Shock and fear grip Victoria’s timber towns after logging ban
The Information Commissioner says VicForests unlawfully spied on several anti-logging campaigners. Photo: AAP
At an early morning toolbox meeting, Kevin de Hoedt’s boss assured his sawmill team they had work for the next six years.
By lunchtime, he broke the news their industry would be gone in six months.
The Victorian government announced on Tuesday it would phase out harvesting native forests by next year, shocking the timber industry which was planning for a 2030 end date.
Timber supply had all but dried up in eastern Victoria after Supreme Court injunctions halted state-owned logger VicForests over environmental concerns.
Hopes were high for a return to normal.
“There are no logs at the moment but once this court injunction is sorted out VicForests has promised some log supply,” Mr de Hoedt, a kiln operator, said as he recounted the meeting.
“Three hours later or less, it was, ‘Sorry guys’,” he told AAP.
“It was pretty devastating.”
The 46-year-old father of two – who followed his love of fishing to eastern Victoria’s Bairnsdale from Melbourne more than 20 years ago – said he was one of the lucky ones.
“My wife’s got a permanent job but it’s one income, two kids … we have a lot to consider.”
The Victorian government is supporting redundancy payments and offering training for workers who want to reskill.
“Our support package will ensure workers receive one-on-one management so that they can find jobs across land management and critical forest bushfire response, while others retrain in growing regional industries – like construction and renewable energy,” a government spokesman said.
Mr de Hoedt said re-skilling would be a challenge for those who had spent their entire working lives in the mills.
“There are guys that I work with who don’t know how to use smartphones, they don’t know anything about emails, attaching files, how are they going to go?”
About 75 kilometres east in the tiny timber town of Orbost, the looming logging ban leaves 110 forestry workers in limbo – about a fifth of the local workforce.
But that’s just the beginning, says forestry consultant Garry Squires.
“All the information that comes out doesn’t address the ancillary businesses,” Mr Squires told AAP.
“So the tyre service here, one of his biggest customers is the log trucks with 22, 24 tyres on them each … he’ll undoubtedly have to put off another guy.
“The local engineer, full-time repairing machinery … he’ll just about be out of business.”
Mr Squires said forestry workers who had retrained as truck and forklift drivers would ultimately be competing for fewer jobs against more experienced operators.
Orbost relies on logging, dairy and beef, and local committees were working toward developing other industries with the 2030 end date in mind.
“It takes time to transition a town and develop its future options and all of the sudden we haven’t got any time,” Mr Squires told AAP.
“It’s thrown the town into chaos.”
On the outskirts of town, mechanical contractor Rob Brunt’s fleet of more than 20 trucks, utes, harvesting machines and caravans have sat idle for almost a year.
“The Mack truck there, I reckon we moved it at Christmas and that’s where it’s been ever since,” Mr Brunt told AAP.
Many of the specialised machines, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each, will be completely redundant when the logging ban kicks in next year.
“Obsolete. What do you do with it?” Mr Brunt asked.
The contractor, who previously ran two logging teams with about 17 machines and 35 workers, only has two excavators earning money.
Shaking his head, Mr Brunt said he could barely imagine his daily losses.
“You’d have to ask my accountant,” he said.
State opposition leader John Pesutto slammed the Labor government’s sudden change of policy at a Liberal Party post-budget lunch on Friday.
“The $200 million the state government has allocated for this is just a pittance for what’s required,” Mr Pesutto said.
“There are stranded assets all across the industry which are going to have to be written off.”
A government spokesman said workers at supply chain businesses will be offered training, employment and mental health support, while highly impacted businesses would be eligible for support vouchers up to $25,000 and transition grants of up to $120,000.
“Forestry workers, their families and communities are our priority,” the spokesman said.
“We will also back our supply chain businesses to ensure they have access to specialist financial support, business planning and diversification services.”
Mr Brunt said while stand-down payments had been helpful, he was wary of state government plans to transition the industry to forest management.
Waiting for answers
“It’s just spin,” he said.
“What machines are needed, how many contractors and for how many months a year?
“No one can tell me.”
Mr Brunt said workers had watched their savings dwindle while debts and mortgages surged in recent months, and that was before budgeting plans went out the window with Tuesday’s announcement.
“We’ve all gone backwards,” he told AAP.
“Some marriages may have split up over the pressures that are going on.
“The pressures this has put on this town is just enormous.”
Mr Brunt’s son, who was lugging tyres and equipment a few metres away, won’t be taking over the business his father built over the past 30 years.
“My young bloke, there’s no succession plan for him to take over any of this … he just can’t be doing this.
“He won’t be living here.”