Sides sweat on talks outcome
from The Financial Review
Forestry is once again shaping as a difficult issue for Labor in this election campaign as the Coalition says it will continue to support the timber industry and the Australian Greens vow to oppose any further industry assistance.
Both major parties have been waiting to see whether the old foes from environmental groups, logging companies and unions who are engaging in private talks on the future of forestry in Tasmania reach an agreement before the election.
Participants in the round-table talks, who were bunkered down in negotiations in Hobart late last week, have been tight-lipped but have come under pressure from both main parties to keep them informed of the progress.
After all, several seats could be at stake – most notably Bass and Braddon, which Labor holds with margins of 1 per cent and 2.3 per cent, resp
The Australian Financial Review revealed last week part of the price tag of the deal being discussed could be an interim assistance package for forestry contractors of an immediate $50 million, plus $1 million a week indefinitely.
The Australian Forest Contractors Association, which says 4000 contractors and their staff are struggling because of the industry downturn and looming restructure, has outlined this proposal and claims it has the support of all the parties to the talks.
There would likely be other costs to government involved, including possibly compensation to Gunns for surrendering timber concessions in state forests and further assistance with jobs.
In Launceston on Friday, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott declined to comment on the contractors’ proposal but said the Coalition had always supported the timber industry. “If you want the Tasmanian forest industry to survive, the last thing you need is a de facto Labor-Green alliance in Canberra as well as in Hobart,” he said.
Greens leader Bob Brown rejected any further assistance to the logging industry until it exited native forests and shifted to plantations. “We don’t believe one dollar should go to keeping loggers in the publicly owned state forests. The Howard government gave $250 million for so-called re-tooling, re-skilling and so on and we have an industry on its knees. It squandered that money,” he said.
The talks cover a restructuring of the industry, including seeking a way forward on long-running disputes over ending the logging of Tasmania’s oldest high-conservation value forests and over the proposed Gunns Tamar Valley pulp mill.
Participants include Timber Communities Australia, the National Association of Forest Industries, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Environment Tasmania, the Wilderness Society and the Australian Conservation Foundation.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard has twice been to Tasmania during the campaign but has thus far skirted making any forestry commitments. Her old confidant and friend from university days, Michael O’Connor, is representing timber workers in the talks. Mr O’Connor was the union boss who embarrassed Labor days before the 2004 election by leading workers who booed Mark Latham’s plans to lock up more old-growth forest.
If the round-table talks do reach a deal, it could provide Labor with a ready-made, long-term plan for the industry, which could be announced with the sort of widespread support that has proved elusive on this issue.
Associate professor and head of the school of government at the University of Tasmania, Kate Crowley, said forestry was a sleeper issue in the campaign that could still flare up in the final fortnight.
The Australian Financial Review
See Jarvis Cocker Here earlier on the Tasmanian Times