Tearing up forest deal no help to anyone

Nobody wants this. Environmentalists are against it. Unions don’t support it. The Forest Industries Association has written to the prime minister, asking him to reconsider. But the Liberal Party is intent on ripping up the Tasmanian Forests Agreement. They want it undone and the amity it has brought gone.

The deal is part of an uneasy peace brokered last year, which allowed for an agreed amount of timber logging in exchange for the protection of key forest areas. After decades of rancour, it allowed timber workers and environmentalists to negotiate a compromise in Tasmania’s forests. The agreement earmarked half a million hectares of forest for protection.

But after winning the Tasmanian election at the weekend, Liberal Premier Will Hodgman has said that reversing the deal is among his first priorities in government. Senator Eric Abetz had been banging this drum since well before the poll. The federal government had already begun the process of delisting 74,000 hectares of forest marked as having World Heritage value.

“We don’t support, as a government and as a coalition, further lock-ups of our forests. We just don’t support it,” Tony Abbott said at a dinner for timber workers this month.

“We have quite enough national parks. We have quite enough locked-up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked-up forest … Getting that 74,000 hectares out of World Heritage listing, it’s still going to leave half of Tasmania protected forever, but that will be an important sign to you, to Tasmanians, to the world, that we support the timber industry. When I look out tonight at an audience of people who work with timber, who work in forests, I don’t see people who are environmental vandals. I see people who are the ultimate conservationists.”

It was hard to know for whom this speech was delivered. It wasn’t for the forestry workers thriving under the peace deal. Or the union that supports it. Or the industry association that wants to see it continue. It was as if Abbott was speaking to some part of Australia, far from Tasmania, that wants to know man might triumph over the trees.

This is a battle when the war has already been lost. Conservative government should be about steady government, but this is a government that thrives on chaos. Right back to his student days, Abbott has been a person who flourishes under commotion. On so many issues, the war mostly is over: the rights of women and gays, the science of climate change, the history of Aboriginal Australia, the protection of forests. But the stability of these settled scores does not suit a government more used to being an opposition than being in charge.

And so we have a forestry agreement ripped up, battles that have already reached their conclusions being dragged by skirmish back into life. Who this helps is not clear. Certainly, a battle from the past is a handy diversion from the future. There are old war horses that would like to fight again a war they have already lost.

But this does not help Tasmania. It does not help the people who work in forestry, or in tourism. It is no help to a fragile economy with a pitiful record of unemployment.

Stoking instability is not the work of a conservative government, but in many respects this is not a classically conservative government.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 22, 2014 as "Tearing up forest deal no help to anyone".

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