An Epiphany For Australia Institute On Power Of Partnership?


Last week a generic email landed in my inbox from the Australia Institute. Defensive in tone, it justified the role of the institute’s new Strategy Director, Ben Oquist, in the extraordinary Al Gore-led coup that converted Clive Palmer to climate change advocate.

The email stressed the importance of engaging with “all sections of the community. Even those we may have fundamental differences of opinions with”. It also put forward the reasonable proposition that “change is only achieved by engagement with people who do NOT share your view” (original emphasis).

Clive’s climate road to Damascus is paved with some material that some environmentalists would probably rather not stand in, but it has dramatically re-set the debate.

The prospect of saving the furniture of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Renewable Energy Target and the Climate Change Authority, and potentially ensuring the political clock isn’t set back to year zero on carbon pricing (even if the price is) is a remarkable achievement.

The nimble populism of the PUP means nothing is set in concrete. But those involved, including Oquist and former Australian Conservation Foundation head Don Henry, should be congratulated for taking the risk on this brave but game-changing gambit.

The email also pointed to the “powerful alliance” of farmers and environmentalists, among them the Wilderness Society, as a prime example of what can be achieved when relationships are built across divides.

The Tasmanian Forest Agreement appears to be exactly the type of alliance building that the Australia Institute advocates, yet when the agreement was signed in November 2012 Australia Institute Director Richard Denniss slammed it.

“The newly-inked Tasmanian Forest Agreement has been hailed by many as a historic breakthrough that provides Tasmania with an opportunity to end the divisive ‘forest wars’ and remake the state’s ailing economy. In truth, it is a case study in how not to make policy,” Denniss and Andrew Macintosh opined in Crikey.

“By handing over the responsibility for resolving the dispute to two groups that sit at either end of the debate   the forest lobby and green groups   the Tasmanian government has overlooked the interests of those in the middle; the Tasmanian public.”

Denniss’s take on the agreement plays to the same argument run by Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, a warrior-like figure in the forest wars, as cover for an ideologically anti-conservation agenda.

The Tasmanian Forest Agreement was negotiated in 2012 between environmentalists, including the Wilderness Society, industry and unions to end the decades-long forest wars that have blighted Tasmania.

It’s based on a simple premise – that the highly charged brew of super-heated Tasmanian forest politics; a forestry industry in dire straits due to international competition and environmentally-sensitive markets; regional communities suffering economic decline; and ongoing environmental damage could only be addressed by arch enemies sitting down to fix some diabolically difficult problems.

Since being signed in November 2012 and legislated in 2013 by the former Tasmanian ALP-Green Government and the independent upper house, the historic agreement has delivered.

A World Heritage Area covering 170,000 hectares of the most contested and spectacular forests on the planet – think wilderness valleys full of old growth forest with trees almost 100 metres tall – was listed in June 2013.

A further 400,000 hectares of agreed forest has interim protection from logging, pending formal protection in national parks.

While the battles and efforts of conservationists over decades laid the groundwork for these outcomes, the simple fact is that they could not have been delivered without industry and union collaboration.

On the back of environment groups’ support for wood products from Tasmania’s native forests, industry decline has stabilised, albeit at a level dramatically reduced from the woodchippers heyday of the early 2000s.

Government assistance has bought out mills to reduce the industry to a size where long-term viability and forest protection is possible, and government support for value adding and R&D into the required transition to plantation wood was agreed.

The most significant test of the value of collaboration has been the response from the key industry and union signatories to the election of Tasmanian and Commonwealth Governments hostile to the outcomes of the agreement.

Some on both fringes of the political spectrum have chosen to play the politics, and the Abbott and Hodgman Governments have sought to axe outcomes, particularly for conservation, but key agreement signatories such as the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania and the CFMEU have continued to back the agreement.

This has included advocacy against the Abbott Government’s kamikaze and recently rejected efforts to get the World Heritage Committee to delist an area of World Heritage forest for logging.

Institute head Denniss is critical of the subsidies for state-owned forest managers. The Wilderness Society and other conservation groups have argued this for decades, but unfortunately the argument hasn’t resulted in protecting forests.

What has protected forests is the support of an industry with the chance of viability and an acceptance of market demands.

Denniss has previously characterised the $420 million package of mainly Commonwealth funds to support the agreement as a ‘bailout’ for the forestry industry, yet less than 20 per cent of these funds went towards supporting the existing native forest industry, while $100 million was spent buying back contracts to reducing the industry in size to viable levels – and allow the protection of forests.

The remainder was allocated to support for workers impacted by the forestry downturn, the transition to plantations, conservation, and non-forestry regional development.

Richard Denniss has recently shown remarkable pragmatism in his urging of the Labor Party to back the Coalition’s Direct Action Plan, saying, “The government is offering to spend a couple of billion on abating emissions. As long as we get good value for it, and we are confident the emissions are abated and administrative costs are not excessively high, I think that would be a good outcome.”

This may or not be the case, but support for a large spend on highly speculative environmental outcomes and criticism of expenditure of funds with a much clearer environmental pay-off appears inconsistent.

The Australia Institute’s pluck in backing the Palmer climate decision and working across divides is admirable.

I can only hope in future it recognises and supports the same actions in others.

Warrick Jordan is the Wilderness Society’s National Forest Campaign Manager.

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