The tyranny of old paradigms

The Hodgman government’s outdated resource industry mindset is now threatening a repeat of the TFA fiasco.

Fingal Valley coal transport, in the days when coal from the valley was used to fuel trains as well as to make cement. PHOTO: St Patricks Head and Esk Valley Historical Society Inc.

Ten years ago Tasmania’s forest war was locked in bitter animosity and going nowhere. With markets and jobs fast diminishing and new land reserves to protect old growth forest remaining an improbable dream, no-one looked remotely like winning.

The one positive in the whole scenario was the industry’s wish to achieve the Forest Stewardship Council’s highly-prized stamp of approval on its wood products, without which it would continue to struggle to export its products.

But the process called for all major stakeholders – economic, social and environmental – to agree on how forest operations are managed. So in early 2010 representatives of these different elements, former antagonists across the barricades, met to try to garner unlikely accord.

Two years of meetings saw openings slowly appearing in the armour of both sides. The settlement reached became the federal-state Tasmanian Forest Agreement, which protected ancient forests and supported struggling workers while also seeking to diversify antiquated regional economies.

It should have been a moment to savour, but political support was muted. Used to a state of hostility, some on both sides of the main divide angrily denounced the agreement.

Most of this was on the political right, driven by diehards among Will Hodgman’s Liberals and the upper house MP for Huon, Paul Harriss. But environmentalists too flared up, notably Greens leader Christine Milne and novelist Richard Flanagan, who thought the gains didn’t balance the losses.

The battle was well and truly joined in 2014 when Harriss won a lower house seat for the Liberals in a new government. Pledging to “rip up” an agreement they argued was wrecking the forest industry, Hodgman and Harriss as resources minister set about ditching the painfully-won accord.

But they failed to see, or ignored, the fact that the industry itself sought the TFA and wanted it to continue. Accidentally or deliberately, in seeking to heap all blame on conservationists they overlooked big issues within the industry above and beyond the ideological forest wars.

After decades of public money bailouts, the forest industry was on life support. Ten years of declining woodchip exports had left Forestry Tasmania in a parlous state and driven the biggest private company, Gunns, to the wall. The government’s mantra of more native forest logging was now anathema to an industry keen to reinvent itself with FSC-certified plantation forestry.

After a year in the job Paul Harriss announced a restructuring of Forestry Tasmania – then suddenly resigned. Little was said at the time, but it’s fair to conclude that the industry’s complex, intractable problems had defeated him. He might even have realised that it was dumb to have ditched the TFA.

The Hodgman government continues to argue that “pillar” resource industries – forestry, mining and aquaculture – must be protected at any cost. But with management of natural resources coming into question as never before, this is a paradigm whose time has long gone.

Another resource battle is now playing out elsewhere in Australia. Like native forest harvesting, coal mining has had its day, but it too attracts ideological warriors like bees to honey.

We have to put coal mining behind us. The ecological threat from native forest logging should have been clear enough, especially considering the unrivalled ability of natural, evolving forests to capture carbon dioxide, but the need to stop using coal is even more stark – even existential.

Like oil and natural gas, coal is carbon captured from the air by living things over hundreds of millions of years. Digging it up and burning it returns that carbon to the air at a rate Earth has not seen for at least 60 million years – over 100 times faster than all of today’s active volcanoes do, for instance.

The fact that this is now driving rapid climate change is lost on our political masters. Just as the Morrison government seeks to push Adani’s coal wagon in Queensland, so is Will Hodgman helping to fund a new push to dig up Tasmanian coal.

Last week’s news that an Australian venture linked to a US coal company, Midland Energy, wants to open up reserves of coal under farmlands in the southern Midlands – and that the Hodgman government has awarded them a $50,000 exploration grant – is a very bad look for food production.

It’s worse still for climate. It’s one thing to accept the continuing use of coal to make electricity, cement and a host of other industrial products. But with science shouting at us to find alternatives, quickly, the last thing we need is a subsidy to explore for new coal reserves.

If we’re to avoid a repeat of the Paul Harriss debacle we need a paradigm shift here, and soon. That calls for imagination, some hard thinking and a little courage. Instead the Hodgman government has taken the lazy option: same old dogma, same old “traditions”, same bad outcome.

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