The forestry debate has moved very rapidly over the last few weeks, concluding with the Australian Government approval of the Gunns Bell Bay pulp mill on 10 March and the release of Bill Kelty’s forests moratorium statement on 11 March.
But before addressing these recent and most significant developments, let us consider the background to these events. For instance, it is important when reading the Kelty statement to recognise that neither the state nor Australian governments has set out a policy or defined its interests regarding forest protection or forest note the extremely limited instructions that have been given to Forestry Tasmania (FT) in relation to its role in a logging moratorium. It is also vital to know Gunns’ true position on native forest logging and what the ‘forests for the pulp mill’ deal is, if, in fact, it is real.
When this is explained, it makes it very clear that the Kelty forests moratorium statement is appallingly weak and appears to equate to a ‘forests for the pulp mill’ deal, which we have all feared was being discussed.
State and Australian governments’ policy vacuum
On 2 February 2011, the newly appointed Premier, Lara Giddings, responded to the TCT’s 11 November 2010 letter to the former Premier, David Bartlett, and copied to the Prime Minister and her ministers for forestry and environment (published in full in the Tasmanian Conservationist No. 321), which outlined the key shortcomings of the Forests Statement of Principles Agreement (FSoP). As expected, the Premier’s letter did not contain a detailed or substantive response to the many policy recommendations we made. But it did say that we could expect a meeting with Tasmanian Minister for Energy and Resources Bryan Green, whom the Premier described, as ‘leading the Tasmanian Government’s engagement with this [the Kelty] process’.
At the time of printing, the TCT has not yet received a response or a meeting invitation from Bryan Green. No reply has been received from the Australian Government.
It is not surprising that the TCT has not received responses to its recommendations because under David Bartlett, and now Lara Giddings, the state government has pointedly avoided articulating a clear position on forest conservation or forestry industry reform. The conservation groups involved in the FSoP discussions should not have allowed the government to so comfortably sit on the fence.
First Bartlett got away with giving support to the FSoP process and saying the state government must give conservation and industry groups room to work out a deal. Then, after the FSoP was presented to him on 19 October 2011, Bartlett said that it represented a major step forward and reflected the substantial good will on both sides. Bryan Green also said in the same media release that the state government would prepare a response to the FSoP and would carry out ‘broad public consultation’ in preparing this response, but this promise has not been fulfilled. Then followed statements from Bartlett that confirmed the government’s general commitment to the forest industry, including no forced buy-backs of wood licences. But no commitments to forest conservation. Contrary to claims by some conservation groups, David Bartlett never committed his government to the 15 March date for commencement of a moratorium on logging in high conservation value forests (as identified by the Wilderness Society and Environment Tasmania).
The state government has also used the FSoP discussions as an excuse for not addressing major policy issues that have held up the review of the Forest Practices Code.
When Bill Kelty was appointed as an independent facilitator, Bartlett, and then Giddings, said the state government’s role was to provide input to the Kelty process.
The signed FSoP was provided to the former Premier on 19 October 2010 but, after five months, the state government still has not come out with a formal policy response to it. Without such commitments, the state government is safely placed to ignore or, at best, deliver part of the forest conservation recommendations.
While the TCT has not had a reply from the Australian Government, Julia Gillard issued a media release on 7 December in response to the FSoP. It avoided any policy statements but announced the commitment of both governments to the appointment of an independent facilitator.
The Tasmanian public does not know what the state or Australian governments’ interests or commitments are, with one exception: we know very clearly that both governments want the Gunns Bell Bay pulp mill built. We are right to assume that both governments are looking to the FSoP process to assist with ensuring the pulp mill proceeds, or at least does nothing to block it.
Since writing to the former Premier, the TCT has elaborated on some of our concerns by sending letters to the state and Australian governments (as yet unanswered) about:
- the failure of reserve proposals made by conservation groups who are signatories to the FSoP to incorporate key breeding habitat of the swift parrot, and the need for any agreement on forests to protect the habitat of the swift parrot and other threatened species
- the potential for strengthened biodiversity provisions of the Tasmanian Forest Practices Code to provide an ongoing process for defining high conservation value forests (HCVF) in areas left available for forestry operations (the need for a definition of HCVF was specifically identified in Prime Minister Gillard’s media release of 7 December 2010, which announced the Australian Government’s response to the FSoP)
- asking both governments to require Gunns Ltd to seek additional approval of its supposedly redesigned and improved Bell Bay pulp mill.
Gunns’ exit from native forest logging
Gunns has dominated Tasmania’s native forest timber industry. It owns licences issued by Forestry Tasmania for the supply of 200,000 cubit metres of native forest timber per annum (or 60% of the total) from public forests. Yet on 8 September 2010, in response to declining demand, Gunns announced its intention to cease using native forest wood. Six months later it has still not sold its licences. Gunns has been selling most other assets in a desperate bid to pay its debts, but has clung onto its wood licences. Why is it doing this?
There is an old joke that goes like this. Two Australian mates meet outside their local pub and one has a dog with him. After initial salutations, the bloke without the dog asks, ‘Mate, is it OK to pat your dog?’, to which his mate replies, ‘Sure’. The dog bites his hand and he says ‘but you said it was OK to pat your dog!’ The bloke with the dog says, ‘Mate, that’s not my dog’.
Gunns has been behaving like the man with the dog. It is not telling a lie by saying it will end native forest logging but it is happy to let people misunderstand what it is saying and doing.
When the TCT met with representatives ofGunns on 23 February 2011, they made it perfectly clear that the promise to exit the native forest sector was reliant on the state and/or Australian governments buying their wood licences. If Gunns’ licences are bought by the governments, they could be extinguished, which would enable more forests to be reserved, although no such commitment has been made by the state government. With no government funds for a buy-back, Gunns made it perfectly clear that it would have no other option but to sell to another forestry company, and logging may continue at the same rates.
This may be bluff from Gunns as it would be highly unlikely to find another buyer or attract a good price, given the massive decline in the native forest sector. But, if this bluff is believed by representatives of conservation groups, it has great importance. We are working on the assumption that other conservation groups are accepting this bluff.
This bluster also has an important role in rebranding Gunns as more environmentally responsible. Until a deal is struck, Gunns seems happy for the general public and potential investors to assume that it has ceased native forest logging and is helping to progress the FSoP. Many media commentators write or speak as if Gunns has delivered on this promise.
The ‘forests for the pulp mill’ deal
We do not know for sure whether Gunns and conservation groups, which are signatories to the FSoP, have done a ‘forests for the pulp mill’ deal but it appears to be consistent with what we know has been occurring. Such a deal would involve Gunns agreeing to sell its native forest wood licences back to the state government in exchange for conservation groups easing their opposition to the pulp mill and assisting with lobbying to get compensation for the licence buy-back.
However, in the absence of state government support for a forced buy-back of native forest wood licences, a ‘forests for the pulp mill’ deal is the only way we can see, currently, in which conservation groups can get protection of significant areas of public forests. Such a deal would also make good business sense for Gunns, which sees its future as being entirely dependent on building the pulp mill. The deal as described would maximise the value of the wood licences, being both a source of funds for the pulp mill but also, perhaps more importantly, an enticement for its arch enemies to not restart their previously very successful campaign to deter potential financiers.
The Kelty process
On 15 December 2010 the state and Australian governments announced the appointment of former leading unionist Bill Kelty as the independent facilitator to work, over a six-month period, with the forestry industry, conservation groups and both governments, in an attempt to develop a formal agreement to implement the FSoP.
The Kelty process commenced in early February 2011 and is operating in a complete policy vacuum. We could not obtain a statement from either the Australian or Tasmanian Governments as to their positions on forestry-industry reform or forest conservation and we understand that Kelty’s terms of reference also failed to state what the governments’ respective objectives were.
On 8 February the TCT met with Bill Kelty. After the meeting we had little confidence about anything coming out of his work. Mr Kelty summed up his job as talking to the signatories and other stakeholders, who may not agree with the FSoP, to determine whether an agreement could be formed. This is a pessimistic outlook, but realistic from our viewpoint.
Mr Kelty did not provide documents or even a detailed description of the process he will follow to develop a forests agreement. He said he would meet with the signatories, and non-signatories such as the TCT, Forestry Tasmania and Gunns, and after this would meet us again. However, this promise now seems very hollow, given that the TCT was never involved in the discussions that led to Kelty’s 11 March announcement regarding a logging moratorium.
Mr Kelty seemed totally unaware of our concerns or previous correspondence with the Premier, even though the Premier’s response promised to provide him with copies.
Other than confirming our assumption that the Australian Government wanted a deal over Tasmania’s forests to clear the way for Gunns Bell Bay pulp mill, Kelty could not provide a specific reason why the Australian Government wanted him involved.
His acknowledgement that regional development is a key issue, to be addressed as part of a possible Tasmanian forests agreement, gave us some hope that the Australian Government may take the issue seriously and potentially could provide funding for implementation of a forests deal.
We undertook to send him all our previous correspondence with the state and Australian governments regarding the FSoP. This has been done but we have no confidence that we will meet with him again or, if we do, that our input will be taken into account when he formulates his final recommendations.
Instructions to Forestry Tasmania
On 9 March 2011 the Minister for Forests, Bryan Green, issued written instructions to Forestry Tasmania (FT) on behalf of himself and the Premier, which state in part that:
‘I write on behalf of the Premier and myself in my capacity as the Portfolio Minister for Forestry Tasmania pursuant to the Government Business Enterprises Act 1995 to convey our expectations in relation to supporting the development and implementation of a moratorium on High Conservation Forest, and a guaranteed sustainable quantity and quality of wood supply, once agreed by all signatories to the Forestry Principles’.
This letter makes perfectly clear that FT is not obliged to actually reserve any forests, is not required to cease logging in any forests, is not bound by any timeframes in respect to a logging moratorium and is left to decide for itself which forests, if any, are HCV.
What this letter did do effectively is halt the call by conservationists for the state government to give orders to FT regarding implementation of a logging moratorium. At least it stopped the issue being seen to be newsworthy by the media.
11 March – Bill Kelty’s Claytons moratorium statement
The 11 March statement issued by Bill Kelty is a record of an oral agreement between the FSoP signatory organisations and FT, which claims to establish a logging moratorium (over 600,000 hectares of state forest identified as HCV forest by conservation organistions who are signatories to the FSoP) for a period of six months, while maintaining wood supply to meet existing contracts. The Kelty statement is available at
With FT in charge of deciding whether logging is needed within the HCV areas, we can expect virtually business as usual, with logging continuing at the same rate. Get ready for FT to promote the fact that logging will not take place in some important areas, but these will be areas not currently in its three-year logging plans.
The Kelty moratorium has paradoxically been called a partial moratorium. It is clear this is not a moratorium at all. But, worse, the statement gives little hope of any permanent forest protection at the end of the six-month Claytons moratorium. The only exception is if the conservation groups accept the ‘forests for the pulp mill’ deal.
Everything about the Kelty statement is consistent with a pre-arranged deal between the Labor governments in Canberra and Hobart, FT and industry groups. The statement is a product solely of the FSoP parties (the TCT and many other key stakeholders had no prior knowledge of or input into it) and was released the day after the pulp mill decision and two days after the state government instructed FT to participate in talks about a moratorium. Magically, the Claytons moratorium lasts until 11 days after the permitted deadline for construction of the pulp mill. This could be accidental or it might be a big hint to the FSoP signatory organisations that the moratorium ceases if the pulp mill does not get built.
If you were looking for comfirmation of a stitch-up, the Mercury may have provided it. On 12 March Sue Neales reported that FT chief Bob Gordon claimed that,
‘Mr Kelty believed a lasting peace in Tasmania’s forests after three decades of conflict was only possible “if the pulp mill at Bell Bay proceeds”.’
Where to from now?
The 11 March statement addressed one key component of the FSoP but many other elements are yet to be addressed by Kelty.
The Tasmanian public has been kept entirely in the dark as to whether the process will move onto other issues addressed in the FSoP or will conclude once it has provided further details in regard to the moratorium, as has been hinted at in media statements. Even if the moratorium over 600,000 hectares of state forest were real, this would only be a first step in delivering peace in Tasmania’s forests. The Kelty statement does not go close to providing a comprehensive plan for conservation of forests, does not propose any new strategies for the future of the native forest industry and does not address the needs of regional communities affected by the current decline in the forests industry or as a result of further forest protection.
Only one thing seems clear: that the Gunns proposed Bell Bay pulp mill must be stopped; the TCT will continue assisting other groups to achieve this. We have always believed that forest conservation can be progressed without the Gunns pulp mill proceeding, even if this means Gunns going broke as a company and possibly being bought out.
The TCT will continue to point out the weaknesses in the Kelty statement and lobby for a real moratorium over identified HCV forest. More importantly, we will continue to urge the state and Australian governments to address the numerous serious shortcomings in the FSoP, as outlined in the previous Tasmanian Conservationist.
We are not expecting the ongoing Kelty-facilitated FSoP process to survive very long. With too little certainty of gains for too many players, and the discussions are likely to break down.
While we will not attempt to wreck these talks, if the Kelty process breaks down it would be preferable to pushing through a deal which delivers so little but purports to be delivering peace in the forests.