Analysis: Anthony Albanese is taking a big electoral risk by continuing Howard-era native forest logging agreements. By Bob Brown.

The fight to end native logging

Bob brown stands on top of a chopped tree trunk. A forest surrounds him.
Bob Brown stands on the stump of a native tree after it was cut down.
Credit: Ramji Ambrosiussen

At the loggers’ dinner at Canberra’s Hyatt Hotel last November, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese lauded “our sustainable native forestry practices” and “climate-smart forestry”. In doing so, Albanese was effectively backing in John Howard’s 1997 regional forest agreements.

In 1997, a large group of environmentalists and First Nations people protested as Howard’s car drove up to Forestry Tasmania’s nursery, where he was to sign the Tasmanian agreement. With others, I was knocked down by Howard’s phalanx of security guards. As he was driven by, a gun fell out of one officer’s holster and spun on the ground between our heads. After signing the agreement, to exclude logging from federal environment laws, Howard was driven away over a stubble field behind the nursery.

Five years later, in 2002, Howard’s Regional Forest Agreements Act made the Commonwealth liable to compensate the states if it intervened in any logging.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of hectares of Australia’s native forests, along with their wildlife, have been destroyed, often involving “regeneration” burns that incinerate the remnants of the forests and emit their carbon into the atmosphere. Where lush, life-filled forests always flourished, such fire-storming leaves blackened earth to facilitate single-species plantations.

Leading up to Labor’s national conference in Brisbane this year, the Labor Environment Action Network proposed a motion to end native forest logging. Hundreds of Labor branches endorsed the motion but Albanese’s team prevented the motion from getting to the conference floor.

The prime minister undoubtedly has the power to save Australia’s forests. Constitutional lawyer George Williams says the federal parliament has an array of powers at its disposal that could be used to this effect. Many of these relate to section 51 of the Constitution. It allows the government to prohibit the export of wood and other products from native forests. Likewise, the government could impose new taxes over logging operations or prohibit foreign investment in them. It could also implement international conventions aimed at environmental protection, effecting these under “external affairs”.

It is common for the Commonwealth to use a mix of powers to achieve a desired objective.

In the event of inconsistency between such a federal law and a state law that permits logging, the federal law would prevail under the terms of section 109 of the Constitution.

Albanese has re-endorsed Scott Morrison’s signature on the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, which has the goal of halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation by 2030. A meeting of the Montréal Process working group on forest sustainability, to be held in Sydney in October, will put new focus on the unsustainability of Australia’s native forest operations, not least those destroying koala and greater glider habitats in New South Wales.

While Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek is committed to bringing Howard’s regional forest agreements under her new national environmental laws, the likelihood is that more federal responsibility for the environment will be handed to the states and to the corporate sector, as it was with those RFAs in 1997. Environmental “offsets” will be a core part of that legislation and will facilitate more logging.

Here’s how forest offsets work. Australia has two similar, special forests. A company wants to log or mine one of them. The minister for the environment approves the company buying the second as an offset, allowing the destruction of the first. The nation is left with one forest instead of two. Under Labor’s working plan for “matters of national environmental significance” if there is only one forest, there will be a provision for the company to go ahead if it makes a payment to the government.

Greenhouse gas-emitting industries are attracted by another form of forest “offsets”. Very big money is backing this option, whereby each tonne of carbon in a forest that is not logged can be traded to allow another tonne of carbon to be emitted from a fossil fuel operation. This is the subterfuge being used to determine, through marketing, whether forests live or die.

As Clive L. Spash, professor of ecological economics at Vienna University, put it: “The overall message is that, if conservationists continue down the path of conceptualising the world as in mainstream economics they will be forced from one compromise to another, ultimately losing their ability to conserve or protect anything. They will also be abandoning the rich and meaningful human relationships with Nature that have been their raison d’être.”

Logging worsens global warming. How could it not? Native forests are carbon “banks” and burning or woodchipping them quickly releases that carbon into the atmosphere. Studies by the Australian National University have also shown that logging native forests increases the hazard of bushfires.

Science informed the United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres, when he said “forests filter the air we breathe and the water we drink. They regulate our climate, absorbing one third of the global greenhouse gases emitted each year. Forests provide habitat to 80 per cent of all known terrestrial species, many of which are under threat. Today, more than one million of the planet’s estimated eight million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction.”

That doesn’t wash in Canberra, however, where the logging corporations and unions rule over democracy. Opinion polls show most Australians want native forests protected. Seeing this and feeling votes sliding away, Labor governments in Western Australia and Victoria say they will end native forest logging on Crown land this year, but Albanese is not for ending the carnage in other states, including Queensland, where vast areas of woodlands are cleared each year.

A recent poll by The Australia Institute asked if native logging should also be ended in NSW and Tasmania. The number of voters in favour overall was 69 per cent. A clear majority of Coalition voters backed ending logging. Three-quarters of Labor voters were in favour.

Albanese is ignoring a huge majority of his own supporters on this issue. The question is, does it matter? That depends on what happens between now and the next election, due in 2025. As the fallout from global warming grows, along with the list of Australian birds and animals being driven towards extinction, the dual role that saving native forests has in helping turn around both will appeal more than ever to concerned voters, especially young voters.

Of course, the industry heads who back technological innovations that have cut thousands of jobs from native forest logging, will cry about the loss of jobs, just as the whalers did in 1978 when Malcolm Fraser ended their archaic industry. Fortunately, Australia has two million hectares of established soft and hard wood plantations and faces comparatively less trouble converting to a plantation-based timber industry than New Zealand did when its incoming Labour government ended native forest logging in 2002.

As the Labor conference got under way in Brisbane in August, 6000 people turned out at rallies across Australia calling for an end to native forest logging. Bigger campaigns are planned, including a national “March in March” next year. In the forests themselves, more people than ever are committing to peacefully obstructing chainsaws and bulldozers. Seeing this, Labor has joined the Coalition to pass draconian laws aimed at environmental defenders. This is part of an international move by resource extractors to have governments frighten or jail campaigners, especially those opposing fossil fuel extraction, animal cruelty or deforestation. The native forest logging industry knows it has lost the public argument: its own polls tell it so. Its solution is to get environmental activists out of the public arena.

In NSW, the Minns Labor government won this year’s state election partly because of its commitment to creating a “great koala national park”. Instead of protected koalas, the voters got protected logging corporations and a resumption of logging in key koala habitats with in-the-forest defenders facing arrest. In Tasmania, the nesting trees of critically endangered swift parrots continue to be chainsawed and woodchipped as bird numbers decline and their defenders face up to three years in jail. Veterinarian Colette Harmsen is currently serving three months in Mary Hutchinson Women’s Prison near Hobart for defending Tasmania’s forests. The Commonwealth’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act provides heavy fines for destroying the habitat of an endangered bird or animal but, under the Howard–Albanese RFAs, the loggers are excused.

We live in a plutocracy. Big business prevails. Yet the destruction of native forests is stirring the public and will be a vote-changing issue at the next election, along with the cascading tragedy of global warming. It will have impact in Labor-held inner-city seats such as Grayndler, held by Albanese, and Sydney, held by Plibersek.

Professor David Lindenmayer, of the Australian National University, has pointed out that ending native forest logging would be the quickest and cheapest way for Albanese to meet his target of a 43 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – a modest target currently slipping away from being achievable, with emissions actually going up last year.

Protecting the forests would also put grit into Plibersek’s self-appointed task of saving Australia’s rare species from extinction. In saving the forests, Labor could well save themselves.

(Note: With two other campaigners, I face a two-day trial in the Hobart Magistrates Court, beginning December 4, for allegedly trespassing in the public forest near Snow Hill in north-east Tasmania last November. We were there for the critically endangered swift parrots nesting in the eucalypts being cut down largely for export woodchips. The potential penalties we face are up to three years in jail if found guilty under Tasmania’s new anti-protest laws.) 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 30, 2023 as "Stand up for the forests".

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