Federal Minister for Forestry and Conservation, Eric Abetz, recently announced a review into Tasmanian forest contracts, with an intention that it conclude by early November.
Unfortunately for forest contractors, forests, Tasmanians and due process, there is an undeniable conflict of interest in the government’s announcement that Poyry Forest Industries will conduct the “independent” review.
Poyry is to global forestry what Rio Tinto is to mining. They are massive, widely skilled and respected within the industry. But they have also been consultants to Gunns on the proposed pulp mill for the last four years and stand to financially benefit should the $2 billion project go ahead.
Abetz’s office expects Poyry to independently “examine how recent issues have impacted on forest contractors in the state, and to report on the options for ensuring their long term viability”.
There are about 2,000 forest contractors operating in Tasmania - some running small businesses, some operating individually. They run the trucks, chainsaws, bulldozers and mills that make the forest industry possible.
Abetz has not targeted fuel pricing, resource access, predatory business practices, or even future carbon trading as areas of inquiry. Instead, he is most concerned about “reduced quotas, stemming in large part from a concerted attack internationally on Tasmanian forestry practices by extreme Green groups”.
Brad Stansfield, spokesman for Senator Abetz, rejected questions regarding due process and transparency as “Green alarmism”. Asked to confirm that Poyry would look beyond environmental lobbying to consider the impact of Gunns’ business practices on independent forest contractors, he would only say that “they’re looking at all relevant factors”.
It doesn’t seem to matter to the Minister’s office that Poyry is the consultant to Tasmania’s largest landholder, plantation owner, woodchip producer and potential pulp mill operator. Stansfield denied repeatedly that even the perception of a conflict of interest might therefore exist in having Poyry advise the government on the needs and issues facing Tasmania’s independent forest contractors.
“If we had appointed Gunns to do this, I would accept your argument. We haven’t. We have appointed independent experts in the field to do it. Now I know that you mightn’t see the difference, but there’s a very clear difference,” he said. The difference is that Poyry isn’t Gunns: they just work with, lobby for and stand to make large sums of money from Gunns.
Tasmania’s independent quasi-judicial Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC) consciously chose not to use Poyry Forest Industries to review the wood supply information provided by Gunns in its draft Integrated Impact Statement for the Tamar Valley pulp mill. The RPDC chose URS Forestry for the job, removing all suggestion of conflict of interest.
Greens Senator Christine Milne also disputes Stansfield’s assertion.
“I think there’s not only a perception, I think there is a conflict of interest,” said Milne. “Poyry is working with Gunns on the pulp mill. Poyry is also reputed to be helping organise the finance for the mill. And of course Gunns are the people dealing with the contractors in terms of wood supply.
“Having a consultant so closely linked to Gunns look at the issues of forest contractors is not in the interest of the forest contractors or of a reasonable transition out of native forests. Gunns’ whole development is based on 30 years’ access to Tasmania’s native forests, including high conservation value forests.”
And, perhaps, because of rather than despite the upcoming election, the federal ALP declined to draw any lines in the sand even on this seemingly clear cause for query.
Peter Garrett’s office “will await the findings of the review with interest”. The shadow minister for Forestry and Conservation, Senator Kerry O’Brien, was also unable to comment on this matter despite a proclaimed willingness to follow it up.