Lynne Blundell

16 April 2014 — Comment: One morning recently I turned on the radio, as I do most mornings, and was pleasantly surprised to tune into a very clever satirical piece. Finally someone had mastered an impersonation of our prime minister Tony Abbott.

Not only had he got the voice down pat, this satirist had placed Abbott in an ultra-conservative setting – at a forestry industry meeting, delivering a speech that would do justice to an evangelical lay preacher straight out of the 1920s.

”When I look out tonight at an audience of people who work with timber, who work in forests, I don’t see people who are environmental bandits, I see people who are the ultimate conservationists.

”I salute you as people who love the natural world, as people who love what Mother Nature gives us and who want to husband it for the long-term best interests of humanity.”

The long-term best interest of humanity? This guy was good. He had the voice patterns, with the distinctive stop-starts and creaky repetitions, down to a tee.

And he went on, pointing out that too many of our forests were ”locked up” and (at this point my confidence began to waver) re-affirming his commitment to remove a World Heritage listing covering 74,000 hectares of Tasmanian forest.

Oh how naïve I was. I mean even a talented satirist would be hard pushed to depict forestry companies that spent decades turning our native forests into pulp and sending them offshore for a pittance as the ultimate conservationists?

It was of course the real Tony Abbott I had heard. Or was it Surreal Tony? I’d love to know.

Of course much has been written about this speech since it was delivered more than a month ago now.

The issue became a hot news topic again a few weeks ago when the newly elected Liberal Tasmanian government pledged to overturn the Tasmanian Forests Agreement. The heritage listing was a key part of the 2012 Tasmanian Forest Agreement – signed by environmentalists, industry groups and the forestry union – that promised to end 30 years of conflict over logging.

I visited Tasmania last week and the mood there was definitely out of step with Surreal Tony’s speech and the new state government’s stance on forests.

And judging by the latest national poll results, where the Coalition slipped well below Labor on a two party preferred basis, Tony Abbott’s views on many things – from the re-introduction of the peerage, to the dismal treatment of asylum seekers, to the destruction of World Heritage forests – are out of step in more places than Tasmania.

On the brink of change

Tasmania may still have the highest unemployment figure in the country but it feels like it’s on the brink of change. Tourism is thriving, according to ABS figures, with a 10 per cent increase in tourist numbers between March 2012 and March 2013 and a six per cent rise in tourism spending, up to $1.464 billion.

Innovations such as the edgy Museum of New and Old Art (MONA) and festivals such as Baroque Hobart have been very successful in attracting both Australian and overseas visitors.

Sidney Nolan’s snake mural was displayed at MONA last year

The emphasis on reversing the forestry deal is also out of whack with the employment statistics – 15 per cent of the state’s employment is in tourism compared to one per cent in the forestry industry.

Locals during my visit expressed their disbelief that any government would consider overturning a forestry agreement that had given stability to an industry that had suffered decades of disruption and uncertainty.

Forestry interests don’t want a reversal

“The forestry people don’t want it to be reversed. There is no market for the product if forests are opened up to logging again,” one local told me.

This is backed by comments from the timber industry. Local forestry companies and associations have been outspoken about the benefits of the agreement.

Neville Smith Timbers, operating in Tasmania since 1927, makes timber flooring and told the ABC last year that the agreement had turned its business around. Orders are now twice that of production levels. The company’s emphasis is on the sustainability of its products.

“The Tasmanian Forestry Agreement really has allowed us to re-think what we’re doing within our businesses and engender confidence with our customers,” executive chairman James Neville Smith told ABC News.

Malaysian-owned veneer manufacturer Ta Ann also benefited from the forest agreement, receiving $26 million in compensation in return for forfeiting 40 per cent of its wood supply.

“Without the peace deal the company would have left Tasmania because it was losing customers as a result of pressure exerted by environmentalists,” executive director Evan Rolley told the ABC in the same report.

“I don’t think we’d be operating the business, frankly.”

The Forests Agreement provided the basis on which the company could go back into the market.

“It’s better to have 60 per cent of a volume that you can sell product in the market than to have a 100 per cent and not be able to sell that product,” Rolley said at the time.

Since the change of state government Rolley has said Ta Ann will not leave Tasmania as long as the new government can guarantee supply of timber from non-contentious forests.

Old growth in the Tarkine forest, Tasmania

Terry Edwards, the head of Forestry Industries Association of Tasmania, has also weighed into the debate, writing a letter to Tony Abbott asking him to rethink his stance on forests, saying the government was taking a risk that was “unwarranted” and that his members did not want.

Edwards said the government had not consulted with the industry, which had been enjoying the relative peace brought by the agreement. If the “forest wars” broke out again markets such as Japan could be lost.

Curbing deforestation has been identified as a key factor in reducing climate change.

And with rainforest now only covering six per cent of the world’s surface – and of that six per cent, only nine per cent is in Australasia – this is hardly the time to reverse hard-won forestry agreements.

Tony Abbott and his counterpart in Tasmania may have underestimated the global shift in attitudes to cutting down forests, particularly at the whim of politicians.

A sign of this shift is the launch last month of Global Forest Watch, a dynamic online forest monitoring and alert system that allows tracking of real-time deforestation via an interactive website.

Launched by the World Resources Institute, Google and a group of more than 40 partners, Global Forest Watch unites the latest satellite technology, open data and crowdsourcing to provide access to information about forests.

The launch of the tool is expected to have far-reaching implications across industries.

According to GFW, financial institutions can better evaluate if the companies they invest in adequately assess forest-related risks.

Buyers of major commodities such as palm oil, soy, timber and beef can better monitor compliance with laws, sustainability commitments and standards.

And suppliers can credibly demonstrate that their products are “deforestation free” and legally produced, something Tasmanian forestry companies are at pains to do.

My trip to Tasmania included a visit to Triabunna, until recently one of the key battlegrounds of the “forest wars”. It was here that the Gunns woodchip mill closed in 2011, putting many locals out of work.

Arriving in Triabunna, the economic strain is evident. But they’re a tough lot here and tourism is doing well; the town’s marina is the launching site for day trips to Maria Island, a popular National Park destination, with pristine white beaches, beautiful forests and an abundance of wildlife.

Maria Island

It is a major attraction for Australian and overseas visitors and local boat companies compete fiercely for business, offering extras such as bike hire and lunch packs to attract customers. The boats are regularly full. The day we went to Maria Island 130 school students were also heading there.

There’s certainly no love lost between Triabunna residents and the outgoing Labor government or the Greens, with a 27 per cent swing to the Liberals candidate Eric Hutchinson in the recent election.

Many, though, would like to see tourism become a mainstay of the area. The current proposal by Wotif founder Graeme Wood to turn the defunct Gunns timber mill into a lodge, marina, performing arts centre, botanic gardens and culinary school has been met with a mix of scepticism and wary hope.

Wood told Tasmania’s The Mercury newspaper recently he had already spent hundreds of thousands on the project and that those who were sceptical should “look at my business record”.

“I don’t do pie in the sky,” Wood said.

He was confident the project had support from “80 per cent” of the local community, despite lingering anger about the mill’s closure.

“We, as part of the forestry peace negotiations, put it out to tender and we were perfectly happy to allow it to operate [as a woodchip mill],” he told The Mercury.

Greens leader Christine Milne summed up the Tasmanian situation in a speech in the Senate last month:

“The tragedy is, of course, that Tasmania is going to be plunged back into conflict just at a time when we are about to move to an economy based on knowledge, information and innovation – one that recognises Tasmania’s competitive advantage in its proximity to Antarctica, in the development of the university throughout the state, and in the development of our high-quality food and beverage sector and our Antarctic science hub.”

Sadly that science hub is also under threat with federal funding cuts to Antarctic research announced this week.

It is knowledge, service industries and renewable energy that economies elsewhere are investing in. And that is where the economic future of Tasmania lies, not in reversing hard won forestry agreements.

Nobody wants that Mr Abbott – not the people of Tasmania, not the forestry companies and definitely not the creatures who call the forests home.

That, Surreal Tony, is pie in the sky.

Lynne Blundell is a freelance writer and journalist. She is a co-founding editor of The Fifth Estate and specialises in writing about sustainability in the built environment, and also writes about design, technology, health and finance.