Last Saturday, under a gorgeous cloudless sky, various environmental groups hosted a ‘Picnic in the Park’ on the Parliament House lawns in Hobart.  It was a low-key affair – quiet, and modestly attended – and many supporters seemed lulled into a semi-comatose state by the soporific action of the warm weather, and the almost blinding clarity of the sunlight.

We stood for a time among the faithful, and listened to the ‘conversation’.  VicaBayley (TWS Tasmania), Jenny Weber (Huon Valley Environment Centre) and Miranda Gibson (Still Wild Still Threatened - 60m up a tree near Mt Mueller), spoke at length, but we heard nothing new.  Until Mr Bayleyconceded, in response to an audience question, that none of the conservation outcomes envisioned at the start of the forests Statement of Principles process 18 months ago, had been achieved.

Are they surprised about that?  Is it not clear that, despite their public commitment to keep up the fight, their soldiers are weary and struggling to find direction, and the enemy is an intractable psychopath, operating with the submissive support of a beholden populace?

Can they not observe the farce that has evolved from their earlier, smugly triumphant announcement of an ‘historic agreement’ to end conflict in the forests?

The Statement of Principles was the first in a series of ill-conceived and poorly constructed documents supposedly leading to a cessation of logging in High Conservation Value Forest - signed off with much fanfare by seven forest industry groups and three environmental NGOs on 14 October 2010, after several months of ‘secret society’ meetings.

Eight months later, on 22 June 2011, the inimitable Mr Bill Kelty – negotiator extraordinaire – accidentally released the ‘Signatories Agreement’, but some signatories were either missing, or hadn’t signed, and one was protesting that he wasn’t involved in the talks at all.  Either way, the process had somehow lost two parties – the CMFEU, and the AFCA (you may need to check the acronyms – this whole saga is lousy with them).

Fast forward a month to 24 July 2011, and we welcomed the release of the Tasmanian Forests Agreement Heads of Agreement, a loosely structured garbage document with the names Lara Giddings, Julia Gillard, Tony Burke and Bryan Green appended.  There were some numbers, and a whole lot of spin, and we were supposed to be persuaded that the Tasmanian and Commonwealth governments were serious about sorting the forestry mess once and for all.

Two weeks later we awoke to images of Lara and Julia smiling broadly as they executed the Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement (TFIGA) on 7 August 2011.  More self-congratulatory bullshit, and figures, and interminable committees and reference groups and other cash-chewing artifices set up to keep the show rolling.  And an iron-clad Tasmanian government promise to ‘immediately place the 430,000 hectares of native forest identified…from the 572,000 hectares nominated by ENGOs through the Statement of Principles process, into Informal Reserves.  The boundaries of this 430,000 hectares were verified through an independent verification process.’ 

Anyone who believed this could also be persuaded that the Sydney Opera House was on the market for $1000.  But the plaudits and backslapping continued unabated.  The government people clearly have no shame - they happily handed over ‘compensation’ to Gunns and FT before the ink was dry - and the ENGOs were either remarkably naive, or blinded by their own flash-in-the pan celebrity, or beguiled by the loads of free cash on the table.  A little bit of all three, I suspect, but mostly the money one.

Anyway, five months later, our dashing Deputy Premier – silky smooth, and just as slippery – Mr Bryan Green, announced the execution of an Interim Conservation Agreement on 13 January 2012, pursuant to Clause 36 of the TFIGA.  The signatories are Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, Mr Green and Forestry Tasmania (FT).  Sadly, the promised 430,000 hectares cannot be fully protected.  By agreement of the parties, 43 logging coupes are to be excluded from the agreement - the extent of ANY protection is effectively, and firmly, in the hands of government and FT.  Business as usual, after months of play-acting, and oodles of wasted coin.

And, who knows what FT is really doing?  Their website is a rabbit warren, with smoke and mirrors, full of dead ends and mind-bending codes.  And insane, incomprehensible maps.  You can navigate to the logging coupe maps if you have all day, but you need a degree in astrophysics, or at the very least a slide rule, to read them once you get there.  They have no identifying marks whatsoever, and they use a location paradigm that is the province of geophysical professionals only – a wanky system designed to deter investigation by laypersons.

FT operates in a vast, largely uninhabited space, and they keep their activities strictly on the down low.  And who has the time, or the knowledge, to check up on them?  Individuals like John Powell, who has written recently of FT’s activities in his home region, provide some information, but it’s nowhere near enough.

Perhaps TWS could use its substantial funding to generate an informative, user-friendly FT resource, with accessible maps, and time-tracking of forestry activity, rather than persisting with a process which is clearly at the mercy of entrenched forestry interests.  Perhaps they could methodically, and publicly expose the activities of those interests, rather than railing against them with overblown, generalist rhetoric, to a dwindling audience. Be independent of the corruption, not co-dependent on it. 

Forestry in Tasmania is a shit-fight, and there are heaps of contenders slinging the turds.  Bloodsucking corporations, opportunistic politicians, inept public servants, debt-laden operators, and more industry groups than you can poke a stick at – all intent on maintaining a way of functioning that is no longer viable.  And the supreme enabler of their intent appears to be Forestry Tasmania.

What can be done?  Environmental activism has lost much of the allure, and the political clout, it had in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.  Today’s clinical, corporate-targeted campaigns are nowhere near as enthralling as the heady wilderness battles of past decades.  Despite the plotting, governments will continue to do as they wish, corporations, and their bankers will hang on until the crash happens, and any positive environmental outcomes will be a lucky coincidence.

In Tasmania, Gunns will eventually implode, or perhaps reinvent itself on a far smaller scale, the government will continue to degrade the already dubious value of the TFIGA (keep up with those acronyms, there’ll be test at the end), and FT will go on its merry way.  Unless we can somehow persuade the voters of Tasmania that politicians are supposed to work for them – that they are not special, but are as full of shit, literally, as the next person.  Then, persuade them to vote for candidates who WILL work for them, and, finally, persuade committed individuals to stand independently for public office.

And, I almost forgot, institute merit-based appointment of senior public servants, and careful oversight of statutory authorities.

How hard can it be?

Bronwyn Williams, member, Fed Up Citizens of Tasmania (FUCT)