As Tasmania lags behind Australia, Eric Abetz is reigniting old battles. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Abetz still in the woods, fighting a lost war

Government senate leader Eric Abetz, Liberal representative for Tasmania.
Government senate leader Eric Abetz, Liberal representative for Tasmania.

It was a strange choice of words. In June last year, the Liberal senator from Tasmania, now minister for employment, Eric Abetz, addressed a conservative forum in Sydney. In his speech, Abetz quoted one of the most radically despairing philosophers of the 19th century. “It was Friedrich Nietzsche,” he told the faithful audience, “that said, ‘There are no such things as facts, only interpretations.’”

Abetz made the unusual citation in a speech attacking the bias of the ABC – specifically, its new Fact Check exercise, formed to “determine the accuracy of claims by politicians, public figures, advocacy groups and institutions engaged in the public debate”.

Abetz followed the quote with his strong belief that “anyone who asserts a capacity to determine and divine the truth and facts in all matters should by definition be treated sceptically –
especially when it impacts on our democratic processes”. Which, logically extended, would seem to not only serve as a rejection of ABC’s Fact Check, but the whole project of journalism itself – and much of politics.

Abetz’s epistemological riff, had it been shorn from his specific and petty gripe with Aunty, might have been a rich reflection on the individual, government and truth. Instead, it presented fascinating contradictions. The senator, born in Stuttgart in 1958, is a Christian Calvinist, and was citing the very moral relativism that the social conservatives of his party – who have ascended dramatically under Abbott’s prime ministership – consider repugnantly destructive. 

For the Liberals’ social conservatives, the imagined tapestry of Australian society is always threatened by the absence of fixed meaning – the universality of God’s wisdom, the primacy of the “traditional” family, and inflexibly optimistic narratives of Australian history are the divine glue that binds us together. Determining our own meaning is anathema. Nietzsche’s relativism is precisely the sort of intellectual slovenliness that imperils us. 

Abetz’s citation of Nietzsche was also interesting, for he was summoning one of history’s most fierce atheists. Nietzsche called Christianity a “slave morality” and argued that ethics sprung from a “will to power” – an affirming belief to the classical liberals but abhorrent to the dominant philosophy in Tony Abbott’s cabinet. To consider the speaker of the Nietzsche quote is to marvel at the chasm between the line and the moral certitude that defines Abetz and his colleagues.

On August 7 this year, unemployment figures showed a rise to 6.4 per cent, the highest in more than a decade. Abetz’s home state, which lags behind the mainland in most socioeconomic indicators, recorded 7.6 per cent. The minister for employment appeared on the televised panel program The Project that evening. Instead of reckoning with the figures, Abetz was on the show to defend the World Congress of Families, a fundamentalist Christian forum being held in Melbourne. During the interview, Abetz expressed faith in the discredited link between abortion and breast cancer. Abbott quickly censured him. Presumably, the minister for employment was merely evoking Nietzsche again – there’s no such thing as facts. 

But unfortunately for Abetz, there are, and those facts augur poorly for the Apple Isle – the place where he has exercised enormous influence within the Liberal Party for some time. “He’s been the string-puller in Tasmania for years,” former Tasmanian Labor minister for the environment Andrew Lohrey told me. “Abetz plays a very big role in party policy. He’s pro-forestry of the kind that was happening 20 years ago. He hasn’t expressed a vision for what the next 20 years might look like, though.”

1 . Forestry v greenies

For decades, Tasmania was roiled with conflict between loggers and conservationists. It is difficult to exaggerate the enmity, or how much it consumed state politics. There were extremists on both sides – saboteurs and the violently confrontational. As Nietzsche might have it, the conflict was variously interpreted as: the working class versus the middle; progress versus conservation; citizen versus corporate malfeasance. For loggers from remote hamlets, handed their skills by their fathers and sceptical of the possibility of alternative work, the green protesters offensively preferred philosophy over humans. Conversely, many protesters thought the loggers ignorant lackeys of increasingly rapacious companies – notably Gunns. Like most caricatures arising from conflict, they were both accurate and woefully inadequate. 

In 2013 the Tasmanian Forestry Agreement was passed in state parliament. It would come to be informally known as the “peace deal”. It consigned half a million hectares of forest to conservation, while guaranteeing logging companies access to a set number of sawlogs from plantations. Meanwhile, state and federal governments would provide compensation to companies and communities affected by the downsizing, while industry agreed to internationally recognised Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. 

The deal had taken years, and involved industry, conservation groups, unions and government. It was eventually endorsed by the Gillard government before passing the Tasmanian house. In reality, the deal was assisted more by market forces than protesters. “Industry didn’t stop because of greenies,” Lohrey tells me. “It stopped because of the market. It was an inefficient industry and inflexible, and had been subsidised for a long, long time. Gunns went broke because CEO John Gay overextended them. Their debt went way up, and their equity right down, and then the bottom of the market fell out. Gunns has been a disaster for the forestry industry generally.”

As with many other Australian industries, the world caught up. Countries were growing their own plantations, and producing woodchips much cheaper. Combined with a high Australian dollar, our wood exports – especially for chips – collapsed. 

Regardless, during the 2013 federal election campaign, Abetz said the agreement was ruinous to Tasmania’s growth and vowed to tear it up in government. Abetz was pledging to resurrect the forest wars, even if global markets rendered the act almost purely symbolic. Then, in March this year, Liberal Will Hodgman became premier, ending 16 years of Labor rule. Abetz’s dream of scrapping the peace deal was closer: currently, legislation repealing the agreement is being debated. “Ripping up the silly forest peace deal will also help grow jobs in Tasmania,” Abetz tells The Saturday Paper. “And the new state government, to its great credit, are saying ‘we’ve got all these locked-up wilderness areas. Guess what? We’re going to allow tourism development, albeit carefully, that have been built in the wilderness areas, to actually make use of them and generate income through international tourism. So, Tasmania can do a lot for itself. It’s going to take some time to rebuild that confidence, but my aim is to have a climate where Tasmanians can stay in Tasmania.” 

2 . Can’t see the forest for the trees

Tasmania is a powerful case study in the consequences of philosophical myopia. Abetz seeks to revive an industry he thinks was made lame by the anti-development dogma of the Greens, but in reality has been stricken fatally by inefficiency, greed and the vicissitudes of global development. Abetz is continuing the unsustainable belief that Tasmanian prosperity – its very sense of itself – springs from forestry. “In my home state of Tasmania over 50 per cent is locked up,” Abetz says. “Now, if that was to be inflicted on the rest of Australia, or indeed on any other state, have a look what that would do to its economy – no mining, no farming, no tourism – and draw the line however you like. Fifty per cent of the state locked, you’d see some more economic basket cases in Australia.” 

When Abetz speaks here of retarded potential, he is speaking specifically of the nature reserves contained in the agreement. But in 2012, just 1 per cent of Tasmania’s workforce was employed in forestry. Ten years before that, it was not much more than twice that. The economic potency of Tasmanian logging has long been imagined, exaggerated by political convenience, myth-making and the sincere anxieties of loggers. 

“We spend so much time talking about the forest industry,” Lohrey says, “but it’s so tiny. It’s an industry wrapped up in a state identity, or even national identity. True blue Aussie. It’s been subsidised so much, but employs so few people. It’s been a cowboy industry in the past, run by cowboys. And cowboys are iconic figures in this country.”

Abetz is also trying to revive an industry not only shaken by international markets, but also altered by improved standards of conservation. “The industry has completely changed – the future will be more regulated. We have adopted the FSC, which is a worldwide standard for sustainable timber. This means Tasmanian old growth forests can’t be logged if the miller is FSC certified. Even Forestry Tasmania wants this. That wasn’t the case three years ago, but it’s a way forward now. It’s the end of an era.”

But for Abetz, it has long been more important to respond to an ideological contempt of environmentalists than it has to the economic viability of forestry. Tasmania’s climate makes it uniquely placed in Australia to produce world-class wine and dairy. It’s blessed with natural beauty, lending itself to tourism. It has not come close to recognising its potential. In a widely read article last year, Professor Jonathan West, of the Australian Innovation Research Centre, wrote of the cultural and political paralysis afflicting Tasmania. His analysis was initially stark: “The underlying problem is simple but intractable: Tasmania has developed a way of life, a mode of doing things, a demographic, a culture and associated economy, that reproduces underachievement generation after generation.” 

West also wrote: “The challenge is not that the scale of job loss is too great to be made up by growth in other sectors. Rather it relates to failure to take the action required to bring opportunities to reality, either in forestry or other areas.” 

For decades, Tasmania has been the epitome of the Liberals’ bogeyman – the welfare dependent. The island has been stricken by a failure of imagination – a sober declaration of the importance of education, and the subsequent benefits of economic diversification. This is the state where the Australian Bureau of Statistics recently found that half of its population were functionally illiterate, and more than half were innumerate. So far Abetz has only shown an interest in the resumption of an ideological arm wrestle. In response to how Tasmania might slough off its underperformance, Abetz offers the usual recitation. “We’re looking at getting rid of a lot of green and red tape, and the carbon tax, mining tax, rebooting coastal shipping, for example,” he says. 

Abetz’s state is lagging, and its future requires very different thinking. But perhaps Abetz is comforted by the fact that there isn’t any.

Additional reporting by Andy Hazel.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 13, 2014 as "Still in the woods, fighting a lost war".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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