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Crossing the line from academia to activism

By Mark Poynter - posted Friday, 9 April 2010


Just four-days before the recent Tasmanian election, Hobart’s The Mercury newspaper published an “open letter” to the state’s political leaders written by “an eminent group of professionals” calling for reform of the governance of Tasmania’s forest industry. The letter was re-published the following day in the same newspaper as part of a full-page advertisement by the lobby group Environment Tasmania in conjunction with the internet activist organisation, Get Up.

The so-called “eminent group” included a retired Supreme Court judge, a prominent lawyer, and 26 of the University of Tasmania’s “most senior professors and lecturers”, comprised of:

  • a professor and a doctor from the School of Philosophy;
  • a professor, a doctor and six others from the School of Accounting and Corporate Governance;
  • a doctor and an associate professor from the School of Economics and Finance;
  • a professor, three doctors, and two others from the Faculty of Law;
  • a professor from the School of Sociology and Social Work;
  • the Acting Pro Vice Chancellor - Students and Education; and
  • six doctors from the School of Geography and Environmental Studies.
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The letter justified itself by citing the findings of a public opinion poll which had reportedly found that “most Tasmanians think there is an unhealthy relationship between the timber industry and politicians”; that “the timber industry is a source of corruption”; and that “the major parties are both too weak to take on the interests of big business”.

It then outlined concerns about so-called exemptions given to forestry activities from environmental, planning, and resource management laws and called for these to be overturned. The Mercury described the letter as highlighting a “climate of fear which prevents people from speaking out about their concerns with the forest sector”.

Given the inherent credibility afforded to Australian academia, the broader community could be excused for unquestionably accepting the existence of these problems and the worthiness of reforms suggested by such a diverse and independent group. However, several points put the “eminent group” and the views expressed in their “open letter” into context. These include:

The veracity of the above-mentioned public opinion poll

The poll in question was conducted for an unnamed client by the research unit of a Melbourne-based public affairs company. This company acts for a range of clients, including at least five environmental groups. This includes The Wilderness Society which is conducting major campaigns aimed at closing Tasmania’s native forest timber industry.

As part of its ongoing opposition to Tasmanian timber production, The Wilderness Society has initiated the formation of an umbrella organisation called Environment Tasmania which is hosting a new campaign entitled, Our Common Ground.

As a major platform of the Our Common Ground campaign is to expose the alleged “unhealthy relationship between politicians and the timber industry”, it is difficult to have confidence in the objectivity of the sample selection or the questions that were asked in a survey which has reported exactly the same finding.

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Tasmanian forestry is not exempt from environmental, planning, and resource management laws

The “open letter” is predicated on the claim that forestry operations conducted in accordance with the Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement are exempt from the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, 1999.

Forestry activities operate within a regulatory regime that has been specifically developed by the responsible government agencies in accordance with overarching environmental, planning, and resource management laws. This includes the development of state-based Codes of Practice which incorporate purpose-designed planning, approval, and monitoring mechanisms.

Accordingly, forestry operations are more highly regulated than other land use activities and so do not need to follow the same approval procedures. This has been widely misrepresented as an exemption from these laws by environmental groups campaigning against the timber industry.

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 40 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and his book, Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications, was published in 2007.

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