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Facts Should Matter in the Forestry debate

‘It can promise different groups different things, but it cannot promise them contradictory things. It must accept that there are times when it cannot satisfy both constituencies and that it has no choice but to identify either with the outer suburbs and regions or with the inner metropolitan voter.’ The Brompton Report – A new approach for Labor. Commissioned by the CFMEU Forestry and Furniture Products Division in the wake of Labor’s 2004 Federal Election defeat.

The above advice was given to the federal Labor Party in response to a situation concerning Tasmanian forestry back in 2004. It could equally apply to those governing Victoria in 2017.

The Victorian Forest Industry Taskforce was an attempt to promise contradictory things to different constituencies. At the 2014 Victorian state election, the (then) incumbent made a commitment to refrain from creating any new national parks during the next term of government. The Labor Party did not go that far and, instead, promised to establish a Forest Industry Taskforce.

‘Labor strongly supports a consensus approach in the establishment of any new national parks. We will facilitate and support the establishment of an Industry Taskforce to provide leadership to reach common ground on the future issues facing the industry, job protection, economic activity, protection of our unique native flora and fauna and threatened species, such as the Leadbeater’s possum. The taskforce will have members from the forestry and forest products industry, unions, environmental groups and scientists, threatened species experts, land owners, timber communities and other relevant stakeholders.’ Our Environment, Our Future. Victorian Labor Election Policy, 2014.

When the Taskforce was established a number of relevant stakeholders were omitted including land owners, recreational users, indigenous owners and expert land managers. The exclusion of important groups was not even the most significant flaw in the make-up of the Forest Industry Taskforce – it’s most serious flaw was that it gave equal weight to stakeholders who don’t have equal importance to society. Small green activist groups with a handful of members were given equal billing with employers upon whom thousands of Victorians rely for their livelihood. Ideologically driven lobby groups were given equal billing with businesses with tens of millions of dollars invested in the forest industry.

The taskforce has provided a report to the Victorian Government which (at the time of publication) has not been released publicly. Little if any ‘common ground’ has been reached.

Victoria has around eight million hectares of forest across crown and private land. Over the past thirty years the total area of forest cover has either remained the same or increased across Victoria’s eleven bioregions. Around three million hectares of Victoria is managed as State Forest, less than two million hectares of that is available for timber harvesting. An average of five thousand hectares is harvested in a given year.

In early February, the twenty year East Gippsland Regional Forest Agreement was extended by thirteen months within just twenty-four hours of the time it was due to expire. Its expiry will now coincide with that of the Central Highlands Regional Forest Agreement (the area under the most contention) in March next year.

Also in early February, the Wilderness Society released a report that it had commissioned from a consultancy (the Nous Group) entitled ‘Great Forest National Park: economic contribution of park establishment, park management, and visitor expenditure’ – the release of the report was accompanied by a media release heralding the potential creation of a new park would create ‘760 jobs’. The report itself puts the actual figure associated with creating a new park at just 50 full-time jobs, and, in doing so, ignores the thousands of jobs which could be lost across the native timber industry. The authors of the report (Nous Group) in fact went to lengths to ensure that the deficiencies within the report were clear and obvious (a fact clearly missed by some media outlets which faithfully reported the Wilderness Society’s spin). The first paragraph of the report is worth reproducing here – the bold type emphasis on words is as presented in the report.

‘Nous Group (Nous) was engaged by The Wilderness Society to undertake a narrowly scoped analysis, projecting the additional economic activity generated by the Great Forest National Park (GFNP) through park establishment, park management and potential additional visitor expenditure. The impact of the establishment of the GFNP on other forms of economic activity was specifically not in scope.’ First paragraph, Executive Summary, Great Forest National Park: economic contribution of park establishment, park management, and visitor expenditure.

In contrast to this, a recent report by Deloitte Access Economics found that the timber industry in Victoria’s Central Highlands generates $573 million in revenue annually and is directly responsible for the employment of 2,117 full time equivalent workers.

This is not the first time that the green movement has relied on narrowly scoped or otherwise inadequate reports to support economic arguments against the forest industry. A claim regularly advanced is that Vic-Forests (the government owned forestry regulator) is a loss making enterprise – the implication being that the industry is ‘subsidised’ by the Victorian taxpayer. In 2013 NEAS, a business unit of the Australian Conservation Foundation, produced a report on which this contention is based (‘An assessment of Vic-Forests finances’).

The Australian Deer Association has seen an analysis of the NEAS report which was conducted by a senior experienced economist and CPA. The analysis highlights serious flaws with the NEAS report including the omission of such critical information as Vic-Forests profit and loss report and advises that ‘the NEAS report is superficial and substantially flawed, containing biased misinformation’.

The practical consequence of the ongoing uncertainty of supply for the timber industry is that thousands of blue collar jobs and entire communities have their very future placed under a cloud.

One might ask why any of this matters to an organisation like the Australian Deer Association. It matters because the attack on forestry is, in effect, an attack on access to public land. Any loss of state forest in the Central Highlands will inevitably result in a loss of access for hound hunters and gundog hunters in particular and will likely result in greatly diminished access for all hunters. The ADA insists that decisions which affect us be based on clear evidence and data, not on intuition, prejudice or political expediency. We have seen nothing to convince us that the current proposals for a national park go anywhere close to meeting that simple and fundamental test.

This issue sadly has very little to do with policy and a great deal to do with electoral politics.

This is not a choice between the environment and industry, all of the evidence makes it clear that as a society we have the wit and the means to get that balance right. This is a choice between being responsive to the whims of elites in the inner suburbs or the needs of blue collar workers and communities in the outer suburbs and the regions.