TONY Abbott is under attack for “reckless politics” after he followed in John Howard’s footsteps by declaring Australia has “too much locked-up forest” and acclaiming forestry workers as “the ultimate conservationists”.
The Prime Minister’s comments in Canberra on Tuesday night earned applause from a gathering of timber industry representatives and came 11 days from the Tasmanian election.
“We don’t support, as a government and as a Coalition, further lockouts of our forests. We just don’t support it,” Mr Abbott said, affirming a commitment to withdraw 74,000ha of Tasmanian forest from UN protection.
“We have quite enough national parks, we have quite enough locked-up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked-up forest.”
During the 2004 federal election, Mr Howard vowed to limit forest lockouts, earning cheers from union forestry workers and seizing two key Tasmanian seats from Labor.
Mr Abbott claimed the nation’s forestry workers were not “environmental bandits”, as some would argue, but actually “the ultimate conservationists”.
Unlike Mr Howard, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union turned on Mr Abbott’s “job-destroying” heritage policy, saying it would undermine the new forest peace deal and “reintroduce conflict” to Tasmania.
“The legislation was signed and supported by the industry — employers and contractors — unions, community and environment groups,” forestry division national president Jane Calvert said.
“This legislation has secured markets, and restored investment confidence. Undoing the agreement will erode job security and job growth.”
Australian Forest Products Association chief Ross Hampton welcomed Mr Abbott’s “strong support” of the industry saying it was “about time that the industry got the recognition it deserves for the vital part it can play in the growing Australian economy as we move to a carbon constrained future”.
Tasmanian Environment Minister Brian Wightman accused Mr Abbott of playing “reckless politics” that poses “a massive threat to both tourism and forestry”.
“We’re trying to give the forest industry a stronger future by securing sustainable new markets,” Mr Wightman said.
Tasmanian Liberal leader Will Hodgman offered “strong support” for Mr Abbott’s comments.
“Under Labor and the Greens, too much forest has been locked up at the expense of jobs,” he said.
“Under the Liberals, there’ll be more wood, more jobs, and it’ll be a more sustainable industry because we’ll harvest over a wider area.”
Opposition agriculture spokesman Joel Fitzgibbon said the Prime Minister was “rewinding the clock 30 years” on the forestry debate.
“It’s clear that his comments were aimed at the Tasmanian state election, but what he doesn’t understand is that after 30 years of conflict we finally have a contract, a settlement in Tasmania, and … he wants to undermine the certainty,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.
JARED OWENS THE AUSTRALIAN