Agreement `platform for future'

Premier Lara Giddings and Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
Premier Lara Giddings and Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

FORESTRY negotiators attempting to end the decades long conflict over Tasmania's native forests have compared the final days of the fragile peace talks to baking a souffle. Open the oven door too early and it will immediately deflate.

Hence, it's difficult to predict if a deal will be reached tomorrow - let alone the terms of a potential agreement - as those involved give nothing away.

The deadline for an agreement has already been extended once and further time for discussion between environment and industry groups has been ruled out. After more than two years of formal negotiations that have narrowly survived numerous near derailments, tomorrow is D-day.

Most observers say it's a good sign the environment and industry groups are still talking. They were scheduled to meet yesterday and are likely to meet again today.

No one could doubt the dedication of the people at the negotiating table. Meetings of the core group known as the ``four by four'' - four representatives of the pro-environment side and four from the industry side - have gradually increased in frequency from fortnightly to weekly, to daily as the deadline bore down.

But will all their efforts be worth it?

Associate Professor Natasha Cica, director of the Inglis Clark Centre for Civil Society, says even an imperfect agreement would send a message that the key players are prepared to listen, compromise and shift position constructively for the benefit of the wider Tasmanian community.

``It would also be a platform for ongoing dialogue between Tasmanians who hold different points of view on this issue,'' she said.

The negotiating groups' approach has been to agree on what they could, however minor, before tackling the big sticking points - how much native forest will be protected and how much wood supply will be available to industry. In August last year, Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Premier Lara Giddings signed a deal worth $276 million, but it relies on the groups agreeing on these key matters and the state government passing legislation reflecting their agreement.

If the signatories can't reach a compromise on those key matters, the rest will mean little. If they can, it is likely to require more taxpayers dollars in the form of extra compensation, to get it over the line.

However, for those expecting an agreement to deliver peace, Associate Professor Cica warned it could in fact exacerbate tensions initially ``especially if any agreement becomes a political football'' and the necessary changes as timber communities are forced to transition will be painful.

``But of course Tasmania can move on,'' Associate Professor Cica said. ``What's been `broken' by people can always be `fixed' by people, with the right kind of mindset and with practical support.''

Whatever happens, she said it is vital not to give up and suggested a series of ``peace polls'' like the ones conducted in Northern Ireland. The series of public opinion surveys improved transparency, inclusiveness and public confidence in the prospect of ending the Northern Ireland conflict.

``If these talks fail we need to keep talking as a community - talking until the real talking starts, perhaps.''