing this ‘challenge’ by making it harder for the industry to survive.
In reality, the industry has already faced years of progressive decline forced by Government appeasement of environmental ideology. Yet few environmental ideologues or their supporters acknowledge that the industry operates within only a 6% portion of Victoria’s public forests, and when the supposedly dire environmental impacts regularly ascribed to it are viewed in this context, they morph into spurious claims. Despite this need for perspective, sections of the mainstream media have long demonstrated an agenda to promulgate grossly distorted portrayals of the industry – such as last week’s appalling article by Ross Gittins in The Age – which feeds a misinformed environmental ideology both within the community and it seems amongst the ranks of the state bureaucracy.
Over several decades, this has undoubtedly contributed to what is now obviously a process of starving the industry of its resource. Apart from regular forest reservations typically announced as populist election-eve commitments, a range of bureaucratic environmental policies and processes are also incrementally reducing log supply by creating automatic buffers of 12 ha around every detection of Leadbeater’s Possum, as well as larger reserves of 100 ha for detections of various owl species, and 500 ha for the spotted quoll. With the exception of Leadbeater’s Possum, these provisions were included in good faith in departmental forest management plans prepared around 25 years ago when there was far more timber harvesting and less forest reservation. However, they are now unnecessarily ‘over-the-top’ given that biodiversity conservation is already so well catered for in the 94% of Victorian forests that are not subject to timber production.
The more recently introduced Leadbeater’s Possum provision is strongly indicative of a government determination to slowly displace the industry from its already limited resource base. The 2014 Leadbeater’s Possum Advisory Group recommendation to establish 12 ha buffers around every new colony detection in wood production forests, came with a proviso that there should be a ceiling of 200 new buffers. At the time, the possum was thought to be so rare that few of these buffers would be needed. However, within two years of switching to an improved survey method, the 200 new possum buffers ceiling had been easily reached and well exceeded. After concerns that these excessive buffer declarations were significantly reducing the available timber supply, the Andrews Government conducted a review which decided to ignore the 200 buffer upper limit and continue to place buffers around any new possum detection. With some 500 new possum colonies detected since 2015, the automatic 12 ha buffer provision has significantly reduced the industry’s access to its already limited available resource.