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Tasmania's forests: GetUp! and the media versus a Legislative Council Inquiry

By Mark Poynter - posted Wednesday, 6 July 2011


Over the past fortnight, three significant events have occurred in relation to the future of Tasmania's native forests.

First, a so-called 'peace deal' proposal tentatively agreed between representatives of the timber industry and the environmental movement was prematurely released, subsequently withdrawn, and then rejected by at least one of the participatory signatories. Nevertheless, the unsigned agreement's proposal that most timber production be withdrawn from Tasmania's public forests to facilitate the creation of over 400,000 hectares of new national parks and reserves, is being popularly portrayed as a deal that will eventually be done in return for Federal Government compensation payments totalling up to $800 million to former industry participants. This is being talked-up as a transition of the Tasmanian timber industry from native forests to plantations.

Second, to coincide with the release of this proposed 'peace deal' agreement, the online activist group GetUp! embarked on the latest phase of its 'Save Tassie Forests' campaign by emailing its subscribers a plea to spend just two minutes of their time to help end logging because "This is a crucial moment for the fate of Tasmania's forests ....... We're so close to victory, but we need to ensure the future of our native forests doesn't slip through our fingers"

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To encourage support, the GetUp! email included several misleading two sentence anecdotes about logging in Tasmania's Styx Valley as well as a 31-second You Tube clip in which three people describe the supposed benefits that will flow from saving Tasmania's forests. Those convinced by this shallow justification for the cause were directed to sign and send a standard e-mail letter to key politicians urging them to support moves to end logging. While more committed (and wealthier) subscribers were urged to help fund the cost of having the You Tube clip screened as a television commercial.

Third, the Tasmanian Government's Legislative Council Committee released its report: 'The Impact of the Proposed Transition out of Native Forest Management and Harvesting in Tasmania'. This followed a 2-month process which included the evaluation of 23 written submissions and 5-days of public hearings at which 49 witnesses representing 31 entities, agencies, companies, or groups were heard representing the full suite of stakeholders both for and against an industry transition out of native forests.

The Committee was directed to examine this question due to concerns that the 'peace deal' process which is limited to just industry and ENGO representatives, was making decisions about the future of the state's forests without considering the views of a wide range of other stakeholders. Furthermore it was being driven only by narrow imperatives such as the determination of environmentalists to preserve all forests; the hope of financially struggling industry businesses and contractors to secure compensation for trading-in their livelihoods; and Gunns Ltd's determined pursuit of compensation for relinquishing its native forest timber rights to help fund construction of its approved, but as yet unfunded, Tamar valley pulp mill.

After considering these views plus the far wider views of other stakeholders, the Legislative Council Committee found that there were real causes for concern relating to a proposed transition out of native forests. It recommended that 'there not be any additional reserves of native forests (created) and no transition out of native forest management and harvesting' without further consideration of a range of matters, including the actual viability of transitioning the industry to plantations while maintaining its economically critical role for Tasmania and its regional communities.

The findings of the Legislative Council Committee are extremely important in helping to find a way forward, yet thus far its report has been ignored by the media, particularly outside of Tasmania where the bulk of support for simplistic campaigns to 'save' its forests resides. The limited mainland newspaper coverage of the 'peace deal' process has been characterised by thinly-veiled cheer-leading, and so its deafening silence on findings which challenge the very need for such a deal speaks volumes about a lack of journalistic objectivity.

This lack of objectivity is particularly apparent in the case of The Australian's Hobart-based Tasmanian correspondent, Matthew Denholm, given his breathless reporting of every other development along the path to what he recently described as a 'truly historic deal' that deserves to be 'announced amid fanfare, backslaps, and jubilation'.

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The media's refusal to give it oxygen has created an unfortunate contrast where few people even know of the Legislative Council Committee's detailed considerations, findings and recommendations; while GetUp!'s half-page email simplistically advocating an ideal of killing off a timber industry to 'save' Tasmania's forests was distributed to their 580,000 members and probably far beyond.

Get Up! was launched in August 2005 with the full support of the ALP, and the union movement, coinciding with the Coalition wresting control of the Senate. The then AWU's Bill Shorten (now Finance Minister in the Gillard Government) was a founding Director along with millionaire Evan Thornley, who later resigned when he was elected and, for a short time, became a key member of the former Victorian Labor Government. In the lead-up to the 2010 Federal election, GetUp! accepted a $1.2 million donation from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) that has ultimately been instrumental in helping the Australian Greens gain the balance of power in the Senate. This now seems highly ironic given that their policy platform of closing down both the forestry and coal mining industries is at odds with the membership of the CFMEU.

GetUp!'s website describes the organisation as an independent advocacy group not aligned to any political parties – "we simply call it as we see it; congratulating progressive policy and criticising bad policy". Given its 'progressive' Green–Left roots, GetUp! unsurprisingly advocates only actions which fit this agenda – a view confirmed by its five current campaigns which neatly align with the policies of the Australian Greens.

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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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