The fate of forestry

Media reports suggests that an end to native forest logging is inevitable regardless of who wins the Victorian election. Issues around native forest logging have frequently been the object of electoral controversy in Australia. But much discussion has been misguided. One theme on the political right and sections of the ALP sees opposition to native forest logging as flashpoint in cultural conflict that supposedly pitches working-class voters against inner-city environmentalists. Former public opinion pollster and Labor advisor Rod Cameron suggested that in 2004 working-class voters on the mainland rallied agaisnt Labor inspired by deep bonds of class affection with Tasmanian timber workers. Cameron’s ‘analysis’ was drawn on in the ‘Brompton report’ commissioned by the Forestry Division of the CFMEU. In fact the truth is more prosaic. Native forest logging is unpopular across all social groups, but it is fairly low down most voters’ priorities. The 2004 Australian Election Study provides evidence of this it found that 84% of non-manual respondents considered native forest logging topic of urgent environmental concern compared to 82.1% of manual respondents. Not much of a culture war here. Those who feel that their economic interests are tied up with the the industry will mobilise its defence. They have a direct incentive to do so. This is basic pressure-group politics nothing to do with cultural conflict. However in the long-run public opinion however diffuse counts. Governments respond to public opinion by tighter and tighter constraints on native forest logging. For the left the forestry industry once inspired much angst. Ian Watson’s 1990 Fighting for the Forests considered whether the aspirations of environmentalists and forestry workers could be reconciled with particular reference to NSW. However it has become apparent that the issues is much less challenging for the electoral left than once thought. In the 1988 NSW election and the 2004 federal election debates about forestry policy contributed to Labor’s defeats (although perhaps Latham’s forestry policy won Labor some seats on the mainland), but Labor would have lost anyway. Many environmentalist campaigners concluded that reconciliation of forestry workers interests and forest preservation was impossible and was a diversion from the task of winning government support. Drew Hutton and Libby Connors criticised Ian Watson:

significant sections of the native forest industry were just as reluctant to seek compromise as the greens; and, in the absence of a sympathetic union, there were few ways of educating timber workers in forest ecology. it is difficult to see what other action new South Wales nature conservationists could have taken…to avoid the damaging split with unions

Hutton and Connors were right from the perspective of environmental goals. Their approach left unresolved however the problem of the decline of rural low skilled male employment.

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