Forest deal support unclear as positions wax and wane

SOMETIMES, it pays to look behind you to see what's coming.

Next week, the Legislative Council will decide whether it will pass the Tasmanian Forests Agreement Bill.

It's difficult to underplay the importance of that single political decision.

Both the federal and state governments want to put forestry to bed. It is demanding too much attention and costing them too much in capital - both political and monetary.

Talks that led up to the agreement, which underpin the legislation before Parliament, stretched on for more than two years.

The forestry wars have dragged on for decades, smothering the progress of the state.

Everybody will be watching with bated breath to see which way our independent MLCs will vote.

The lone Labor and Liberal MLCs are already on opposite sides of the fence: the government wants the deal to get up and the Opposition wants it to fail.

But what of the others? Huon MLC Paul Harriss has effectively already voted against the deal - he cast a vote as a member of the Huon branch of the Timber Communities Australia.

He wasn't the only TCA member in Tasmania against the deal. A secret ballot last weekend resulted in a vote against - but only 10 per cent of members cast their vote.

The board decided then to sign TCA onto the deal as a signatory anyway. On Thursday night it reviewed that decision in light of revolt from grassroots members and maintained its position to remain a signatory.

Mr Harriss won't be voting in favour of legislation that underpins a deal he is against.

But what of the others?

Ten months ago 12 MLCs joined Mr Harriss in condemning overseas market attacks against Ta Ann Tasmania.

At the time those 13 MLCs warned they would block the creation of any new reserves "if radical environment groups persist with their overseas blackmail of timber exports by Ta Ann or any other Tasmanian timber processor".

At the time, Ta Ann cut jobs in line with a cut in production.

Fast forward, and now Ta Ann is urging those same MLCs to support the legislation.

The company has done everything it can to lobby for their support with the head of Ta Ann's Malaysian parent company flying in to meet with them, and promising to build a $10 million plywood mill in the North if the deal goes ahead - or pull its operations from the state.

Ditto for Neville Smith Forest Products, which operates facilities at Bell Bay, Launceston and in the South, and Northern woodchip exporter Artec.

Even, heaven forbid, former premier and stalwart supporter of industry Paul Lennon.

Mr Lennon appealed directly to the public faces of a revolt against the deal.

His message? I know how you feel about the radical environmentalists. I feel the same way. But we have to put those traditional lines of battle behind us. The industry is never going to be what it was - this deal will mean it can be rebuilt into something else.

In February, MLCs stood in solidarity of industry on forestry. So if industry is now backing this deal, and supporting legislation, surely that means MLCs will too?

Since Ta Ann came out in support it's been fascinating to watch the reaction of those dead-set against the deal (and previously in support of that company).

It's not about one company, opponents are now saying, it's about the industry as a whole.

Yet if all peak groups are signed onto the deal, and the only major industry players to declare their position publicly have come out in favour how can someone argue they know best or better?

Even if this Bill passes both houses of Parliament it will not mean that new reserves are created. The legislation only creates a process under which such reserves can be added - and each one still has to be approved by the House of Assembly and Legislative Council.

Depending on which side of the fence you sit it will be some very brave or very obstinate MLCs who knock back the Bill.

More likely, is a move to amend it - a rare chance to put their lasting stamp on forestry.

Dinah Arndt is The Examiner's chief political reporter.

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