Will Michael O’Connor, powerful forestry division secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, block an effective Australian response to climate change?
It’s a worry for our economy because O’Connor is a key figure behind the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and soft left factional allies Martin Ferguson and Penny Wong – who, for one more day at least, control the portfolios that really matter: energy, water and climate.
O’Connor helped both Gillard and Ferguson into Parliament. In her maiden speech, Gillard acknowledged him as her ”closest confidante”, the “most committed of them all” to her Labor values, going back to her student days.
O’Connor should not be underestimated. If the secret of the Ferguson Left is its willingness to do deals with the Right, O’Connor has a record of going further and abandoning the ALP to support the Coalition. He helped bring down Paul Keating, organising (with the National Association of Forest Industries) the loggers blockade of Parliament House in January 1995 – a bitter protest during the regional forest agreement negotiations.
In an article for The Australian at the time, headlined ”Green agenda full of myths”, O’Connor railed against the environment movement’s campaign to ”cripple the forest and forest products industry by denying it access to native forests”.
The 350-truck blockade took place just as John Howard was ushered in as opposition leader and helped establish his image as the battlers’ friend, according to Australian National University forest economist Dr Judith Ajani, author of The Forest Wars (2007): “Australian voters witnessed the first display of Howard’s battlers versus Keating’s ‘special interest elites’: the core of a meticulously crafted election strategy.”
O’Connor features heavily in Ajani’s book, although he would not be interviewed for it. Others would. At one point, a bitter Keating calls O’Connor a ”Labor rat” who should be ”excommunicated” from the party.
Asked why he wasn’t kicked out, Keating said: ”Because people are too gutless, that’s why. And nobody these days likes the fights. They all want consensus results. Well you don’t get big issues resolved like this, just by consensus.”
O’Connor also helped sink Mark Latham’s tilt at federal office in 2004, swinging the CFMEU behind John Howard as the two main parties went toe-to-toe on Tasmanian forests policy. ”It is clear that the jobs of workers, the welfare of families and the future of timber communities are to be sold off to appease Bob Brown and the Wilderness Society,” O’Connor said of Latham’s forest policy.
It was a spectacular betrayal of the party, but Gillard later lined up with O’Connor, saying she was ”devastated” by Latham’s stance on Tasmanian forests, calling it a ”dreadful policy” and a ”shocking, shocking error”. O’Connor is the type of Laborite who sees the environment as a fashionable obsession of inner-city elites ‚Ä¶ job-destroyers hostile to the interests of workers. O’Connor calls it ”real Labor”.
”Real Labor doesn’t sell out workers,” he said once.
In Ajani’s telling, O’Connor is one of the forestry union’s ”economic troglodytes”, endlessly perpetuating a false industry-versus-environment movement conflict.
Behind that conflict, according to Ajani, is a deeper struggle of industry versus industry, between native forest logging and the plantation sector which grew so fast between the 1960s and the 1990s that it can now provide all of Australia’s sawn timber and pulp and paper needs.
Ajani argues O’Connor and the CFMEU, by fighting trenchantly to protect the old native forest logging sector, have sacrificed workers’ long-term interests, which lie in the growth of a sustainable plantation industry. That’s the win-win solution – more jobs, and our remaining native forests saved (with all the greenhouse and other immeasurable benefits that entails) – if the CFMEU could see it.
Instead of pushing for the win-win solution, O’Connor fights a rearguard action to preserve native forest logging. For example he fought against the Green Building Council’s star ratings system, which gave extra points for use of timber accredited under the internationally recognised Forest Stewardship Council scheme.
He wanted points to be given for timber accredited under an industry-backed scheme, the Australian Forestry Standard, which allows native forest logging. Late last year he got it, calling the decision a “great breakthrough”.
His quotes were instructive. “This took four years to achieve. I have little faith in the covenant of the Green Building Council and they have no credibility with us,” he told The Australian Financial Review. O’Connor cannot abide a market-based scheme for tenants who want to occupy a green commercial building – or landlords who want to build one – which stipulates no timber from native forests.
O’Connor also has been deputy chairman of the Innovation Minister, Kim Carr’s, pulp and paper industry strategy group, which wants to promote burning waste from native forest logging as renewable energy, and is arguing to ensure international carbon accounting rules do not count emissions from native forest logging.
The forest wars have a parallel in the energy sector, where the fossil fuel industry faces competition from an emerging renewables sector. Under Martin Ferguson, over the course of Labor’s first term a stream of decisions have favoured the incumbents over the challengers. The saving grace was that the government finally established the 20 per cent renewable energy target by 2020.
Ferguson sees the parallel, accusing the Australian Greens leader, Bob Brown, of “seeking to demonise the coal industry in the same way he has sought to demonise the forest industry”.
The pity is that, despite the rhetoric about saving jobs, when these Labor figures are duchessed by the captains of old industry, the result is public handouts to employers, and no focus on retraining or assistance for employees, as we saw during emissions trading scheme negotiations.
O’Connor and his allies will fight tooth and nail for the industries of the past. They do not see the potential of the green industries of the future.
So Gillard has gone out of her way to avoid a mandate for action on climate change, with a deeply cynical platform comprising the citizens assembly (a joke), misleading slogans about ”no new dirty coal-fired power stations” and bitsy ad-hockery on renewables, energy efficiency and ”cash for clunkers”. Her best mandate comes – almost in reverse – from Coalition warnings that Labor under Gillard would bring in a carbon tax ”as night follows day”. If only! If she wins today, and her mates from the Ferguson Left get the same portfolios, we’ll know what we’re in for.
Originally Published at http://www.smh.com.au/business/labors-climate-enemies-within-20100820-138tb.html