Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Forestry debate: A socialist approach

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It was one of the starkest images of the federal election campaign, CFMEU forestry union members on their feet, clapping and cheering for John Howard. It was just before the federal election and he had just told them what every worker in the world wants to hear. That their jobs would be safe.

A complex set of circumstances lead to union members applauding Howard, the man responsible for extreme, ongoing assaults on working people’s wages and conditions.

At the heart of the debacle is a lie: that workers must choose – jobs or the environment. It has been espoused by both major parties and by the leadership of the forestry division of the CFMEU. The result has been a victory on all fronts for business profiteers. A situation where corporate welfare, ineffective union leadership and division between workers and environmentalists add up to a capitalist dream come true.

It is clearly profit, not the protection of jobs that is driving the destruction of Australia’s environment. According to the Australian Bureau of Resource Economics, the farming, forestry and mining industries together provided only 5.6 percent of total employment in 2000. In the same year they contributed 57 percent of export income. As always under capitalism profit is the only priority.

Most Australians agree that Australia’s environment should be protected. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) found that, 62.2 percent of Australians were concerned about environmental problems in 2001. These concerns are not unfounded.

Australia’s natural environment is widely considered to be an ecological treasure. Australia is also the driest inhabited continent on earth. It goes without saying that ensuring the survival of this fragile ecosystem is essential for many reasons. Among these, is that Australia is among 17 countries that contain 70 percent of earth’s land dwelling species. Many of these species are unique to this continent.

Despite this, capitalism is responsible for more mammal extinctions in Australia than in any other country in the world. Many of these extinctions have been brought about by land clearing for commercial purposes. The 2001 National Land and Water Resources Audit by the CSIRO found ecological connectivity no longer exists in half of Australia’s sub regions. This includes the permanent clearing of many sub regions, such as 30 percent of rain forests, 90 percent of temperate woodlands and 99 percent of temperate grasslands.

It’s not only unique plants and animals that are under threat. Dryland salinity, for example, affects 2.5 million hectares of farmland affected. A federal government investigation found that land degradation and repair cost agriculture between $3 and $6 billion yearly. These examples among many others illustrate only part of the huge problem created by years of environmentally regressive, pro business policy.

European settlement and the spread of capitalism, guaranteed that Australia’s natural environment was reduced to no more than an economic resource. The consequent exploitation has been the domain of big business rather than ordinary people. For example, according to the ABS, agriculture accounted for 70 percent of Australia’s water usage in 1996-97.

It is broadly recognised that this level of exploitation cannot continue. In his recent report on Australia’s environmental degradation, Dr Peter Christoff from Melbourne University concludes, “The Australian economy, structurally and functionally, is ecologically unsustainable.” Whether stopped by a mass movement or because natural resources are completely used up, it will not always be business as usual for the companies behind the destruction. This means sooner or later workers will be faced with job loss. The question is on what terms.

Rather than protecting workers rights and looking ahead at alternative employment, the forestry union has openly sided with the bosses. In Tasmania’s hardwood forests particularly, workers have been pitted against community activists. The union leadership has formed an alliance with bosses in an attempt to quell a growing grass roots environmental movement. Workers have become “foot soldiers” for the bosses; fighting an enemy they actually share common interests with.

With the union leadership focusing on taking environmental activists to court with member’s money, workers attention has been diverted away from the real struggle. The companies are reaping the benefits. Major logging company Gunns Ltd. recorded a 42 percent profit increase in 2004, taking their yearly profit to $105 million. This was clearly propped up by attacks on workers wages and conditions.

Ongoing government subsidies to environmentally destructive industry are the icing on the cake for capitalists. A 1996 federal environment department report estimated that in 1993-94 the government subsidised these industries to the tune of $14.8 billion. These subsidies should be stopped immediately and used to develop alternative jobs and implement environmental clean-up programs.

However in the medium term only nationalisation of environmentally destructive companies under workers control and management could allow the development of an alternative workers’ economic plan for the sector. This plan would include an immediate end to old growth logging and a phasing out of other regressive industry. Plantations would be utilised and secondary industry developed around forestry to create guaranteed alternative jobs for workers.

As long as capitalism ensures profit is king, workers will be forced to destroy the very environment that keeps them alive.

By Socialist Party reporters


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