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Issue #1530      7 December 2011

Culture & Life

We’re in the timber business

Amidst the plethora of Commonwealth and state assets recently proposed for sale by governments more interested in serving corporations than consumers – assets as substantial as Port Botany and the Port of Melbourne, the harvesting rights for SA Forests and the Sydney Desalination Plant – the sell-off of nurseries owned by Forests NSW at Dubbo, Muswellbrook, Gunnedah, Narrandera, Wagga and Cumberland in Sydney could pass unnoticed. But it is not without significance.

In the early 1950s, the family of a school friend of ours bought a property on the Namoi River near Narrabri in NSW. The property had been neglected and was badly affected by erosion, but the state provided support and assistance to farmers to repair and improve rural properties through what was then the Forestry Commission of NSW. It was recognised that planting trees was very much in the public interest so the Forestry Commission’s retail nurseries provided trees at very reasonable prices and in quantity.

At that time, of course, Australia was a prime example of state monopoly capitalism, where capitalist enterprises provided whatever goods and services were needed as long as a profit could be made by doing so. Where costs were deemed too high or prospective profits simply too low, the state (either Commonwealth or state governments) was expected to step in and supply the necessary goods and services from the public purse. All the while being abused by the capitalist media and politicians for “failing to make a profit”!

Even under these lop-sided conditions, private enterprise frequently failed to outperform the public sector. ANA (Australian National Airways, the airline owned by a consortium of shipping companies) did so badly in competition with the nationally owned TAA that ANA eventually went belly up. It was bought by Reg Ansett, who had an ace up his sleeve: he was a good mate of the Liberal Party PM Robert Menzies. Ansett appealed to Menzies for help and TAA was forced by an obliging federal government to give half of its lucrative airmail business to its “private enterprise” rival and was never allowed to advertise itself as “publicly owned”.

Meanwhile, capitalism’s spokespersons assiduously spread the lie that enterprises run for private profit were more efficient than anything run as a public service. Workers employed in the postal service, public transport, the health system, the Overseas Telecommunications Commission, or any of the numerous enterprises that state or Commonwealth governments had interests in – such as Commonwealth Engineering (maker of railway rolling stock), BORAL (oil refineries), Commonwealth Portland Cement (supplier of 50 percent of cement used in building construction), Purr-Pull (petrol distribution in NSW) and many others – knew that the slurs on public enterprises were just that, slurs, but the mass of the people were kept in ignorance. They only heard about public enterprises when something went wrong. No capitalist paper or radio or TV station was going to voluntarily praise the public sector.

Nor were those same papers and electronic media ever going to remind the public of the chaos that prevailed when Sydney’s buses (all private) competed over the same routes before Jack Lang put them off the roads. Or how Sydney Ferries (another private operation) went bust and the NSW government had to take them over, or how the “free enterprise” Manly Ferry system subsequently went the same way.

When our friend’s family moved to Narrabri, there was public concern – then as now – over the conflicting but equally deleterious effects of flood and drought on the land. The greening of Australia was recognised as a question of genuine urgency and importance. It was this concern that led to the establishment by the Forestry Commission of NSW (now graced by the modern corporate title of “Forests NSW”) of its own network of retail nurseries. Apparently the corporate name is accompanied by corporate thinking, however.

The decision to flog off the retail nurseries was announced by Forests NSW’s “director of land management and forestry services”, Ross Dickson. Mr Dickson informed the media “We are losing money for a variety of reasons, one is obviously drought.

“But secondly, when these sorts of nurseries attach to a timber company such as ourselves, they cop a fairly significant bureaucratic overhead, so it’s difficult for them to show a profit, whereas if they were a single, private operation they would be more profitable.” And there you have it, all rolled up into a neat little package: public enterprises have a “bureaucratic overhead”, Forests NSW is “a timber company”, nothing else, and its purpose is to “show a profit”, that’s all.

At a time of global warming and ozone depletion, with growing desertification, why should a government entity in Australia, the driest continent on Earth, be concerned about loss of forest? Could it perhaps affect our future?

ABC News in reporting the decision to sell off the nurseries commented that “The ABC is aware that some staff feel Forests NSW imposes overhead costs that make the nurseries unviable and that if a proper budget was provided, they could compete with the private sector.”

Dickson himself admitted that Forests NSW had “not applied the necessary focus on the retail nursery network to make it more successful”. He claimed that this was because “the government focus is on commercial plantations”. In other words, under its new corporate structure, Forests NSW has abandoned any obligations to protection of the environment. Despite a pious wish that any successful tenderer for the nurseries should employ the existing staff, Dickson made clear that it was not a condition of any tender.

“We value these staff,” he said. “These staff are very passionate about their business, they are horticulturalists and they go beyond their duty to manage these nurseries for us to date.” And then he baldly stated: “The business model’s changed, as it does in any corporation.” Tough cheddar for the workers concerned – their passion counts for next to nothing when profits are involved.

I believe the real question should be “Can we afford not to operate these nurseries?”  


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