Scott Morrison has promised he will not support “any shutdown of native forestry” as he pledged $220m for the industry as part of his bid to hang on to marginal seats in Tasmania.
Echoing a successful pro-logging pitch by the former Liberal prime minister John Howard in northern Tasmania during the 2004 election campaign, Morrison said that, if re-elected, the Coalition would boost the industry by creating a national institute for forest products innovation based in Launceston and support “new wood processing technologies”.
Launceston is the main centre in Bass. It is the most marginal electorate in the country and is held by the Liberals’ Bridget Archer. Forestry has also been a potent political issue in the neighbouring marginal and near-marginal seats of Braddon and Lyons.
The announcement was applauded by the forestry industry but condemned by conservation groups, which said continued native forest logging would push threatened forest species, including swift parrots, greater gliders and spot-tailed quolls, closer to extinction.
Morrison said the Coalition’s support for forestry was about jobs, and showed it understood “what drives regional economies”.
“Forestry is key to that,” he said. “Under our government we won’t support any shutdowns of native forestry, and we will continue to work with state governments to create permanent timber production areas.”
Jess Abrahams, a nature campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation, said anything that increased demand for native forests to be cut down was “bad news for Australian wildlife and bad news for climate action”.
She cited research by the foundation that found the federal government had approved the destruction of more than 200,000 hectares of threatened species habitat in the past decade.
“This figure does not even include forests that were knocked down for timber, as native forest logging is exempt from Australia’s national environment law,” she said. “We need strong environment laws that close the loophole that allows the logging industry to destroy wildlife habitat with impunity.”
Former Greens leader Bob Brown, now the head of campaigning group the Bob Brown Foundation, accused Morrison of being “far to the right of John Howard, who at least promised to protect the Tarkine rainforest in Tasmania”.
“Morrison’s policy is driving a range of Australian iconic species to extinction, including koalas, swift parrots, masked owls and Leadbeater’s possum, greater gliders and black cockatoos,” Brown said.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said Morrison’s forestry pledge should not be taken at face value, pointing to a 2018 promise that the Coalition would plant 1bn trees across 400,000 hectares of new plantations by 2030. Government figures show about 4,300 hectares, a little more than 1%, have been planted so far.
Referring to Morrison, Albanese said: “He’ll be there for the photo op, but he’s never there for the follow-up.”
Morrison said the Coalition still had time to meet the tree planting commitment. He said the new announcement would allow manufacturing and processing businesses to “maximise log recovery, process smaller diameter logs and create new and innovative wood products”, and followed a $86.2m promise to reduce the upfront cost of establishing new plantations.
“The pressures on the building industry and the uncertain international trade situation has made it clear that local wood products and local skills are critical,” Morrison said.
Tasmanian Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson called for an end to native forest logging and reform of plantations, many of which he said were grown at taxpayer expense before being shipped to Asia for processing. He accused Morrison of offering “another taxpayer-subsidised lifeline to support the loss-making forestry industry in Tasmania prior to an election”.
The native forestry industry has been under pressure, in part due to the failure by state government agencies in Tasmania and Victoria to achieve Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which is considered the international gold standard for forest management. Some retailers refuse to stock non-FSC certified timber.
The national industry was hurt by the devastating bushfires of 2019-20 and has faced a barrage of legal challenges over its impact on threatened species. Labor governments in Western Australia and Victoria have promised to end native forestry and switch to plantations only by 2024 and 2030 respectively.
In Tasmania, the state Liberal government was elected in 2014 after promising to expand logging and tear up a “peace deal” brokered between industry and conservationists under the previous Labor-Greens government in a bid to end decades of conflict over forestry. It has had limited success. While Sustainable Timber Tasmania’s annual reports show it has posted an operating profit for the past four years, the economist John Lawrence found it would have recorded losses if not for accounting measures and government grants.
In 2004, the Howard-led Coalition won Bass and Braddon after promising to support timber workers while the Labor leader, Mark Latham, met with Bob Brown and promised to increase forest protection. Howard was supported across the political aisle by union leaders and the then Labor state premier Paul Lennon.
The Tasmanian government backed the Morrison government announcement on Thursday. Guy Barnett, the state primary industries minister, summarised its position as “wood is good”.
The Australian Forest Products Association, led by former Howard government adviser Ross Hampton, said it “strongly” welcomed the announcement.