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Will a Slap On the Wrist Save Tasmania's Heritage Forests?

The World Heritage Committee has rejected Australia's bid to delist 74,000 hectares of heritage listed forest, which Tasmania was hoping to log. Not that'll make much difference. There's plenty of other stuff to cut down, mine or dredge.

by Julian Morgans
Jun 25 2014, 7:09am

Lead Image via Flickr user Lisa May. Other images via Tourism Tasmania

On Monday the United Nations' World Heritage Committee in Doha rejected Australia’s bid to delist 74,000 hectares of heritage listed forest, which the state of Tasmania was hoping to log. The lively 21-member panel had been in session since the previous Monday, debating everything preservation related for the upcoming year. Then, Australia’s proposal cropped up on the agenda, and the room was quiet. Finally the Portuguese delegation curtly voiced the feeling in the room.

“The justifications presented [for] the reduction are, to say the least, feeble. Accepting this delisting today would be setting an unacceptable precedent, impossible to deny in similar circumstances in the future. If this committee cares for conservation according to responsible engagement of state parties to the convention when they submit their nominations, we cannot accept this requested delisting.”

And just like that, the international community validated what Australian conservationists had been saying for months. Federal environment minister Greg Hunt admitted defeat in a press statement, writing simply “Australia accepts and will consider the decision of the World Heritage Committee.” Prime Minister Tony Abbott meanwhile expressed his own bureaucratic form of disappointment. "The application that we made to remove from the boundaries of the World Heritage listing - areas of degraded forest, areas of plantation timber - we thought was self-evidently sensible," he said.

And there’s the clincher. While this is a win for environmentalism, Australia’s political atmosphere considers quick, dumb profits “self-evidently sensible,” which leaves plenty of space for more environmental trampling until, hopefully, the next election.

Unlocking preservation areas was an election promise for both the federal government and the Tasmanian state government. Tassie’s new Liberal premier, Will Hodgman, was elected in March saying he’d “tear up the forest agreement,” and despite being reprimanded by the UN, that still seems to be the plan. On Tuesday, the day after the UN decision, his government tabled legislation to criminalise forestry protests by hitting protesters with on-the-spot fines of $2,000, and jail repeat offenders for a mandatory three months. So while the UN rejected the state’s delisting of heritage forests, apparently there’s plenty more forest controversy in the pipes.

The reef is another internationally public example of Australia’s commitment to unfettered wealth. Earlier last week, the UN committee meeting decided not to place the reef on their “in danger” list which would have affected Queensland’s tourism industry. Despite this, the Portuguese delegates again warned that “the major cause for the reef degradation is not only a consequence of extreme weather conditions and climate change as Australian government documents seem to imply, but also due to human causes and interference.”

With that the UN gave Australia another year to prove they’re halting its decline, which is optimistic given that Abbot Point’s port expansion is due to start dredging the reef sometime next year.

Meanwhile, Al Gore is in Australia this week, spruiking climate change policy with his Climate Reality Project. According to the website the project aims to “educate the public and their communities about the reality of climate change and promote both local and global solutions,” which is all rather diametrically opposed to Tony Abbott’s announcement that killing the carbon tax is still his top priority.

On the same Monday that the UN opened their meeting in Doha, Tony Abbott was imploring new senators to quickly "scrap this toxic tax." "The people have spoken,” he said, “and now it's up to this Parliament to show it listened."

That’s not to say that the current government doesn’t care about climate change, it’s just to say that it unequivocally doesn’t have a better option. The carbon tax was controversial, but not so controversial as Direct Action, which has been universally derided by every scientific think tank and independent economist who’s run it through a comb.

A report last year found direct action will cost taxpayers between $4 billion and $15 billion to cut carbon emissions by five percent by 2020, whereas it’s only budgeted at $2.55 billion over four years, starting July 1, 2014. Clearly it’ll blow its budget, regardless of how well it works. And how well it’ll work is still pretty unclear. In fact, it’s only really the economics that have been finalised, an issue which the Australian economist Ross Garnaut described as seeing “some gnarled toes and people who are expert in these things can guess at the shape of the rest of the body.''

So that’s just how it is. Some people value forests, reefs and non-supercharged weather as great things, just on their own merit. The Australian government, comprised of high functioning bible freaks and car salesmen, see environmentalism as nice, but carrying a lot of hype. It’s all embarrassing post-graduate idealism, and anti-jobs red tape. It’s in the way of growth, discipline, wealth, security, family, progression and re-election, all of which are measured in three-year increments. And in three years, Australia’s government will have trashed a lot more forest.

Julian is on Twitter