You’d think every aspect of the Goolengook tale had been thoroughly chewed over. The plants, the animals, the protests, the riot, the legal wrangling, the national park proposal. But there’s one glaring question left hanging: Why did they log it? New information shows it wasn’t logs, it wasn’t jobs. Goolengook was a decoy.
The first bite was taken out of the Goolengook forest on world environment day in 1997, soon after the Regional Forest Agreement “solved the forest debate”. After the first 400 arrests (give or take a hundred) and a Supreme Court decision that the logging was unlawful, the logging stopped and the blockade was strengthened. Despite 20-odd logging coupes being planned since 1997, the blockade held firm for five years and a change of government. The blockaders’ actions have now been vindicated by the announcement of a moratorium.
The “Fort Goolengook” blockade was raided in early 2002 in a spectacular media event set against the sudden failure of the Japanese woodchip market and a government forced to admit that decades of overlogging would mean cut-backs and lost jobs. Minister Garbutt ostensibly in charge of the (then) Department of Natural Resources and Environment, made a media statement on the local ABC on 7 March 2002, two days after the raid:
“Well that was a police decision. The local Police advice as I understand it, to the Police command was that it [the Fort] should be taken down. The NRE also had a fire report which was saying that it was a fire risk, that it was blocking the road totally and that that was a fire hazard. And so they’ve acted on those reports”
There was speculation at the time about what these very convincing documents were. Well, two FoI requests and a couple of Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal stoushes later (thanks, Klaus!), we’ve got them, and here’s what they say.
The “Fire Report”
First, the so-called Fire Report. This turned out to be a one-page memo by Peter Rutherford, General Manger of Forestry Victoria. The only reference to fire is two sentences – points 9 and 10 of a 15-point document – saying that the Fort blocked potential access for fire trucks. Why he thought anyone would blockade a wildfire was not discussed. Neither was the option of repairing Old Goolengook Road (damaged in a mudslide), which would have been a better fire access. The dead end road the Fort blocked only led to logging coupes. Which might be why the activists were blockading it. And why the authorities wanted it clear.
The rest of the report is a half page description of the blockade, and assertions that they need a media campaign “in advance of any operations” to counter “negative publicity” from “green groups”. It assures Garbutt that “You will be verbally advised of the timing of this operation once it has been determined”.
The most amazing thing about that report is its date
– 4 March 2002 – one day before 80 police carried out the “operation”, whose “timing” had not been “determined”. Way to inform a Minister, Pete!
The Police Report
The Police Report, written by Senior Sergeant Martin Dorman, the Officer In Charge of Orbost Police Station, to the Inspector of the East Gippsland District, on 17 February 2002, is illuminating.
Its main contention is that there is more violence by loggers brewing, due to –
- the trial of the 13 loggers in relation to violent criminal acts at Goolengook
- the sudden cancellation of “Operation Medieval”,
- and a mysterious “forthcoming Ministerial announcement”.
There are four separate references to potential violence by loggers. Yet the actual brutal violence committed by loggers at Goolengook is coyly referred to as “local timber industry supporters .attended at an illegal construction situated on the Goolengook Road . charged with ‘Unlawful Assembly'”, and “the large number of local menfolk presenting for trial”. Yes, ‘menfolk’. Like they’re the cast of “Okalahoma!”.
The police prosecution of violence by loggers, it turns out, will be too much for certain sections of the community to accept in a normal, rational and lawful manner.
The report laments the cancellation of “Operation Medieval” on 12 February 2002, a secret Police plan to remove Fort Goolengook. Apparently it was cancelled hours before it was due to take place, even after “31 police were deployed from Melbourne” and additional local police rostered to carry it out.
“Operation Medieval”, he hastens to point out, was not known to “the local public within the Orbost region” and “not known in the wider community” (turn the page and skim a few paragraphs) except for – well, “certain NRE officers and selected timber harvesters”. This might put the suddenly arranged CFMEU town meeting on 15 February, which called for immediate action against the Goolengook blockade, into some sort of perspective.
Political manoeuvring also gets a few mentions, not least in the perceived reasons why Operation Medieval was cancelled by “last minute interference”.
There is also to be a “forthcoming Ministerial announcement”, presumably the Vanclay review of the Sustainable Yield, which was already completed and overdue for release, amid much (pretty well correct) speculation of logging cutbacks and job losses.
The region, he says, “has historically been very reliant on the timber industry for their survival . continued pressure placed upon the timber industry . has seen . associated decline in population”. Where he got such nonsense, why he thought it was fact, and what this unreliable social history is doing in an official police report is beyond me.
The three contentions come together in one succinct paragraph:
“I do not know the reasons behind the cancellation of this lawful and well-planned operation, but I do have local public safety and public order concerns if the result of the forthcoming Ministerial announcement is damning to the timber industry in East Gippsland. On top of this the trial for the local people who have been charged with ‘unlawful assembly’ is listed for hearing within the next 10 days at the Bairnsdale County Court.” (Emphasis in original)
In other words.everyone knows Operation Medieval was cancelled, violent people are about to get saddled with job losses, and loggers who bash up greenies are about to get prosecuted. You’d better authorise action against the greenies quick smart to show whose side we’re on or we can’t be held responsible.
Of course, he could have requested action against the violent people, since that’s the police’s job. But no, he wants action against the greenies. The ones at Goolengook. Who got bashed up by the loggers? The loggers he’s contending will likely become violent again.
Now if any uncharitable readers think that this report shows evidence of bias, this next excerpt is for you. He concludes: “If the ‘Fort’ was to be removed promptly there will be no ‘moral’ justification for any person to ‘lash out’ at local, small time environmental activists .”. Pause a minute to recover from “‘moral’ justification”, and take a deep breath. ” . whom they may perceive to be the cause of any social or financial dilemma that may result from the Minister’s forthcoming announcement”.
So why did they log Goolengook? We only have the Minister’s word that these documents were indeed the justification for busting the blockade. And there would need to have been a time warp for the Fire Report to have preceded the planning of the police action.
We know they didn’t need Goolengook to reach the legislated yield. After the blockade was removed, there was a scramble to get areas ready for logging, and in the end they even left a scheduled coupe unlogged.
So that leaves political reasons. The Bracks government needed a diversion to take the spotlight off the announcement of cutbacks, the union wanted to provide a bumper-bar for the ALP and prevent their history of denying overlogging and championing woodchipping (both of which cause job losses) from being examined, the DSE thought attack was the best defence when years of overlogging mismanagement were about to be exposed, the police wanted to show the loggers some moral support.
And Goolengook? Well, it’s a forest. It has no politics, no machinations. It has high conservation value, recognised by the current moratorium, just as it did when the scientists that surveyed it all those years ago recommended it never be logged.
What’s happening at Goolengook now? Since the $1.6 million raid on Fort Goolengook on March 5th 2002 and the consequent bad publicity for the Bracks Government, they have now agreed to a moratorium while the Victorian Environment Assessment Council considers alternative areas to log. The VEAC still hasn’t put together terms of reference to start the ball rolling. Stalling can only be good for the forests.