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Same old, same old: Tasmanian old growth forests are a lost opportunity

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 6 October 2004

Tasmanians have seen it all before. Federal politicians, lured by the bait of green voters in urban marginal seats, announce that they will save Tasmania’s old growth forests. Mark Latham’s announcement yesterday of another massive increase in no-go areas of Tasmania for the logging industry and $800 million to help workers and business effected by the lock up will no doubt attract urban greens, but do nothing to end the bitter forestry debate that bedevils Tasmania.

Bob Hawke set up an inquiry into Tasmania’s forests in 1987 and used the results to lock up thousands of hectares of high conservation value forests. Green groups supported Hawke in droves in the 1990 election. In 1994, Paul Keating attempted to end the annual fight between loggers and the conservation movement over which areas of Tasmania could be logged by announcing an exhaustive research and consultation process that would result in a 20-year Commonwealth-Tasmania Regional Forest Agreement (RFA)(pdf 86.6KB). That process, which cost millions of dollars in research and meetings, resulted in the signing of the RFA by John Howard and then Tasmanian Premier Tony Rundle in 1997. This agreement was meant to provide long-term security for the timber industry and acceptance by the conservation movement of the environmental outcomes.

The RFA has never been accepted by Bob Brown’s Green Party, and the Wilderness Society. Both gain enormous political oxygen from the conflict over Tasmania’s old-growth forests. For Brown, every other political issue is secondary to conserving more of Tasmania’s trees. The Wilderness Society runs successful fundraising emotive campaigns about ancient trees being "slaughtered".


On the other hand, the biggest forestry company in Tasmania, Gunns, has not helped the timber industry’s cause through its belligerent attitude to conservationists. And until recently, Forestry Tasmania, the government run timber company, has been exempt from Freedom of Information laws - a state of affairs that has encouraged allegations of secrecy and corruption.

Mr Latham has missed an opportunity to advance the forests debate in Tasmania with his politically expedient announcement yesterday. Another federal intervention in Tasmania, without any state government support, only perpetuates the bickering of the extremists on both sides of the fence, in the same way that the RFA process and Hawke’s intervention in 1990 did.

Both federal and Tasmanian state politicians could take a leaf out of the Canadian Province of Newfoundland when it comes to ending bitter wars over resources. In the past two decades, the Newfoundland’s major industry, fishing, has been the subject of numerous Canadian federal government interventions to prevent overfishing. But an inquiry set up by the Newfoundland government in 2003 has recommended that the Province jointly manage its fisheries with Ottawa and so end years of squabbling and uncertainty.

Tasmania and Canberra need to work co-operatively to ensure a more prosperous future for the state. A partnership approach to forestry, rather than another politically charged battle, would make a lot more sense. Unfortunately Mr Latham has missed that opportunity yesterday.

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First published in the Courier-Mail on September 5, 2004.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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