Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Judith Ajani’s ‘The Forest Wars’ reviewed

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Forest Wars will have a big impact on the debate about forest policy in Australia. Author Judith Ajani is an insider. Now an ANU academic, she has worked for over 22 years on policy work for various state government departments.

Ajani forensically deconstructs the myths and lies from the old growth native forest (hardwood) bosses and their union and political allies. Her book is packed with graphs, explanations and a useful glossary to support her central point: The wood needs of Australian industry can be almost fully met by the plantation (softwood) sector. There is no economic case, even on a capitalist basis, for the logging of old growth forests (especially for logging). This outrage continues due to the propping up of this sector of the industry by state government subsidies, encouraged by the forestry division of the CFMEU.

For years, the Socialist Party has argued for an end to the logging of old growth forests, with guaranteed employment for displaced workers. This would be entirely possible on the basis of socialism – a nationalised forest industry would shift towards 100% plantations and away from old growth forests. Ex-old growth forest loggers would be offered jobs in this expanded part of the forest industry or a guaranteed income while retraining for a new industry.

Judith Ajani shows how easy this would be even on the basis of a capitalist economy and ‘market rules’. Thanks to a massive expansion of softwood plantations after the war (about 29,300 hectares a year extra from 1945 to 1966 and then 19,100 hectares a year from 1966 to 1990), the vast bulk of local wood needs for the likes of the construction industry can be met without logging a single old growth forest coupe. Every year wood from plantations eats into the market share from old growth forest logging interests.

Ajani explains: “The native forest sawmillers vented their frustration from decades of gruelling market survival not on the source of their problem, which they were powerless to stop, but on the environmentalists.” The forestry union and the native forest logging bosses both use the generic term ‘forest’ to strengthen their hand for state subsidies.

They do not explain that they are actually seeking help for the much smaller (largely non-unionised) old growth forest portion of the industry over the more unionised and larger plantation sector. The union has become a marketing tool for the old growth forest loggers (“industry’s Trojan Horse”, as Ajani puts it).

The Forest Wars explains that up to 90% of logging of old growth forests is for wood chips – providing facts and figures to prove that wood chips is not made up of leftovers after old growth trees are logged for timber but is actually the core business of old growth forest logging.

“Native forests generate about 30% of Australia’s sawntimber, competing against plantation products.” Due to the massive subsides the old growth (native forests) receive from state governments, the plantation sector turns overseas to export much of their product unprocessed.

“Australia’s sawmillers are overwhelmingly commodity producers competing in a tough no-growth market with non-wood products constantly bearing down. Rather than letting the native forest sawmillers exit the industry, government kept propping them up and they kept fighting on.”

The key role of the forestry union in this is explained in a chapter (Common Enemy) that every trade unionist and socialist should read even if they don’t have time to read the whole book. The Michael O’Connor-led union relies on its industry connections and its ALP connections to stay relevant or keep perpetuating its bureaucratic regime. The long term interests of workers in the industry will not be protected with the O’Connor strategy of supporting old growth logging. Either the resource will be extinguished or, more likely, a combination of market and public pressure will force government to legislate to stop old growth logging as happened to some degree in Queensland and Western Australia.

In the meantime the old growth logging bosses and their tame cat mates at the head of the forestry union slam any academic or environmentalist who exposes their rort. When plantation boss Adrian de Bruin told the Sunday Age that “(due to a rise in plantations), we’ll get to a stage where we virtually don’t have to log native forests at all in the next two to five years”, he had threatening phone calls to his home. Academics have had legal threats against publication of ‘unsound’ books and calls to their universities to get them sacked.

The nepotistic nature of the O’Connor faction power base is exposed by Ajani. She explains the factional ties between O’Connor and John Sutton the head of the overall CFMEU. “A network of relatives, union colleagues and politicians gravitated around Sutton and O’Connor. Latham identified (ex-ACTU head and now ALP Federal member for Batman in northern Melbourne) Martin Ferguson as “very close to Michael O’Connor, relies on him as part of his factional powerbase”.

Ferguson’s older brother, Laurie Ferguson, had entered federal parliament in 1996. His younger brother, Andrew Ferguson, was the NSW Secretary of the CFMEU’s building division and a Sutton supporter. O’Connor’s brother, Brendan O’Connor, entered federal parliament in 2001, winning the safe outer Melbourne seat of Gordon. In his first parliamentary speech, Brendan O’Connor thanked Martin Ferguson and Julia Gillard for their support and advice. In her first parliamentary speech in 1998, Gillard thanked Michael O’Connor and Martin Ferguson. She later said “One of my first big relationships was with Michael O’Connor”.

The Victorian-based militant furniture trades division of the CFMEU (the FFTS division) now makes up the largest (and growing) part of the forestry division and has very progressive policies on a whole range of issues – including opposition to old growth logging. This shows the possibility of rank and file action even in the heart of the beast.

In fact, “a large component of the forest division’s membership does not actually work in the wood-products industry (ie are FFTS members) and those who do are mainly employed in plantation-processing companies. O’Connor’s public stance on forests, however, closely aligns with NAFI’s (the old growth logging bosses’ association).”

“The native forest tail wages the forest industry dog”, as one observer put it.

Thanks to tax avoidance schemes a new industry of investment in plantation of hardwoods has exploded in Australia. There is now a glut of wood on the market (due to the growing use of non-wood products in construction and manufacturing) – and therefore no need to log old growth forests. What is lacking is investment in value added industry that will create jobs – this is a failure of the market and another argument for socialism.

She is no socialist, however Judith Ajani’s The Forest Wars is a very useful weapon for all socialists, providing the facts, figures and arguments as to the unviability of old growth forest logging. This sector of the industry is propped up state government subsidies and supported by the forest union and bosses. This occurs at the expense of the environment, of the plantation sector, and of tax payers. A socialist forest policy would immediately stop old growth logging and provide alternative jobs on full union rates in either the plantation sector or in another industry.

Reviewed by Stephen Jolly

The Forest Wars
By Judith Ajani
Melbourne University Press 2007
RRP $34.95


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