Showing strength

All ears: Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester listens to students from Heyfield Primary School as the Today Show crew watches on. Photograph Tom Parry



HEYFIELD was out in-force last week, hoping to bring national attention to the native timber industry’s shutdown.

A crowd of more than 200 people gathered in Apex Park on Monday, May 29 after hearing word that the Nine Network’s Today program would be filming in the area.

Federal Member for Gippsland Darren Chester, Wellington Shire Council Mayor Ian Bye, Wellington Shire councillor Carmel Ripper and Australian Sustainable Hardwoods managing director, Vince Hurley were among the attendees.

Timberline General Store manager and owner, Allison Akers was also in attendance, representing her business and the wider community.

Ms Akers told the Express she was hoping that Heyfield can make a change.

“If the industry does get shut down, and the mills struggle and they have to put staff off, it affects everyone in the town,” Ms Akers said.

“It’ll be not just our business; it’s every business that’ll be affected.”

The gathering was hastily organised via social media, with most attendees – including Mr Chester and Cr Bye – learning of it less than 24 hours before it occurred.

Although posts shared on Facebook instructed people to arrive at 2pm, the Today crew – consisting of journalist Izabella Staskowski and a videographer – didn’t arrive until around 2.40pm.

Upon Today’s arrival, impromptu speeches of support were given by Mr Chester, Cr Bye and Mr Hurley on the banks of the Heyfield Pump Track, each earning applause from the crowd.

Questions were then taken from the crowd, with one “born and bred” Heyfield resident asking what the opposition’s business plan was “going forward” in the absence of a native timber industry. No clear answer was given, but Mr Hurley indicated that his business was diversifying their interests.

Another passionate attendee implied the local representatives were all talk and no action, asking: “What are you doing for us?”

Others heckled by asking why the state representatives, Tim Bull and Danny O’Brien, weren’t present at the event.

Mr Chester answered by saying both men were in Parliament, lobbying on their constituents’ behalf.

While it was the promise of national media coverage that drew people to Apex Park, many in attendance used the event to vent their frustrations at the state government’s decision to bring forward the cessation of native timber harvesting by six years to January 1, 2024.
Cr Bye described the move as “a bit of a disgrace”.

“It’s very disappointing that the Andrew’s (state) government … (has) given six months’ notice instead of the six years that it should have been, and rather than actually trying to fix the industry, decided to shut it down early,” Cr Bye told the Express.

His sentiments were echoed by many on the day.

Small business owners Jason and Julie Weir – who travelled from Melbourne to attend the event – noted that their business, which specialises in hardwood flooring, had planned to transition away from native timber, but “in six years, not in six months”.

Truck driver Jason Cook, who has been involved in the timber industry for more than 15 years, said he was “literally lost for words” regarding the decision.

“We were given a timeline (of six years) and now we’ve lost that timeline,” Mr Cook said.
“The rug’s been pulled straight from under us.”

Heyfield Timber Festival committee president Felicia Stevenson, who was also in attendance, said the decision was wrong.

“We’ve got the most sustainable industry in the whole wide world here, and they want to end it,” Ms Stevenson said.

“I DON’T see the sense behind it, and we haven’t been shown the science behind it either, so it’s devastating.”

Objections to the move weren’t just vocal – signs with slogans and messages of anger were carried by a small number of attendees, while others were hung on trees surrounding the Timber Workers Memorial.

Some placed blame for the decision with the Greens party; a select few directed their wrath at Premier Daniel Andrews.

The grassroots event transpired after local resident and musician Mick Harrington uploaded a video to social media, criticising the government’s move to cease native timber harvesting at the end of the year.

In the video, Mr Harrington accused the government of caring “more about inner-city Greens preferences than they do about rural Victorian families”.

“They don’t mind if small communities like Swifts Creek, Heyfield, Powelltown and Orbost cease to exist, and I’ve bloody had it,” Mr Harrington said.

His posting of that video resulted in him being contacted by producers at Today.

Mr Harrington – who is also director of lobby group Forest & Wood Communities Australia, and a former candidate for The Nationals at federal and state levels – said that Today’s visit means that “there’s someone listening”.

“Politicians from the Labor state government won’t get out of Melbourne – they won’t consult with us,” Mr Harrington said.

“Dan Andrews won’t come and talk to our community, so I need to get the message, and we need to get the message into the capital cities.”

Ms Stevenson indicated she was pleased that Heyfield was getting nationwide attention, but added, “We’ve got to keep it up as well.”

Ms Akers was less enthusiastic, saying the coverage was “a little bit late”.

“It’s good that the media are here, but it’s too late – we needed media really making a stance for this a long time ago,” she said.

Izabella Staskowski’s report aired the following morning on Today, which sought to highlight the human cost of the native timber industry’s shutdown.

In one of the more prominent scenes from the story, primary school student Oliver Jones teared-up as he discussed the possibility of his dad losing his job.

Ms Staskowski concluded her report by noting that she used to live and work in Gippsland, and that towns like Heyfield “could be wiped off the map if there’s no employment and there’s no support”.

“They want answers, they want support, and they certainly want politicians to go out and speak to them,” Ms Staskowski said.

“I can tell you this: they will keep up their fight. They will band together and do what they can to support their local communities and their way of life.”

Speaking after the story aired, Mr Harrington described Today’s reporting as “very fair”.

“I don’t think it’s going to change the mind of our state government – that’s not going to happen – but in the interim, we’re hopeful that it will make them see the need for adequately compensating and helping these communities,” Mr Harrington said.