Paper calamity



FEDERAL and state Nationals politicians and the manufacturing union have blamed the Premier, Daniel Andrews, for Opal Australia’s decision to stop producing white pulp and copy paper at the Maryvale mill.

The decision, which throws up to 200 workers out of work and ends 85 years of white paper production at the mill, also threatens suppliers and contractors.

Opal, with about 850 employees, is the Latrobe Valley’s single biggest employer.

Up to one quarter of mill jobs are likely to be affected, as Opal now plans to concentrate on manufacturing cardboard fibre packaging.

The federal Member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, said Mr Andrews must accept 100 per cent of the blame for up to 200 job losses at Maryvale.

Mr Chester told Federal Parliament that the main culprit was the state government and its plan to abolish the native timber industry in Victoria.

“Victorian Premier Dan Andrews’ plan to shut down the native timber industry is a plan to kill country towns, to kill wildlife and to kill Australian jobs. People and wildlife die in poorly managed forests,” Mr Chester told Parliament.

“The combined impact of judicial activism, environmental protests, green lawfare and the abject failure of the Victorian Labor government to support our world-class and environmentally sustainable timber industry is devastating regional communities across Gippsland.

“Every worker who loses their job, every family facing financial stress – and the difficult decision to leave the community they love – has just one man to blame, and that man is Premier Dan Andrews and a Labor Party in Victoria that doesn’t care about blue-collar workers anymore.”

CFMEU Manufacturing said the end of white paper production was disastrous, not inevitable, and was the tragic result of the state government’s mismanagement of the native forest sector and a bumbling approach by Opal.

National secretary, Michael O’Connor, said the union had warned both the government and company about mass job losses for more than three years.

The union campaigned for years for the government to make changes to prevent wood supply being blocked by third-party litigation, but was ignored.

“The union will fight to ensure the maximum support for our members, their families and community,” he said.

Gippsland state Nationals MPs said the state government’s failure to supply timber to the mill was the direct result of Labor policy and inaction to close legal loopholes.

The Nationals Member for Morwell, Martin Cameron, said the reason he ran for Parliament was to support workers.

“I am just so devastated that we have lost these jobs here in the Valley,” he said.

“While it’s disappointing that Opal Australian Paper has made this decision, it has clearly come about because of Labor’s policy failures on the forestry industry.”

The Nationals Member for Eastern Victoria Region, Melina Bath, said the writing had been on the wall for some time and the state government had failed to act.

“We have warned Labor time and again that it needed to close legal loopholes that have allowed ongoing green law-fare against the timber industry and ultimately locked out timber workers from the forest,” she said.

“This has had a devastating effect on our local harvest and haulage sector, as well as local timber mills and now the Latrobe Valley’s largest private employer.”

MR O’Connor said Maryvale was the only Australian manufacturer of white paper products.

“The closure …. is likely to lead to shortages of paper supplies and increased cost of living pressures. It will impact the supply of products including A4 copy paper, medical prescriptions, school exercise books, food packaging and utility bills,” he said.

Opal had been running out of timber supplies from VicForests since last November, when the Supreme Court, acting on a case by two environmental groups, ordered VicForests to stop harvesting because it had not done enough to protect two species of greater glider.

The mill produced its last ream of Reflex copy paper on January 21.

An Opal spokeswoman said despite Opal’s best efforts the company had been unable to source viable alternative wood supplies to replace the shortfall from VicForests.

“Opal will now consult further on the impact of this decision. Following that consultation, the process will then move through redeployment considerations and into a redundancy proves in accordance with Opal’s legal obligations,” she said.

The company said it was important to re-set the Maryvale mill over the long-term as a sustainable, profitable and focused packaging manufacturing site.

“Opal appreciates that the current situation is difficult for everyone,” she said.

Opal expects to take an estimated $220 million impairment loss on the mill’s fixed assets.

The write down will come on top of the loss of sales, with the operating results of the discontinued business $264 million in 2021-22. The capital value of all Opal’s business is $2.462 billion.

Mr Chester said he had raised concerns about fibre supply to the mill two years ago in a letter to senior management.

“I don’t trust the Premier and I didn’t believe state government assurances that jobs would be secure in the proposed transition to plantation timber. The state government’s policy to abandon all harvesting of native timber is a direct threat to jobs at the paper mill along with all other timber industry jobs in our region,” he said.

“These latest job losses were completely avoidable if Melbourne Labor Ministers had taken action to protect the hardwood timber industry from activists and secure the fibre supply over the longer term.”

Mr Chester said Opal’s decision was also devastating for sub-contractors who provide transport and logistical support to the industry.

“The job losses don’t finish at the mill gate, there will be truck drivers and other sub-contractors in our region who will lose incomes as a result of this decision,” Mr Chester said.

“What is the Premier going to do for those family business owners? What is the Prime Minister going to do about Australia losing the capacity to manufacture white copy paper on our own shores?”

Mr Chester said Australia needed to produce more of its own critical supplies as a nation.

“Shutting down the native hardwood timber industry in Victoria is already leaving us exposed to fluctuations in foreign markets, and timber harvested from less environmentally sustainable sources,” he said.

“If the industry is shutdown, we will see less practical management of the fire risk in the bush with lives and livelihoods put at risk, all for the sake of Premier Dan Andrews chasing Greens votes in the city.”

The Nationals Member for Gippsland South, Danny O’Brien said the state government’s forestry policy would result in more job losses in Gippsland and worse global environmental outcomes as Australia turns to imports to fill the void.

“Remember in November 2019, Daniel Andrews guaranteed the jobs at the Maryvale mill until at least 2050 and scoffed at suggestions that Labor’s policies would cost jobs,” he said.

“The proof is now in the pudding that the Premier had lied and unfortunately it’s Gippsland workers who bear the brunt.”

The state Employment Minister, Ben Carroll, said the government would work with the company, its employees and the wider industry to support them.

“We’ve already activated a lot of our transition support, whether it be counselling, whether it be offers of free training, as we do with all our industries that are going through transition,” he said.

“This is a difficult time for the workers. We stand with them and we’ll continue to work with them to ensure that they feel supported and that they have other options going forward.”

The Victorian Forest Alliance called on the state government to act and rapidly end native forest logging and support workers to transition immediately.

“The Andrews government has a plan to continue logging for another seven years. The 2030 end date was always far too late. They can and must act now to finally end the destruction, and protect these forests,” the alliance said.