In January 1995 the Keating government’s attempts to curtail logging in old growth forests ran into fierce opposition when timber trucks blockaded Parliament House, ringing the building for days.
The government had established the regional forest policy in 1992, in a bid to balance environmental preservation with jobs in the timber industry. Its aim was to preserve high-value native old growth forests but allow logging in less valuable industries and to encourage value-adding, rather than just exporting raw woodchips.
But achieving the two goals proved difficult.
Two agreements had been introduced in 1994 but some states were still to sign on and Tasmania had not committed to the national forest policy.
In December 1994 Keating went further. Using the federal government’s export powers, he declared that the amount of woodchips exported from native forests not covered by regional forest agreements would be reduced by about 20% a year to zero by 2000. The timber industry reacted with a furious campaign that included the blockade.
Labor was watching the growing popularity of the Greens with trepidation. But the timber industry was critical to the economies of Tasmania and parts of New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, and the powerful timber workers’ union had lots of allies.
In March and April 1995 the cabinet agreed to accelerate the process and fund more agreements, arguing that it was necessary to achieve “ecologically sustainable resource use and management which fulfils both commonwealth and state objectives for a forest region”.
“Forest industry groups have indicated that they favour the development of [regional forest agreements] as a means of underpinning informed and durable forest land-use decisions,” the cabinet was told. “Conservation groups have mixed views, some being suspicious of the process and likely outcomes with others moderately supportive. Inevitably, RFAs will involve compromises in ambit conservation and industry positions, and this can be expected to attract criticism from the more extreme elements on both sides.”
The tensions played out in cabinet, particularly when the then primary industries minister, David Beddall, tried to renew 11 woodchip export licences against the advice of the environment department.
Cabinet agreed to revise legislation to ensure “the minister for resources is bound by the national ceiling”.
Preserving the Daintree in the north proved easier. In April 1994 the cabinet allocated $11.5m to buy private land on the margins of the Daintree world heritage area to prevent the sensitive area being compromised by creeping urban development. Treasury opposed the buyback, arguing it was bad precedent and that the cabinet should have used existing regulations to manage land left in private hands.