SHOCKWAVES reverberated around the community on Tuesday, May 23, after the state government announced native timber harvesting in Victoria would come to a close at the end of the year.
The closure date is now January 1, 2024 – six years ahead of the original 2030 closure date announced four years ago Timber towns such as Heyfield are remaining defiant after being blindsided by the announcement.
Minister for Agriculture, Gayle Tierney broke the news at a sombre media conference in Morwell on the Tuesday.
“Today is a very difficult day, it’s a very difficult day for the timber industry,” she said.
“The government has needed to make a decision and that decision is about the cessation of native timber from our state forests as of the 1st of January, 2024.”
The state government pointed to ongoing litigation and bushfires for the early closure, claiming there was no alternative timber supply.
Native timber harvesting was put on hold in November last year after a Supreme Court ruling against VicForests.
The court ruled VicForests did not do enough to protect two possum species – greater and yellow-bellied gliders.
Tuesday’s announcement was met with condemnation by local Nationals MPs, as well as Wellington Shire Mayor, Ian Bye.
“Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has devastated the futures of over 650 timber workers throughout Wellington Shire,” Cr Bye said.
“I write today in response to the Premier’s budget announcement, marking the final nail in the coffin for the state’s native timber industry, one that feeds the families of hundreds of local timber workers.
“Devastation was felt instantly yesterday, after months living in fear of the worst possible outcome. An outcome that has turned into a nightmare for timber workers local to Wellington Shire.”
Federal Member for Gippsland, Darren Chester labelled it the most outrageous decision by a government in his more than decade-long career in politics.
“In my 15 years as a Member of Parliament, I’ve never been more disgusted with a government decision than today’s announcement that Victoria will ban all native timber harvesting from January 1 next year,” he said.
“People and wildlife die in poorly managed forests and Victorian Premier Dan Andrews’ plan to shutdown the native timber industry in 2024 is a plan to kill country towns, kill wildlife, and kill Australian jobs.
“This is a Dan-made disaster which will devastate Gippsland communities and take us a generation to recover from.” Fellow Nationals MPs were equally scathing in response to the announcement.
“Today is a grim day for timber workers and their families who have been callously ignored – the Andrews Government has flatly refused to sit at the table and negotiate,” Member for Eastern Victoria Region, Melina Bath said.
“This government and the Greens, who are in unity on this, have never been able to explain where our hardwood timber – that is increasing in consumer demand – is going to come from,” Member for Gippsland East, Tim Bull added.
“This announcement will not only destroy the native timber industry but be devastating for many local communities and the families within them as well,” Member for Gippsland South, Danny O’Brien said in Parliament.
The end of native timber harvesting
MR O’Brien called on the state government to explain what action it will take to replace the thousands of jobs cut from local communities by the decision.
“Gippslanders are already facing job losses from Hazelwood, with Yallourn to come, we’ve struggled through the shutdown of white paper manufacturing at Maryvale and now the timber industry will be shut down in less than six months,” he said.
“What a farce. What a disgrace. And what better evidence that the Labor Party has turned its back on blue-collar workers in favour of inner-city green votes.”
The state government has announced a $200 million support package, aimed at helping timber workers transition out of the industry.
The commitment brings the state government’s support for forestry transition to more than $877 million.
At Tuesday’s press conference, Minister Tierney said the decision would provide certainty to workers who have been off work since the Supreme Court ruling.
“Our focus is on workers and their families,” she said.
“We absolutely do not take this lightly, but the uncertainty cannot continue.
“We will back local communities with the financial support, secure jobs and training, and one-on-one case management they need.”
Specifically, the state government has announced a Supply Chain Resilience package to support business continuity, and will deliver a program of land management work to manage 1.8 million hectares of public land currently subject to the timber harvesting allocation order.
In addition, an advisory panel will be established to consider and make recommendations to government on the areas of forests that qualify for protection as National Parks, the areas of forests that would be suitable for recreation opportunities – including camping, hunting, hiking, mountain biking and four-wheel driving – and opportunities for management of public land by Traditional Owners.
Minister for Regional Development and Member for Eastern Victoria, Harriet Shing was joined by fellow Member for Eastern Victoria, Tom McIntosh in Morwell at Tuesday’s announcement, flanking Minister Tierney.
Ms Shing acknowledged the mental toll of the decision would be widespread.
“Today’s announcement will be incredibly distressing and upsetting for many, many people across rural and regional Victoria,” she said.
“Over the coming days we will be providing really intensive mental health support, and support for people that have been affected.
“We don’t underestimate the impact that this will have on communities, from Swifts Creek out to Beaufort (near Ballarat).
“We don’t underestimate the challenges that this will create for workers, for their families, businesses and communities, who for generations have relied on timber harvesting to make a living and to craft their own identities.
“We’re not under any illusions about how difficult this will be … but, ongoing litigation and the impact of bushfires which decimated more than 1.5 million hectares around the state, have left us with no choice, and it would be irresponsible, disrespectful of us not to actually provide communities with the certainty they deserve.”
The state government will be working with Regional Development Victoria and the Latrobe Valley Authority as part of the transition, to look at ways to provide skills and training in other spaces for timber workers.
Redeployment into public land management has been identified as the most likely space.
Those most closely affected are trying to remain positive.
Australian Sustainable Hardwoods (ASH), Heyfield and Radial Timber, Yarram are both looking at ways to innovate, all the while trying to keep morale high among the workforce.
ASHs plans for the 2030 closure have now been accelerated from six years to seven months.
In a possible silver lining, it is understood both mills are determined not to make any redundancies.
ANC Forestry managing director Daryl Hutton believed the decision would spell the end of many small towns.
“We’ve probably known this has been coming for a while because it seems to be the way Daniel Andrews wants to run this state,” he said.
“It seems to be all about the cities, what it is going to do to rural Victoria, all the little towns that revolve around sawmills is just going to close those towns and give those people no security over their future.
“They talk about retraining, but these people are passionate about the timber industry, and it’s what they grew up to do and what they wanted to do, and now they have to up-school to go and do something they won’t enjoy doing quite so much.”