Walleah Press

Famous Reporter 42 : December 2010



Famous Reporter 42




Standing Strong
Edited by Sharon Moore, Karen Brown and Tyler Jordan,
Self Published
Into the Woods
By Anna Krien
Black Inc

Tasmania is at a crossroads. After many years of impassioned conflict over the island’s forests, conservationists and timber industry insiders have agreed to lay down the hatchet, and possibly even bury it for good. Just as a bushfire leaves its mark in the growth ring of a tree, from now on conversations about the identity, economy, social and natural ecology of Tasmania will mark time by these efforts to resolve the issue of how to use, protect or restore forests.

Standing Strong, edited by Sharon Moore, Karen Brown and Tyler Jordan and Into the Woods by Anna Krien, published in the second half of 2010, have just snuck in on the closing days of the recent history of the forest conflict, and for that reason are very important books. Both spotlight activists, their methods, their motives and how the public and establishment receive them.

Standing Strong is a collection of transcripts arising from a series of activists’ stories events held in Hobart between 2006 and 2007. On these nights, stories were told by people who have given their time to causes, (chiefly conservation with a few exceptions), and from those, ten accounts were published. By working with transcripts this book borders on an oral history, so some editing may have been justified for the sake of making reading easier. However, this would have risked tampering with the authenticity of the voices — one of the strengths of the publication.

 Spanning several generations, such as Jack Lomax (in his eighties) and Neil Smith, through to then sixteen-year-old Hannah Aulby, the book is a valuable collection, not least for offering a little insight into how Tasmania is home to people with a profound wealth of life experiences amongst them. From Lomax’s chilling anecdote of being arrested in Franco’s Spain, to Peter Jones explanation of the evolution of the globally-recognised peace symbol at the Aldermaston peace march in 1958 and his description of hiding in a toilet in Ramalla while Israel bombed the West Bank during the Six Day War in 1967, some accounts read like a travelogue of political hotspots. This is neatly balanced by tales of regular people compelled to do extraordinary things in response to social or environmental injustice.

 Most of the raconteurs have fallen foul of the law and a consistent theme throughout these stories is the individual’s rollercoaster ride between feelings of determination and a sense of righteousness at doing something that seemed just, and the absolute fear of stepping outside of their own social and legal boundaries.

 The discomforting subplot of Standing Strong is the impact of incarceration on those whose actions led them over the line of the law, landing them in the prison for varying degrees of time. Descriptions of institutionalised dehumanisation were consistent amongst those imprisoned. This effect was not peculiar to Tasmania, with a similar feeling experienced by Stuart Lennox in the US prison system when arrested in California protesting with Greenpeace against the Bush government’s Star Wars programme. Yet both Karen Weldrick and Christine Milne extol, if not the virtues, then the camaraderie of the Risdon Women’s’ prison, which is in clear contrast to the experiences of Rodney Croome, Bob Brown, Jack Lomax in the men’s quarters.

 Standing Strong is dominated by the stories of environmental activists, which is to be expected given the story nights were organised by and for environmental activists.  The inclusion of Rodney Croome and his involvement in the campaign for gay rights in Tasmania makes for a welcome variety in subject matter, even though Croome makes the point that the gay rights campaign was largely the product of skills learnt from environmental campaigns of the 1980s.   Lindsay Tuffin, despite not comfortably wearing the tag of activist, is also a worthy inclusion given his role in inviting Tasmanians to engage as ‘citizen journalists’ and commentators through the Tasmanian Times website.  The absence of any stories by Aboriginal activists is disappointing — a lost opportunity to celebrate Aboriginal resistance and renewal in Tasmania.


 Into the Woods, by Melbourne journalist Anna Krien, is also a journey into one of the most vexing issues in Tasmania, and into the personalities that frequently feature.  Krien admits her inclination to support the cause of forest conservation — through friendships, philosophy and her research around the issue — so the book does not pretend to be impartial. She is openly skeptical of information and perspectives of familiar figures such as Barry Chipman (Tasmanian state coordinator of Timber Communities Tasmania) and Bob Gordon (Managing Director of Forestry Tasmania). Krien’s relative distance from the subject (simply by not living here makes her slightly less immersed) has allowed more freedom to converse with loggers in pubs, and consequently offers more empathy for people who usual only sit on the other side of the great philosophical divide. As an ‘outsider’s’ view, Krien makes some attempt at even-handedness in expressing the thoughts of people on the industry side, such as their feelings of betrayal by the media and greenies, making for a far more substantial telling of this story.

 For those of us who have lived the Tasmanian forest conflict either through involvement, or simply by watching it play out on the pages of the newspapers every day, Krien’s book does not offer great revelations or startling new information, (although I had never heard the story of Peter Cundall receiving a beseeching call from Jim Bacon close to the end of his life). By studying the last ten years of the forest conflict, Krien has tried to digest figures, processes, to-and-fro arguments by activists and industry people, and make them into a readable narrative that will go a long way to inform interstate Australians about just what the hell is going on in Tasmania’s forests. It is, however, important that Into the Woods be recognised as subjective commentary, rather than incontrovertible fact, if indeed such a thing can ever exist in relation to an issue that has been so fiercely contested.

 The conservationists’ case is now well represented in print — in Helen Gee’s chronicle of conflict For the Forests, through to more recent releases by Geoff Law, Greg Buckman and the photography/poetry collaboration of Matthew Newton and Pete Hay. The ‘greenies’ definitely have the edge in the telling of their story, simply by counting among their own some of Tasmania’s premier writers and intellects, such as Richard Flanagan, scientist Peter McQuillan and film-maker Scott Millwood.  

 But what the conservation community might enjoy in talent and intellectual cache, they lack in resources. The industry can enjoy access to information that is withheld from others through commercial-in-confidence embargos, access to a large constituency via a powerful union that disseminates information to its members, and a healthy advertising budget (in some cases tax-payer funded) that can place ads in prime-time commercial television and print advertisements that run outside of the election ‘season’, which is when green groups commit scarce coin to advertising.

 Anna Krien shows that there is a story that is largely untold in Tasmania; the story of the small saw-miller and timber operator. Some of her interview subjects left school early to work in the industry and their stories are largely lost in the deluge of press releases and commentary emanating from big companies and industry umbrella groups.  Just as smaller industry players have been swallowed financially, so, too are their stories fading from view.

 Green groups come across as cyber-savvy — at home with social networking tools and sites that act as storehouses of stories and opinions. However, it is not easy to find a representative match from individuals and small groups in the small-scale industry sector, apart from comments on The Mercury online or Tasmanian Times. A brief search of the State Library of Tasmania’s Online Catalogue offers a list of nearly 200 government-run information sites, industry URLS and anti-forestry and pro-conservation websites and blogs, hosted either by established environment organisations such as the Wilderness Society or community groups. The online presence of the non-organised industry is sparse, limited to the likes of Chips Chum and the didactic Forests Now Tasmania blog, or Mark Poynter, a forestry communications professional, writing for Online Opinion. The blog People of Forestry Tasmania features thoughts and opinions from those working within Forestry Tasmania; a quasi-government department. When researchers, writers and analysts come to study the story of Tasmania’s protracted forest dispute, it will be the press releases of industry professionals that dominate the timber industry’s perspective.

 It is for this reason that Krien’s forays into the Maydena pub are so valuable, even if she does go in with a pre-held opinion. She offers a scrutiny of people beyond the few column inches and stereotypes that newspapers peddle; from out-of-control loggers viciously assaulting activists, to dirty ratbags messing with some poor bloke’s working day.

 2009 was the International Year of Astronomy. 2010, the Year of Biodiversity, has unofficially become the year of co-operation, with new inter-party love-ins happening in Tasmania, at a federal government level, and in England and Sweden, just to name a few. In the late 1990s there was graffiti on a Barrack Street wall, daubed there by the late Joe Harries: ‘There is no justice, there is just us’.  With complex negotiations beginning and a genuine hope for reinvention of the relationship between conservation and the timber industry, in Tasmania’s future there may not be quite so much need for us and them.  Just us.