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Tasmania: When 'Green' philanthropy becomes a wrecking ball

By Mark Poynter - posted Thursday, 21 July 2011


Last week's sale of Tasmania's Triabunna woodchip mill to prominent business identities, Jan Cameron and Graeme Wood, raises serious questions about the extent to which the personal wealth and whims of just two people (one of whom does not even live in the state) could be allowed to derail a democratically-elected government's control and management of a public resource – Tasmania's multiple use State Forests – and the socio-economic activity that depends on it.

The Triabunna mill has operated since 1972, but Cameron and Wood intend to close it after a short period of transition, ostensibly to develop a tourism and wine-growing venture. Unless new uses for low grade wood can be quickly explored and developed, this will close southern Tasmania's native hardwood industry, including the sawmilling sector whose viability largely relies on being able to profit from harvesting and processing residue sold for chipping and export. If the industry closes, it could wipe perhaps $0.5 billion per year from Tasmania's GDP and put several thousand people out of work in a state in an already parlous economic situation.

Questions abound in relation to the behaviour of Gunns given that it facilitated the mill's sale to the Cameron/Wood consortium by rejecting a 40% higher bid which would have enabled it to continue operating as a long term timber industry facility. In an article in the Hobart Mercury, soon after the sale announcement, Gunns' CEO, Greg L'Estrange, justified this by saying that his "first obligation is to Gunns' shareholders, and Aprin (the rival buyer), could not get their finance in order in time" However, one wonders what Gunns' shareholders really think of incurring a $6 million loss by selling the mill to the underbidders?

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L' Estrange went on to admit that Gunns had been hurt by the tactics of environmental groups in turning financial backers and customers against them, and described the company's commitment to exit the 'declining' native forests industry as necessary to get their business back on a stable footing. This seems rather disingenuous given that Gunns still owns and operates Victoria's largest native hardwood sawmill – a facility whose profitability is enhanced by woodchips from processing waste being sold for export or domestic paper manufacture.

Gunns' sale of the Triabunna mill to a non-industry buyer has been motivated by a need to force the remaining elements of the native forest timber industry to sign the so-called 'peace deal' being brokered by Bill Kelty. The draft 'deal' requires the industry to wave away its long term future in native forests in return for taxpayer-funded financial compensation and environmentalists' (ENGO) support for Gunns' as yet unbuilt Tamar valley pulp mill. If the 'deal' is signed, Gunns stands to receive $ hundreds of millions in compensation for relinquishing harvesting rights which it has retained despite already exiting from native forests.

While this would provide sorely needed capital for their pulp mill, there remains considerable uncertainty about it ever being built given Gunns' need for a financial partner to help foot its mooted $2.3 billion cost. Also, there is substantial opposition to the mill amongst the state's Green-Left demographic which is determined to both 'save' all the forests and stop the pulp mill. In short, there is a significant possibility that signing the 'deal' would sacrifice the native forest industry for a plantations-based pulp mill that never eventuates – an outcome which would be an unmitigated economic disaster for Tasmania.

At the heart of why this situation has evolved lies the highly flawed notion that the survival of Tasmania's forests is threatened by logging. This deceitful message has long been promoted by Australia's environmental lobby with ever–more sensational anti-logging campaigns always omitting key details of scale and perspective to skew the reality to an unquestioning urban demographic. Largely due to appallingly unbalanced mainland media coverage, attempts to communicate such fundamental facts as that 75% of the state's public native forests are already reserved and won't be logged, have failed to dent the rise of a self-righteous 'save-Tassie-forests' fervour which has become the conventional wisdom amongst the affluent elite furthest removed from the reality.

Included amongst their ranks are some of the nation's wealthiest private citizens and their charitable foundations. People and groups whose knowledge of environmental issues has been informed by approaches from major activist groups smart enough to see advantages in creating linkages with powerful benefactors. Getting quantifiable information about the extent to which this occurs is difficult because most ENGOs do not disclose their funding sources. However, their financial benefactors are known to include such luminaries as Dick Smith and well-known philanthropic groups as the Myer and Reichstein Foundations. Jan Cameron and Graeme Wood are included amongst their ranks.

Cameron, with an estimated worth of between $250 - 500 million, founded and ran the Kathmandu outdoor clothing and equipment empire before retiring in 2006 and then moving from her native New Zealand to live on Tasmania's east coast. She has donated $ tens of millions to a range of causes over the intervening years, particularly in relation to animal welfare, and funds this from the profits of various other retail outlets that she continues to own, including the iconic Chickenfeed chain which largely sells cheap goods imported from China.

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Wood, with an estimated worth of $370 million, founded the online travel booking company, Wotif, in 2000. He is also well known for his philanthropy and won the Suncorp Queenslander of the Year award in 2008 for his business and community service achievements. He is arguably best known for donating $1.6 million to the Australian Greens prior to the last Federal election – almost certainly the biggest single political donation by an individual in Australian history. He also gave $25,000 to Green-Left online activist organisation, GetUp, last year. On the Wotif website, Wood is described as an 'environmental activist' who, in 2008, 'launched the not-for-profit Wild Mob creating volunteering opportunities in wildlife conservation'.

Wood's poor understanding of Tasmania and its forests is exemplified by his opposition to Gunns' then-proposed Tamar valley pulp mill in 2007. Despite most old growth forests being already reserved, he not only bemoaned the likelihood of "great wads" of old growth native forest being destroyed by a mill that was going to use only regrowth and plantation-grown wood, but insisted that "... you can't destroy the forests which are the basis of that (a tourism future)". He also described the pulp mill's mooted 1600 jobs as 'insignificant' – a comment that is now highly ironical given that his purchase of the Triabunna mill, in conjunction with Cameron, was engineered by Gunns specifically to facilitate the construction of their now-approved plantations-only pulp mill.

Both Cameron and Wood continue a long tradition stretching back to Bob Brown, whereby almost all key figures in Tasmanian environmental activism have come to the state from elsewhere presumably with pre-conceived and often erroneous ideas about the industries which have traditionally underpinned the state's socio-economic fabric. Invariably, their distaste for the state's inherently ubiquitous forest industry has translated into a determination to end the science-based practice of forestry which is acknowledged to be one of human-kind's few truly renewable activities.

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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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