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save the Blue Tier

flanagan's speech

Image of 15,000 strong Melbourne Crowd

Part of the crowd of 15,000 at the World Environment Day rally in Melbourne, 6 June,2004.
Photo by Eli Greig

you can save the great wild forests of tasmania,
as 21 years ago australians saved the franklin river .....
but in this election year you must act .....
- by richard flanagan

I have just had to do an interview with the ABC and I have been told that the forestry union, the CFMEU, has attacked this rally here today as a stunt. The CFMEU says that 10,000 jobs will be lost if the logging of old growth forests in Tasmania is ended.

It’s a sad day for the labour movement when a trade union can only echo the lies of a billion-dollar monopoly desperate to protect the profits of its millionaire owners.

Those trade union officials ought get out of their offices and see what ordinary Australians think. The 69% of Tasmanians who want this practice ended. The 85% of Australians who want it ended. The fifteen thousand Melburnians gathered here today to say, enough is enough. It's time this outrage stopped and the logging of Tasmania’s great wild forests ended.

At Christmas I was kayaking the Franklin River, a place where the measure of all things is not man made. It struck me that in a world that seems ever more only about power and money here was one place that spoke of other values. And it was here because twenty one years ago thousands of Australians were brave enough to be arrested. Because hundreds of thousands of Australians rallied; because millions of Australians cared. The Franklin River, one of the great places on earth, exists today because of ordinary people standing up against power and money for an idea of an extraordinary world.

Twenty one years later I have come from my home of Tasmania to the heart of your great city of Melbourne with a simple message: once more Australians need to stand up against power and money for that idea of an extraordinary world.

Every country is granted a handful of things unique to itself, and therefore precious to the world. And one of those unique, precious things in Australia are the remaining great wild forests of Tasmania.

These primeval forests, sacred to the Tasmanian Aborigines, the source of astonishment to nineteenth century Europeans with their incomparable beauty, are now the site of an incomprehensible ecological tragedy of global significance.

This rape of Tasmania is happening because of one reason and one reason only. It is happening because of greed. Because one company, a monopoly called Gunns, the largest logging company in Australia, is making record profits selling these forests as woodchips.

Gunns is the logging company whose chairman in 1989, Eddie Rouse, attempted to bribe a member of the Tasmanian parliament in order to bring down the newly elected Labor-Green government and safeguard his logging profits.

Gunns is the company on whose board remain two directors found by the subsequent 1991 Royal Commission to have been improperly involved with the bribery attempt: David McQuestin, and the man who still thinks the Franklin River should be dammed, former Liberal Premier Robin Gray.

The present Tasmanian Labor government has been described 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 Labor Government, rather than vote for the Liberals.”

The Tasmanian government, which a century ago paid people to shoot the Tasmanian tiger, now provides every incentive to destroy old growth forest. Gunns prospers with government support and subsidies, and it is accelerating its rate of destruction, so that Tasmania is now, incredibly, the largest hardwood woodchip exporter in the world.

Were it to be judged by the laws that normally apply, it would be found to be destroying these forests illegally. But it is not, because the Tasmanian government has effectively exempted the woodchipping industry from legislation that all others have to abide by. Gunns’ shares were languishing at $1.40 when the Labor government first came to power in 1998. Gunns subsequent growth was dizzying. Within four years, it had recorded an increase of 199% in profits. Gunns now controls over 85% of logging in Tasmania; is worth over a billion dollars, and its shares regularly trade in excess of $12—an increase of 757%, its profit flooding in from the fallen forests of Tasmania.

The extremely close personal relationship leading Tasmanian politicians enjoy with Gunns goes beyond the sizeable electoral donations given to both major parties, to a political sensibility that willingly altered the state's electoral system, under a Liberal-Labor deal in 1997, to minimise Green representation. It goes beyond the alternate buying and cowing of Tasmanian media, to a widespread culture of bullying, cronyism and intimidation.

Once in Queensland we had the Moonlight State. Now in Tasmania we have the Clearfell State.

Because of the forest battle, a subtle fear has entered Tasmanian public life; it stifles dissent, avoids truth, and is conducive to the abuse of power. When Tasmanians choose to question the ongoing destruction of all that is unique and irreplaceable in their world they are lambasted as destroyers, conspirators. The language of treachery and betrayal is invoked against them. To question or to comment in Tasmania is to invite ostracism and unemployment. The blackballed proliferate along with the black stumps.

The grim reality, relentlessly denied with lies and threats, is that logging old growth brings neither wealth nor jobs to struggling, impoverished rural communities. Most wealth made out of woodchips flows out of the state: less than 15% of Gunns profits stay in Tasmania. Tasmania remains the poorest Australian state. Contrary to the government and the CFMEU’s routine claim that 10,000 jobs would be lost if old growth logging ends, the lobby group Timber Workers for Forests estimate only 380 jobs are at stake.

Those who work in industry are exploited along with the forests they fell under Gunns' tendering system that sees, for example, log truck drivers working hundred hour weeks.

This is no longer a green issue. It is an issue that ought unite Australians across class and politics in outrage. Nor is this a difficult issue to solve. At stake is an area of forests only 250,00 hectares in extent and less than five hundred jobs to find new work for.

And all this should be seen not as a problem, but as an opportunity for Australia to reinvent battered regional communities on the basis of a model forestry industry employing more people in better jobs, working not to produce woodchips, but to produce high value timber from low conservation value native forests for building, furniture and boatbuilding, while saving our old growth forests. We can have jobs and we can have the trees, and don’t ever, ever believe their lie otherwise. If as a nation we cannot meet and address this issue justly, then we are no longer a nation worthy of the name.

All that is lacking is political will at a Federal level, and for that we need Australians to tell their politicians that they have had enough of this Third World saga of big business doing dirty deals with state governments in order to destroy one of Australia’s great natural assets.

Australia is lagging behind global opinion. Major pieces on Tasmania’s forests are appearing around the world, from the BBC, to Le Monde, to the New York Times. In Britain there have been highly publicised calls for boycotts of Tasmanian goods and tourism, and motions debating Tasmanian forest practices are to be put to the British House of Commons. In Japan, Mitsubishi, the third largest importer of Tasmanian woodchips has declared its intention to no longer buy woodchips sourced from Tasmanian old growth forests.

But in Australia both the Federal Liberal government and the Federal Labor opposition continue to support the Gunns status quo that sees Tasmanian forests destroyed at an ever increasing rate. Mark Latham is strong on platitudes and absent on detail. Both he and John Howard need to be compelled by public anger to stop swallowing the lie that this is about jobs and recognise it is their role to act against the unchecked greed of Gunns and the curious complicity of the Tasmanian government. Latham and Howard have to be asked whose interest they represent: Australian people or the Gunns board? This is not about jobs versus trees. This about the people’s will versus corporate profit. It is about truth versus power. I have come here today because I want you to know how much of what I love about my island home is being destroyed in this frenzy. Since woodchipping began thirty-two years ago Tasmanians have watched as one more extraordinary place after another of our island has been sacrificed to the woodchippers' insatiable greed. Beautiful places, holy places, lost not only to them, but forever.

Tasmanians have lived the woodchippers' deceit all their lives and borne dumb witness to their great lie that delivers wealth to a handful elsewhere, poverty to many of them, and death to their future.

The overwhelming majority of Tasmanians want the logging of Tasmania’s old growth forests ended. But with both major parties in Tasmania as one in their rigid support of Gunns and old growth logging, Tasmanians cannot stop this coalition of greed and power from within their island. Change can only be brought about by the Australian government, and it will only act when the issue becomes one of mounting national shame and inescapable national urgency.

People ask: But what can I do?

I am here today to say that you can save the great wild forests of Tasmania, as twenty one years ago Australians saved the Franklin River. But in this election year you must act. You must ring your local federal politician. You must put that sticker on your car. You must say in your workplace that this matters. You must write to your local newspaper. And you must not give in to despair but always keep on fighting, and in so doing, know that you are fighting for something larger.

Its sometimes hard in these times to believe in Australia. But the great wild forests of Tasmania are a chance to show that another, better Australia still exists: large hearted; open; generous, a land not of razor wire and internment camps, nor of foreign wars and local borders, but an eden of no frontiers. A place where Australians still may find in their own land something commensurate with their capacity for awe, for generosity, and for love.

Perhaps in the Blue Tier, in the Tarkine, in the Styx can be found not just forests aeons old, but the Australia of tomorrow.

We must remember if change does not come easily, or quickly, it is nevertheless going to come. I am reminded here today of a very beautiful image a Czech dissident used to describe their revolt through the 1980s, that of candles burning dully beneath a frozen river. Then one day the people of Prague awoke to discover a miracle: the river had finally melted and was once more flowing free.

Forests in Tasmania, a river in Prague, us here today in Melbourne: a solidarity of the shaken. We can make a difference. We can, if we choose, make history.

We can once more be the Australia of which we dream, if we might only once more dare dream of something other than ourselves, if we dare imagine Australia differently.

The great German novelist, Gunter Grass, writing of Tasmania's forests, has described their destruction as another aspect of the same attitude that led to bookburning by the Nazis. Could it be that in this strange time, when all our skies appear to be darkening, we need to recognise the corollary of Grass’s view: that in the great wild forests of Tasmania we may yet discover a symbol of hope and freedom for all Australians?

Thank you.

[transcript of a speech made by Richard Flanagan on 6 June, 2004
RALLY FOR TASMANIA’S FORESTS
Federation Square, Melbourne
reprinted with permission]

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