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save the Blue Tier

the rape of tasmania

- by richard flanagan

The written history of corruption in Tasmania goes like this ...

In 1989, Eddie Rouse, Tasmanian media magnate and chairman of the Tasmanian logging company Gunns, became concerned that the election of a Labor-Green government with a one-seat majority might affect his logging profits.

Rouse attempted to bribe a Labor member, Jim Cox, to cross the floor, thereby bringing down the government and clearing the way for Robin Gray and the Liberal Party to resume power.

Cox went to the police, the plot was exposed, a royal commission and Rouse's fall from grace and imprisonment ensued.

But what of the unwritten history?

Fourteen years after the bribery scandal, an ageing Tasmanian forester called Bill Manning, subpoenaed to testify in front of a Senate committee investigating the Tasmanian forestry industry, began slowly and methodically to unravel a tale of an environmental catastrophe on a vast, almost incomprehensible, scale; of industry connivance and government complicity. In any other state, such evidence would threaten to bring down the government of the day.

His detailed, carefully presented evidence suggested that the forestry industry was not only systematically destroying globally unique forests, but poisoning the very fabric of Tasmanian politics and life.

Manning is no greenie hardliner. He is a man who has worked for 30 years in the Tasmanian forests, who believes the forests ought to be logged, but logged so that they remain for the future. Yet he alleged to the Senate committee that forestry management had been corrupted. At the hearing, he painted a picture of the illegal destruction of public forests on a scale so vast that it was transforming the landscape of Tasmania. Branding what was happening in Tasmania " an ecological disaster", Manning talked of how an "accelerated and unaccountable logging industry" was destroying wholesale native forests, "which are unique in the world for their flora and fauna".

"The clearfelling is out of control," he told the senators. "The scale of clearfelling in Tasmania is huge".

"Were it to be judged by the legislation that other Tasmanians have to abide by," he continued, "it would be found to be comprehensively in breach of Tasmanian law." But it isn't, because the Tasmanian forest industry is exempt from almost all Tasmanian laws that might check its excesses.

Manning told the committee that while the forestry industry claims that its Forest Practices Code is world's best practice, it is a code that is self-regulated by employees of logging companies, and "therefore has been so ineffectual as to render it virtually non-existent".

The culture of the forestry industry, he continued, had become one of "bullying, cronyism, secrecy and lies".

Manning's work in recent years had been as a forest audits officer, an industry policeman, working for the Forest Practices Board. In that time, he has issued tickets for 100 breaches of the Forest Practices Act, but no one was ever prosecuted. Finally, in frustration, he breached the state government body, Forestry Tasmania. Within two weeks, he told the hearing, he had had his ticket books taken away, and his authority to lay complaints under the Forest Practices Act withdrawn. Against his wishes, Manning was transferred out of the Forestry Practices Board into another government agency, Workplace Standards Tasmania.

When his questioning by senators was nearly finished, Manning wanted to make a further point.

"And then I am done," Manning said, "like a dinner."

Indeed he was.

In Tasmania, unsubstantiated rumours about Manning's health, along with other personal smears, began flowing. He was portrayed as an unstable man with an unjustifiable grievance against his former employers.

Manning, who has declined all interviews, would have known this was coming.

And how, perhaps, could it be otherwise?

Huge money is being made out of destroying old-growth forests, and Manning's testimony directly challenged the culture of secrecy, intimacy and shared interest that seems to so firmly bind the powerful in Tasmania.

The logging industry's astonishing exemption from the Freedom of Information Act makes it difficult to uncover the truth of logging operations, and the precise relationship between government and industry - how much, for example, the loggers actually pay for crown forest owned by the Australian people.

Both the forestry industry and the government withhold key information, fudge definitions of forest types and felling practices, and distort statistics to prevent the truth of old-growth logging being publicly known, diverting debate into the dullness of disputed definitions and clashing numbers. Beyond, forests continue disappearing.

Some facts, though, are beyond any cover-up. Tasmania is the only state that clearfells its rain-forests. While the rest of Australia has either ended, or is ending, logging of old-growth forests, Tasmania is the only state where the destruction of native forests is being accelerated, driven by the greed for profit that can be made from woodchips.

While, like so much else in Tasmania, total woodchip production figures since 2000 are officially secret, figures obtained recently by The Mercury newspaper in Hobart show that Tasmania's annual woodchip exports have for the first time exceeded 5 million tonnes - a figure estimated by the Wilderness Society to be more than 70% of the total for all Australia.

Clearfelling, as the name suggests, involves the complete clearing of logged areas, first by chainsaws and skidders, and then by intense firing started by helicopters dropping incendiary devices made of jellied petroleum - commonly known as napalm. In consequence, every autumn, the island's otherwise most beautiful season, china-blue skies are frequently nicotine-scummed, an inescapable reminder that clearfelling means the total destruction of ancient forests unique in the world.

In the island's west, the largest temperate rainforest in Australia, the Tarkine, is being clearfelled, and plans have been announced for logging the rare myrtle trees at its heart. In the Styx valley in the south-west, the world's last great unprotected stands of old-growth Eucalyptus regnans are being reduced to piles of smouldering ash. About 90% of old-growth regnans forests are gone, and just 13,000 hectares of these extraordinary trees remain in their old-growth form. Half of them are to be clearfelled.

These aptly named kings of trees are the tallest hardwood trees and flowering plants on Earth, some more than 20m in girth and more than 90m in height. Most will end up as paper or cardboard in Japan.

In logging coupes around Tasmania, exotic rain-forest trees such as myrtle, sassafras, leatherwood and celery-top pine - extraordinary, exquisite trees, many centuries old, some of which are found nowhere else - are often just left on the ground and burnt.

The World War I landscape that results from clearfelling is generally turned into large monocultural plantations of either radiata pine or Eucalyptus nitens, sustained by such a heavy program of fertilisers and pesticides that water sources for some local communities have been contaminated by atrazine. Blue-dyed carrots soaked in 1080 poison are often laid to kill native grazing animals that pose a threat to the plantation seedlings. The slaughter that results sees not only possums, wallabies and kangaroos die in slow agony, but other species - including wombats, bettongs and potaroos - killed in large numbers in spite of being officially protected species, some of which are rare.

There seems no end to the obscenity. Among Tasmania's many unique plants and animals is the endangered giant freshwater crayfish, one of the largest invertebrates in the world. Although technically protected, its very future is threatened by the frenzy of logging surrounding the creeks where it lives.

When a government-appointed expert panel recommended buffer zones of forest be preserved to protect the crayfish, these zones were reduced to a bare minimum, and the areas continue to be logged. "Clearfelling is going on at an incredible rate in their habitat," crayfish expert Todd Walsh says. "It's going berserk."

Yet in Tasmania the forest debate is not just about burning rainforests and threatened species. It is a disturbing story about the way in which information is controlled to benefit the very rich and very powerful, and about the way major political parties can become hopelessly compromised by their relationship with big business, to the extent of identifying the interests of their state with that of a billion-dollar monopoly. This goes beyond sizeable donations given by logging companies to both major parties, to a political sensibility that willingly altered the state's electoral system, under a Liberal-Labor deal in May 1998, to minimise Green representation.

Premier Jim Bacon's nickname is "the emperor", and the man widely perceived to be the power behind the throne is his deputy, Paul Lennon, a man who makes no apologies for his closeness to the old-growth logging industry, his public lunches and appearances with logging baron John Gay, or a recent trip to Scandinavia in the company of Gay to investigate pulp mills there.

Upon winning power in 1998, the Bacon ALP government quickly established itself as the most pro-big-business government Tasmania had ever had. Favoured companies received extraordinary treatment. One of Lennon's first acts as forestry minister was to make 85,000 hectares of previously "deferred forest" available for logging.

Not only did the woodchippers now have a political green light, they also gained a huge double shot of taxpayers' money. The first was through the Regional Forest Agreement, a government-industry plan which from 1998 on gave Tasmania $76m of federal funds to spend on the establishment of plantations and associated infrastructure. The second was the federal tax breaks that established tree plantations as one of corporate Australia's favourite forms of tax minimisation from the late 1990s.

The Tasmanian government, which a century ago paid people to shoot the Tasmanian tiger, now provided every incentive to destroy old-growth forest. Gunns paid only paltry royalties to Forestry Tasmania for crown forests, then made record profits reducing them to woodchips. On private land, it made a second profit from the taxpayer-subsidised plantations with which clearfelled native forests were replaced.

In this way, forestry resources began to be systematically handed over to a single company's shareholders, those of Gunns - the profits of which Eddie Rouse had sought to protect with bribery in 1989.

The present Gunns board has among its directors former associates of the late Rouse. The 1991 royal commission found that present director David McQuestin, whose friendship with Rouse it characterised as "obsequious", was not "unlawfully involved as a principal offender", although his "compliance with Rouse's direction in the matter was "highly improper" - a "glaring breach of the requisite standards of commercial morality". Former Liberal premier Robin Gray is also a director of Gunns: the royal commission found that he "knew of and was involved with Rouse in Rouse's attempt to bribe Cox", and that while his conduct was not unlawful, it was "improper, and grossly so". John Gay, Gunns' managing director in 1989, now its chairman and CEO, was cleared by the royal commission of any involvement with the bribery attempt.

Peter Hay, a prominent political scientist and an adviser to the 1989-91 Field Labor government that replaced Gray's Liberal government, recently described the Bacon Labor government as "a Gray Liberal - government under another name - to the point that Gray gave 'none-too-subtle instructions' at the last election that voters should return the Bacon government, rather than vote for the Liberals".

Gunns' shares were languishing at $1.40 when the Bacon government came to power in August 1998. Its subsequent growth was dizzying. Within four years, it had recorded an increase of 199% in profits, with another 39% increase in 2002-03. With the acquisition of two rival companies, Gunns took control of more than 85% of logging in Tasmania. Five years after Bacon won government, Gunns was worth more than $1bn, with shares regularly trading in excess of $12. It had become both the largest logging company in Australia and the largest hardwood woodchip exporter in the world, its product flooding in from the state's fallen forests.

And so, at the moment Tasmania was acquiring a global reputation as an island of exceptional beauty, the forces that would destroy much of the island's unique natural world had been unleashed. This sad irony, denied in Tasmania, did not however escape the more astute of the world's media: over the past year, there have been major features in The Observer, The Independent, The Guardian, on the BBC, in Le Figaro, Suddeutsch Zeitung, and The New York Times - mounting evidence that what is happening in Tasmania is now being seen as an environmental catastrophe of global significance. Yet what might be read about Tasmania's forests in New York or Paris is not information found easily in Hobart or Launceston. Apart from a few honourable exceptions, a generally craven Tasmanian media seems rarely to question or challenge the woodchipping industry. Necessary fictions are repeated until they become accepted as truth - that, for example, the industry's main concern is sawlogs, when even Forestry Tasmania has been recently forced to admit that sawlogs are chipped, and have been since 1972.

At the same time, the woodchipping industry spends up big on marketing, promotions and advertising, duchessing whoever it deems necessary. The Bacon government combines its considerable power in a small society with a large and ever-growing team of spin doctors employed on lucrative contracts to push soft stories of forestry success and ensure local media don't run stories hostile to old growth logging.

When Lindsay Tuffin's maverick web site,, ran a translation of Le Figaro's feature on the destruction of Tasmania's forests, Tuffin was rung by the government's communications director, Ken Jeffries, and threatened with legal action by the government for defamation if he didn't take the translation down. Tuffin refused. He and Le Figaro continue to wait for writs.

When Bacon first came to power in Tasmania, one of his most vaunted initiatives was a consultative process known as "Tasmania Together", which, he declared, would deliver a blueprint for the island's future that he would honour. Community leaders were chosen to front the process, and at public meetings around the island, they debated what Tasmania might become. They discovered that Tasmanians overwhelmingly wanted old-growth logging ended and, accordingly, Tasmania Together set a benchmark to end this practice in high conservation value forests by January 1, 2003. Independent polling commissioned by the Wilderness Society confirmed that 69% of Tasmanians supported this benchmark.

But in spite of the public's clear desire and Bacon's own promise, the government refused to contemplate any changes to existing forestry practices. Two high-profile community leaders, Anna Pafitis and Gerard Castles, were forced out because of their public opposition to what they regarded as government subversion of the process. Castles, a corporate communications consultant, wrote an article in The Mercury explaining his position. On the same day I met a prominent Tasmanian politician who flew into a rage at the mention of Castles' name. "The fucking little cunt is finished," he said in front of me and my 12-year-old daughter. "He will never work here again."

So it goes in the island-state. Castles' work is now entirely outside of Tasmania. To question, to comment adversely, is to invite the possibility of ostracism and unemployment, and the state is full of those who pay a high price for their opinion on the forests, the blackballed multiplying with the blackened stumps. It is commonplace to meet people in various positions and businesses too frightened to speak publicly of their concerns about forestry practices because of the adverse consequences they perceive this might have for their careers and businesses. In consequence of the forest battle, a subtle fear has entered Tasmanian public life; it stifles dissent, avoids truth.

It also obscures the reality that logging old-growth brings little wealth and few jobs to struggling, impoverished rural communities. According to Graham Green, of Timber Workers for Forests, in 1980 there were 205 registered sawmills employing 3000 Tasmanians - today there are less than 40 sawmills employing 1350 people. Under Gunns' tendering system, many contractors are squeezed hard, and a large proportion of their income goes on servicing debt for the heavy machinery necessary for their work. While the industry boasts of its wealth creation, such wealth is concentrated in one company, Gunns, and while it makes its profits primarily in Tasmania, the great majority of Gunns' shares are owned by mainland institutions. It has been estimated that less than 15% of Gunns' profits remain in the island, where the largest individual shareholder is John Gay himself.

Tasmania itself remains the poorest state, with the highest levels of unemployment, and 36% of its population dependent on government welfare. You're unlikely to see Mercedes in Maydena, or Saabs in Geeveston.

Perhaps, predictably, one of the last defences seized on by politicians on six-figure salaries is that they stand solidly with the working class in this battle. Paul Lennon's routine claim that 10,000 jobs are at stake if old-growth logging is ended exaggerates figures by including the great majority of forestry workers employed not in old-growth logging, but in softwood logging and milling, in plantation maintenance and regrowth logging, and in making paper out of imported pulp. Such assertions avoid the truth: jobs are disappearing in old-growth logging not because of conservationists, but because of mechanisation. The Hampshire woodchip mill near Burnie - the biggest in the southern hemisphere - employs just 12 people. A recent report in The Australian Financial Review revealed the Tasmanian industry in its entirety had shed more than 1200 jobs since 1997.

Like Lennon's previously expansive claims - of, for example, eco-vandalism in the southern forests in 2002 (no proof ever produced); or that ending old-growth logging in Western Australia had left more than 4000 people unemployed (categorically refuted by the West Australian government) - I have seen no evidence for the figure of 10,000 jobs. It is double the number (5430 people) that even allies such as the head of the National Association of Forest Industries, Kate Carnell, claim for the entire Tasmanian industry, and triple the general industry figure (3200) given in the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data. Old-growth logging - as separate from the rest of the much larger forestry industry - is estimated by Timber Workers for Forests to employ only 320 people.

There is in all this a constant thread: the Bacon government's real mates are not workers, but millionaires. Behind the smokescreen of statistics, beyond the down-home cant of "timber folk" peddled by the woodchippers' propagandists, is a simple, wretched truth: great areas of Australia's remnant wild lands are being reduced to a landscape of battlefields in order to make a handful of very rich people even richer. Yet this giving away of such an extraordinary public resource as Tasmania's forests, propped up by the taxpayer, while making a quick buck for the big end of town, now threatens Tasmania's broader economic prospects.

A growing weight of financial analysis suggests that the economics of plantations (with which native forests are being replaced), dependent on global pulp prices rising, are not assured but are a huge gamble for Tasmania, whose government, as the AFR put it, has "tied the state's economic future to the success of Gunns and its tree farms".

Key industries such as tourism and fine foods and wines trade as much on the island's pristine image as they do on the products they sell. There is growing concern in all these industries - in which job growth is concentrated - at the relentless damage being done to Tasmania's name by images of smouldering forest coupes.

Tourist operators become ever more embarrassed at explaining away endless clearfells, processions of log trucks, the strange vistas of single-species plantations. Scenic flight pilots take routes that avoid the scenes of devastation that run up to the very boundaries of world heritage areas. Those who use the forests for other products and businesses - the boatbuilders, the furniture makers - find it more difficult to get the timber they need. Tasmania's unique leatherwood honey industry faces great problems as the last stands of accessible leatherwood trees are destroyed. Organic farms suffer because of the use of poisons.

Furniture-makers such as the acclaimed Kevin Perkins argue for an export furniture industry, marrying the talents of the island's renowned designers with Tasmania's unique timber, selectively logged from low conservation value old-growth forests. He is one of many who argues that selective logging, properly done, can maintain the integrity of a forest as a whole, leaving it intact in all its beauty and ecological diversity, employing more people rather than less, and having a bias toward smaller, locally owned businesses rather than a monopoly.

"The wood would cost more to obtain," he says, "but it should cost more, and we should treat it in the manner of precious stones. A tiger myrtle veneer should cost as much as diamonds because it is even rarer and, in my view, more valuable. People ought to be paying a small fortune for a Tasmanian-made myrtle dining table in Berlin or Boston." Such a table fetches $20,000: the same timber as woodchips sells for a few cents.

One era's diamonds is an earlier epoch's coal: the Bacon government's current enthusiasms include finding a business partner with which to build an electricity power station fired with trees from native forests.

It is little wonder that many Tasmanians now worry that the woodchippers' greed destroys not only their natural heritage, but distorts their parliament, deforms their polity, cows their media and stunts their society. And perhaps it is for that reason that the battle for forests in Tasmania is as much about free speech and democracy - about a people's right to exercise some control over their destiny, about their desire to have a better, freer society - as it is about wild lands.

The fate of the forests long ago ceased to be a green issue in Tasmania, and has come to be seen as an issue about Tasmania's future; an issue that has joined in opposition a myriad of ordinary Tasmanians of all political persuasions and backgrounds.

Since woodchipping began 31 years ago, Tasmanians have known the unspeakable sadness of great forests of mystery transformed into ash. For 31 years, they have watched as one more extraordinary place after another of their country has been sacrificed to the woodchippers. Beautiful places, holy places, lost not only to them, but forever. Tasmanians have lived the woodchippers' deceit all their lives and have borne dumb witness to the great lie that delivers wealth to a handful elsewhere, poverty to many of them, and death to their future. And at the end of 31 years, the majority of Tasmanians want an answer to just one question:

How can this rape of Tasmania be allowed to continue?

[article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of the Bulletin; republished here with permission of the author]

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