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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Can't see the forest for the trees

This post on another blog by Ken Jefferys, General Manager Corporate Relations Forestry Tasmania, includes claims about openness and transparency in the conduct of their business, and a distinct failure by the Greens and NGOs involved in forestry issues to do likewise.

A couple of months ago, Matthew Moore in the Sydney Morning Herald in "Shiver me timbers - the pulp friction cools down" reported on a small victory in Tasmania where the Ombudsman had required disclosure of some parts of the Forestry Tasmania contract with Gunns Limited, in response to a Freedom of Information application by the Greens. However the Ombudsman stopped short of requiring disclosure of information about the price or the volume of logs sold for pulp wood. The Ombudsman said these details would allow a competitor "to predict with a greater degree of accuracy future pricing for contracts involving the sale of pulpwood".

I understand that all state government forestry agencies take a somewhat similar view about the sensitivity of information about the sale of logs. There is a current case before the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal on this issue which has yet to be decided.

An expert in this area has told me that the details of quantities and prices of all major grades and species of logs sold from every government forest and other key conditions governing the sales, should be in the public domain in the interests of an efficient and informed market. The US Department of Agriculture says this type of information is essential if private timber owners are to be properly informed of market developments. Australia provides no official information of this kind.

There is also an accountability issue given that such sales involve the disposition of public assets. In NSW and elsewhere there is a general requirement these days about disclosure of contract information, including price, but special case exemptions apply.

I note that Mr. Jefferys doesn't get into this sort of detail, after telling us about Forestry Tasmania setting out "on a mission to establish a new benchmark for openness and transparency in the debate over the management of our forests". But at least they have thrown open the doors to the media, started briefings round the state, have a newsletter, and are subject to the FOI Act.

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