Why Does The Coalition Want To 'Unlock' The Forests?

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Does Tasmania have too many national parks? Prime Minister Tony Abbott thinks so. At a dinner this week with forest industry workers, Abbott was in expansive mode. Fondly recalling his grandfather, a shipwright, Abbott reminisced on his adolescent attempts at carpentry.

He also made some telling comments about Tasmania’s forestry policy, a hard-won agreement between environmental groups and loggers that the Federal Government and Tasmanian Liberal leader Will Hodgman would like to overturn.

“We have quite enough National Parks,” the Prime Minister said in his speech. “We have quite enough locked up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked up forest.”

Perhaps the most revealing aspects of Abbott’s speech were the hints it gave at the Prime Minister’s instinctive hostility to environmentalism.

It wasn’t just the usual rhetoric about the “the Green ideology [that]has done so much damage to Tasmania.” In another part of the speech, Abbott explained some of his philosophies of the environment.

"Man and the environment are meant for each other. The last thing we do – the last thing we should want – if we want to genuinely improve our environment is to want to ban men and women from enjoying it, is to ban men and women from making the most of it and that’s what you do. You intelligently make the most of the good things that God has given us."

There are no prizes for guessing the intellectual origin of this sentiment, the Book of Genesis, which famously tells us all to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth”. For a deeply Catholic man such as Tony Abbott, such ideas must seem almost self-evident.

Conservatives have long harboured a deep-seated loathing of environmentalism and the Greens as a political party. Abbott’s remarks help explain why. Many truly believe that natural resources are a God-given bounty to be exploited. The idea that we would leave minerals in the ground, or logs in the forest untouched, strikes many as completely irrational. From here it is a simple jump to paint environmentalism as inherently anti-growth.

That’s certainly what Abbott seems to think. Later in his speech, he blamed the Greens for a laundry list of Tasmania’s woes: its high rates of unemployment, its low life expectancy, its low wages and its low levels of educational attainment.

There is, of course, a strong strain of anti-development, anti-growth logic in green philosophies. But even for the Tasmanian Liberals, where hatred of the Greens is a badge of honour, this is a long bow to draw.

Tasmania’s social and economic problems are deep-seated and have much to do with the state’s history and geography. There is little evidence that environmental policies are the cause of Tasmania’s problems.

Take the forestry industry, for instance. Everyone agrees forestry has fallen on hard times in the Apple Isle. But the causes have more to do with macro-economic factors than conservation policies. Far from Tasmanian forest industries experiencing a lack of supply from forests being “locked up”, the real problem has been a lack of demand.

Forestry Tasmania, the state-owned logging agency, has lost hundreds of millions in recent years. It did so despite constant injections of taxpayers' money, and even without paying for its key input of native logs. Private sector players have also lost money and gone bust, most notably the former timber giant, Gunns.

Falling demand was the cause; overseas markets don’t want to buy native timber products from Tasmania. Even Gunns eventually recognised this, when it exited from native forests in 2011. It was too late to save the company from going under.

As a 2013 paper from the Tasmanian Treasury notes:

“[T]he key external factors, in addition to the Australian dollar appreciation, include a significant contraction of traditional Japanese woodchip market, where there has also been a strong shift in demand towards woodchips from plantation resources.”

The report notes that Australia’s share of the Japanese woodchip market has declined by half since 2008, and by a quarter in 2013.

None of this has much to do with national parks. Tasmania has fallen prey to the same problems that manufacturers all over Australia have, especially the sky-high Aussie dollar and a competitive global market. In any case, forestry only accounts for around half of one per cent of gross state product.

It is simply not a significant factor in the Tasmanian economy, even if politics ensures it retains a prominent place in public awareness. However, other Tasmanian industries that are economically much more important than forestry do rely on Tasmania’s natural beauty and national parks. For those who’ve ever visited the beautiful island state, that’s understandable.

Tasmania’s natural beauty has long been its biggest draw card, and many of the state’s growing tourism, food and wine industries depend on its unspoilt reputation as a crucial brand advantage for their products. According to Tourism Tasmania, tourism to the island increased by 15 per cent in 2013, with interstate visits up 18 per cent. Visitor expenditure was up by 11 per cent to $1.5 billion. Dare we point out: all this happened under a "Green-dominated government”.

Would delisting 74,000 hectares of World Heritage forest help the Tasmanian economy? It seems unlikely. Would more logging help tourism? Probably not. Would ripping up a historic forestry agreement help Tasmanian food and wine producers? No.

That’s the problem with using simplistic rhetoric to address complex social and economic problems. It doesn’t work, because it bears no relation to reality. Conservatives might like to think that Tasmania’s problems can be solved by fighting greenies, ripping up forest agreements and logging more national parks. But they can’t. Forests will never provide enough jobs to make real difference.

The cold, hard truth is that Tasmania can’t log its way to prosperity. If the island state is to lift its performance, it will need to do it the hard way: by investing in human capital, by nurturing innovative new businesses, and by selling products and services the rest of the world wants to buy.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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