Speech: Truth in Policy – Calling out Extreme Activists, Speech by the Hon. Joel Fitzgibbon

Truth in Policy – Calling out Extreme Activists

Speech by the Hon. Joel Fitzgibbon

Chair, Australian Forest Products Association

ANZIF Conference, Gold Coast 17-10-2023

Alongside my national security interests, I spent most of my time in politics fighting for the well-established industries that make a substantial contribution to our economy and employ lots of blue-collar and hi-vis workers. Industries like our forestry sector.

It was my passion for these industries which brought me to AFPA.

But by definition and by necessity, that interest also caused me to spend much of my time in politics fighting extreme environmental activists.

When I say extreme, I mean those who are driven more by ideology than outcomes.

Those who push fiction over facts. Those who misrepresent science and physics to achieve their jobs and value-destroying objectives.

In recent years their activities have expanded and grown, bank-rolled by high wealth individuals in search of something money can’t buy.  Relevance.

They are funding social media and advertising campaigns, financing job destroying legal challenges, and wheeling Green Trojan Horses into our corporate boardrooms.

Now they are sending people to Parliament to do their bidding. 

People like Dr Sophie Scamps who on Thursday will – in cahoots with the World Wildlife Foundation – and fresh from accusing the Israelis of war crimes – ask Members and Senators in the Australian Parliament to sign a Native Forests pledge full of misrepresentation.

For example, the document she wants our elected representatives to sign suggests half of Australia’s forests have been lost due to what she describes as “the industrial logging of our native forests”.

That’s right, the industry which we know, has access to less than 4 percent of our native forest estate.

In what I believe to be an insult to the blue-collar workers I’ve been defending for 34 years – and the regional communities they live in – the Pledge states:

 “with generous support for our timber workers and a well-managed transition to plantations, we could grow regional economies with a sustainable timber industry and support tourism businesses”. 

Friends, we know, our selective and sophisticated native timber industry is sustainable and those who work in it already have jobs. And we know that while we are working hard with government to expand our plantation estate, it cannot in the foreseeable future, replace the product that comes from our native estate.

The statement is not supportive of timber workers, it’s an insult.

The Pledge also describes the industry as “loss making”.  It’s funny isn’t it, how people keep operating at a loss?  This of course is nonsense.

Scamps’ Pledge also claims that ending native harvesting will be good for climate change and biodiversity yet we know the opposite to be true.

Thankfully, most political leaders know this, that’s why they support our industry.

Of course, the now former Premier of Victoria is not one of them. He shut down his native industry and then turned to Tasmania to secure the hardwood product his communities need and like so much. 

AFPA will of course be urging MPs and Senators to reject the misleading Pledge.

And we will continue to energetically advocate on behalf of the industry’s whole value chain.

We’ll do so in the interest of jobs, the economy, the natural environment, sovereign capability and of course, the interests of our member companies. Thankfully, none of these things are mutually exclusive.

A focus of the ANZIF Conference has been natural capital, that I welcome.

Natural capital is one of the three big Cs – along with financial capital and human capital.

Today I want to speak with you about a fourth big C – political capital.

Every sector holds a certain level of political capital based on the value of its contribution to the economy and the jobs it creates.

But that capital is not fixed.  It rises and falls as it is spent or more is accumulated.

In other words, political capital is part gifted and part earned.

How well political capital is spent and earned can be the difference between success and failure for any given industry, including our own.

Accumulating capital by offering governments solutions to a problem is critical in the art of advocacy.

There is often a strong correlation between the level of an industry’s political capital and the level of community support. 

For example, it appears a large number of Australians like renewable electricity generation technologies.  Therefore, renewables enjoy strong support amongst the political class. In other words, there are votes in it.

For the forestry and forest products sector, the situation is far more complex.

Despite patchy and relatively low levels of community support, forestry enjoys a healthy level of support amongst our political leaders.

Sure, state governments in Victoria and Western Australia have closed down their native forest industries, but in Canberra, support is strong. It’s also strong in other states.

Indeed, in the last twelve months both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader have attended AFPA’s dinners to express their support for all of our industry. Not just parts of it, the whole value chain.

So too has Forestry Minister Murray Watt and his Opposition counterpart.

And here are a few quotes from recent parliamentary debate:

This one from Penny Wong

“…We continue to support native forestry, we recognise that a sustainable native forestry sector that operates under high standards for environmental standards and sustainable harvesting, has benefits in terms of jobs and the economy…

“…One of the things I have never understood, given where I come from, is why it has been the position of the Greens political party that it’s alright to have logging offshore, in countries with lower levels of regulation, than it is to have in Australia, and I can say that from first-hand experience.” 

And from our Minister, Murray Watt:

“…The reality is that, in order for Australia to meet its timber and wood product needs, we need a mixture of plantation and native forestry…
“…We recognise there is a need and a place for native forestry……”

And from our Prime Minister:

“…I certainly do support timber workers…through the regional forestry agreements process, we work with states and territories to support Australia’s forestry industry to operate under high standards for environmental management and sustainable harvesting. We need timber products and we want sustainable forestry jobs.”

The question becomes, why is there such a mismatch between our social licence and our political support?

The answer is – at the risk of stating the obvious – knowledge or lack of it.

Too few Australians think about where their wood-based products come from.  Too few understand that a worked forest is a healthy forest and one less prone to bushfire and animal deaths.

Last Saturday I walked into a polling station to vote in the referendum.  I followed a cardboard sign, picked up a lead pencil made of wood, walked into a cardboard booth, and wrote “yes” on a paper ballot, before placing it in a cardboard ballot box.

All of these were renewable, recyclable and biodegradable products, but how many Australians gave that a thought?  I wonder what they think will displace plastics?

As demand for forest-based products continue to outstrip supply we need to redouble our advocacy efforts.  And we need to do it with one loud uniform voice.

We need to do more to bring Australians to realise that every facet of our sector is sustainable, every product is renewable, and there can be no substantial bioeconomy without us.

There can be no sovereign capability without us either.  And, without our sector, our decarbonisation goals cannot be realised.

In one of his more celebrated Yogi-isms, former American baseball legend Yogi Berra said:

“it’s tough making predictions, particularly about the future”.

Prophecy is risky, there can be no doubt.

But I believe Abraham Lincoln got it right when he once said:

“the best way to predict the future is to create it”.

Our renewable and sustainable forest and forest products sector enjoy strong support amongst our politicians. But we need to build more political support through the broader community, not despite it.

When we build more community support, even more political support will follow. 

The reality is, we should not assume support from a sitting MP whose main political threat comes from the Greens when his or her electorate is constantly bombarded with extreme activist propaganda.

We need to create more room for him or her to form a policy position based on the facts.

That’s a job for all of us, collectively and individually. And that means doing more to educate the electorate.

To create the future, we need at least three things.

  1. A persuasive narrative;
  2. Political, policy and operational credibility; and,
  3. Sufficient stocks of political capital and the ability to spend it wisely.

I’ve already spoken about our narrative.  It is a compelling one.

At this time – when the world is increasingly focused on both climate change and sovereign capability – our moment has arrived.

We can’t afford to let it pass us by.

On credibility I need to say this:

Every industry regularly does good things, particularly ours. But news of the good things can be quickly overwhelmed by the very rare bad things. We cannot afford mistakes or short-cuts, they are a gift to the extreme activists.

And when we talk about our sector, its value and what it can achieve we cannot afford to embellish or exaggerate. Nor do we need to. The facts – including the environmental facts – speak for themselves.

As I’ve pointed out, we have plenty of political capital in the bank. But we need to spend it wisely.

That means creating space for our political leaders as I’ve suggested.

The ball is in our court and we need to nail the next shot.

Together, I know we can, and we will.

We don’t have the tens of millions of dollars needed for a significant ad buy, although the FWPA’s Ultimate Renewable ads are great.

But we do have plenty of big and respected corporate entities in our sector.

And we do have an effective research body in FWPA.

And we do have AFPA, Forestry Australia, AFCA and other advocacy and professional organisations on our side.

We have the weight, we just need to play harder and smarter.  And we will.  You can be sure.

So today I announce that AFPA will develop our own forestry pledge, and invite both our politicians and broader community to sign it.

Our pledge will invite signatories to recognise:

  • The value of our sector;
  • The people it employs; and,
  • The communities it supports.

It will also acknowledge our role in:

  • Tackling climate change;
  • Growing the circular bioeconomy:
  • Building biodiversity;
  • Reducing bushfire risk;
  • Protecting flora and fauna;
  • Building sovereignty capability; and,
  • Taking pressure off housing construction supply chains.

There is a time in advocacy for a soft and diplomatic approach.

And there is a time to fight. A time to stand up to those determined to do us harm by any means, no matter how deceitful.

This I believe, is such a time.


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