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Forest agreement best bet for Tasmania's prospects

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Our National Director, Lyndon Schneiders, offers his personal take on the Tasmanian Forest Agreement. This article first appeared in The Australian on 24 November 2012.

More than the forests or the timber industry, it is the Tasmanian community and Tasmanian economy that most desperately needed the forest peace agreement that has been reached between environment groups, unions and industry.

For it is the Tasmanian community, split asunder for years by the battle for forests, that has been affected most by this debate. The scars are deep and the uncertainty and constant political heat around this issue have created a serious dent in investor confidence in the state and cast a shadow over the prospects for sustainable economic growth and opportunity.

It is for these reasons, not just for the forests or the workers, that the agreement now needs political support to give Tasmania a new start. The fate of this agreement now rests on the shoulders of the independent members of the Tasmanian upper house, who have the power to bring it to life.

For months negotiators from industry and the environment movement have wrestled with the massive barriers to peace and with the ghosts and memories of past battles.

From the environment side we sought the agreement from industry that the protection of the magnificent old-growth, wilderness and high-conservation-value forests was essential to enable a sustainable and competitive industry to grow, based increasingly on well-managed plantations and certified through the Forest Stewardship Council processes.

From the industry side, we were asked to put aside long-held policy positions and support a more gradual and managed transition out of native forest logging and to actively support employment and industry growth and investment. Together we have also had to put aside years of mistrust and conflict to agree that our interests are intertwined and that both sides need each other for the forests to be protected and for the industry to have a future.

This has not been easy for any of us and the collapse of the talks some weeks ago was the consequence of a gradual accumulation of tension over months of disagreements, sometimes major, sometimes minor.

But the collapse also provided a pressure release and the chance to ponder the alternative path. That path, though familiar, was not pretty. Post collapse of the talks, it became clear that the marketplace did not want wood from contested and controversial forests, but it was also equally clear that the public wanted agreement rather than an imposed solution. An imposed solution would not protect the forests, and no deal would destroy the industry.

There will be opposition to this agreement. From my side, many people have committed their lives to the protection of the forests. They have been thrown in jail for their beliefs, had their careers curtailed and some have been physically assaulted. Many places they have loved have been flattened. The wellspring of anger is deep and they want all the forests protected, and now.

The environment groups that have signed this agreement understand the anger and know the losses but we do not see a viable plan B. We could return to the battle and perhaps convince the marketplace to refuse to use wood from Tasmania. But the industry and its supporters would dig in, as they have done for 30 years.

That is why we believe that only through agreement can change come in a way that gives everyone hope for the future in Tasmania.

On the industry side it is also clear that many have fought for their industry, many have lost their jobs and seen their communities divided. Businesses have gone bust and hopes have been dashed. For them, the prospect of agreement with the hated greenies could be seen as failure.

But, in response, I can attest from across the table that the negotiators from industry and the unions have fought and argued for their people and their industry with passion and conviction. They have not sold you out. They have sought to find a new pathway in a perfect storm of bad economic conditions, including the loss of export markets and the high Aussie dollar, and a recognition that consumers no longer want wood from high-conservation-value forests.

So people may well rail against this agreement, as is their right in a democracy. And perhaps the debate will get heated in the short term. But I'm going to back this agreement with all my might because a pathway has opened that was inconceivable in Tasmania even five years ago.

Understandably, this agreement will be buffeted by the realities of party politics and the cut and thrust of debate. But to the Tasmanian Liberals, who have repeatedly vowed to tear up the agreement, I urge a moment of reflection and a consideration of the economic opportunities that can arise: the investment in plantation products, the opportunity of Forest Stewardship Council certification, of the value-adding opportunities and the spirit of agreement and co-operation that this agreement promises. And of peace in the forests and the benefits of preservation.

As for the members of the Tasmanian upper house, who will determine whether this agreement lives or dies, I and my colleagues call for your support and your recognition that it has been conceived with genuine goodwill and in the spirit of co-operation and optimism for the future for all Tasmanians.