Malcolm Turnbull caves in to Tasmanian loggers

Last weekend, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull flew to Launceston for the Tasmanian Liberals’ yearly conference.

Accompanied by Premier Will Hodgman, Turnbull’s first stop was the timber yard of logging company Neville-Smith Forest Products, once a part of the now-fallen Gunns logging empire. Twenty years after John Howard signed the first Regional Forest Agreement with Tasmania, Turnbull was in town to give Tasmania’s loggers all they wanted for the next 20 years and more. There was not a protester in sight.

What a difference 20 years makes. Back in 1997, Howard was met at the Perth forest nursery with a peaceful protest headed by an Aboriginal Tasmanian wearing chains. Howard’s car was escorted slowly through the throng by beefy security guards walking at all four doors. One toppled over me. His pistol fell out of its holster and spun around on the asphalt between our faces before he grabbed it back. Senator Eric Abetz was outraged that the wilderness campaigner Geoff Law had allegedly left a dent in the prime ministerial car bonnet by not getting out of the way. Howard looked ashen and, after the signing, his car was driven out the back way, over a field of stubble, to avoid tangling with the environmentalists again.

These days prime ministers don’t announce they are coming and, under the pressure of logging and mining corporations, there are draconian new laws to deter effective citizen protests. The verdict in the High Court challenge on Tasmania’s version of these anti-protest laws, which has been challenged by Jessica Hoyt and me, will be handed down soon.

Regional Forest Agreements were the loggers’ victory documents. Howard went on to sign similar agreements with Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia. The purpose was to rid federal governments of their constitutional responsibility for the nation’s forest environments by handing it over to the states. In effect, the Regional Forest Agreements claim that state-guided logging is good for the environment and so national environmental laws are superfluous.

By 1995 the National Association of Forest Industries, with its impressive Canberra headquarters and a lobbying clout environmentalists could only dream of, was on a roll. An illegal but highly successful blockade of Parliament House in Canberra – for days 200 log trucks from all over the country ringed the citadel of democracy, forcing MPs to walk to work – coerced Paul Keating’s Labor government to roll over and agree to lucrative export woodchip quotas from logging the nation’s native forests.

A year after winning office in 1996, Howard’s Regional Forest Agreements handed custody of the forests to the states. The evolving laws to protect Australia’s nationally significant forests and wildlife were sidelined. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999 was applied to all activities in the nation except logging. The loggers couldn’t have been happier.

While the federal bureaucracy and global authorities listed as “critically endangered” creatures such as Victoria’s faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s possum, and the swift parrot, which is one of only two migratory parrots on Earth, the states ticked off on logging of their nesting sites. Both creatures have since moved rapidly towards extinction.

Appalled by the Regional Forest Agreements, thousands of Australians were arrested and many jailed for getting in the way of the loggers’ machines of extinction. Vast areas of ancient native forests have been clear-felled and firebombed in an industrial logging regime that eradicates every native plant, bird and animal to prevent competition with the commercial forest crops that replace them.

In 2004, the loggers’ union, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, took over Launceston’s Albert Hall on election eve, red flags flying, to give Howard a standing ovation for pulling the rug out from under Labor leader Mark Latham’s offer of $800 million to protect the World Heritage value forests of Tasmania. As a sop to the majority of the Australian electorate, which wanted the forests protected, Howard conceded forest reserves in places such as the Tarkine wilderness in north-west Tasmania. The Tarkine includes Australia’s largest tract of temperate rainforest and has attendant tall eucalypt forests. These are prime habitat for threatened species such as the Tasmanian devil and the world’s largest freshwater crayfish, Astacopsis gouldi.

In 2005, to test the absurdity of nationally listed rare and endangered wildlife being driven towards extinction while the federal government stood aside, we challenged Howard’s Regional Forest Agreement in the Federal Court. The case specified logging in the Wielangta Forest on Tasmania’s east coast. Justice Shane Marshall found in 2006 that clear-felling and burning the habitat of creatures such as the swift parrot, the giant Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle and the Wielangta stag beetle was illegal. Howard immediately signed a subsidiary document with Tasmania’s Labor premier, Paul Lennon, agreeing that they were protecting the creatures the court had found they weren’t. The court of appeal acceded.

The prime minister assured the loggers that their invasion of wild forests can go on “forever”. The new agreement is alive with weasel words and is committed to protecting no more forests at all.

In Launceston last week, Turnbull withdrew Howard’s commitment to the many Tasmanian forest reserves that lack national park or World Heritage status. The first question to Turnbull at his press conference was about the threat to endangered species of another 20 years of industrial logging, including in these previously reserved forests. Turnbull had no answer and passed the microphone to an understrapper.

What the prime minister did say was sobering. He assured the loggers that their invasion of wild forests can go on “forever”. The new agreement is alive with weasel words and is committed to protecting no more forests at all. Turnbull’s joint press release with Hodgman stated that “threatened species and the rich wilderness of Tasmania’s forests continue to be protected through a comprehensive system of reserves covering more than half of Tasmania’s land area, delivering some of the highest biodiversity protection in the world”.

Apparently the prime minister had not read Hodgman’s logging plans, which aim, even in conservation areas and regional reserves, to provide for “special species (i.e., rainforest) timber harvesting”. Hodgman’s documentation shows there to be 170,000 hectares of loggable rainforests within those regional reserves, and 55,000 hectares within the conservation areas, most of it in the north-west Tarkine wilderness, but also in the north-east highlands, in remnant rainforests set aside long ago but now open to exploitation.

Turnbull effectively signed the death warrant on forests in a whole brace of reserves. He also endorsed logging of 159 forest coupes already listed by Hodgman for clear-felling in other Tarkine forests, including in the headquarters of the Frankland River where protesters up trees have held off logging during the past year.

Industrial logging is a loser for Tasmania and for the other states in which it continues to operate. More than $1 billion of taxpayer subsidies have been poured into the pockets of the logging magnates in Tasmania alone in recent decades, as thousands of jobs have been shed to automation. The logging yard in which Turnbull held his press conference received a $440,000 government grant last year.

Turnbull spoke of the industry sustaining 3600 jobs. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has shown that Tasmania has less than half that number engaged in logging forests. Whichever figure you choose, there are more jobs in plantation forestry than in logging wild forests. And whichever figure, it is dwarfed these days by the tens of thousands of jobs in Tasmania’s burgeoning tourism and hospitality industries, which are primarily dependent on the island’s wild and scenic beauty, including the forests Turnbull wants logged.

Less than 2 per cent of modern Tasmania’s jobs are dependent on destroying natural forests. The Tarkine rainforests, given the World Heritage listing they warrant, have a far greater job-sustaining potential for north-west Tasmania if left vertical rather than rendered horizontal for subsidised local log yards.

As for “the rich wilderness of Tasmania’s forests” continuing to “be protected” by opening them to chainsaws and bulldozers, Turnbull would not only fail the pub test; he would be found out by class question time in any Australian primary school.

Besides his signed death warrant on the Tasmanian rainforests, Turnbull is backing the giant Adani coalmine in Queensland, licensing dangerous deep-sea drilling for oil and gas in the Great Australian Bight and refusing to defend Australian whales from Japan’s grenade-tipped harpoons in Antarctic waters next summer. As prime minister, he should be chief protector of Australia’s environment. Instead, he is shaping up as the overseer of an age of unprecedented environmental vandalism.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 2, 2017 as “The tree of mismanagement”. Bob Brown is a former leader of the Australian Greens.

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