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Friday Analysis: 2023 does not appear as a Happy New Year for Opal workers

2023 seems to have arrived with very little good news for employees at Opal’s Maryvale mill. Just before Christmas Opal was forced to tell 35 workers that they were going to be stood down until mid-February with full pay.

Opal has consistently said that it is working through what is “a complex situation and no longer-term decisions on operational changes have been made at this stage.”

The stand downs had been looming for some time following a supreme court ruling and a timber shortage.

In early November, government-owned timber business VicForests lost a Supreme Court case which found it was not doing enough to protect endangered wildlife including two possum species.

As a result, the company was ordered to scale back its timber harvesting in parts of rural Victoria.

VicForests was a massive supplier for Opal Australian Paper, and they have been unable to obtain the necessary materials since for paper to be created.

After the court order, the paper producer flagged that stand downs was a very real possibility.

Opal ran out of materials to make white sheets of paper on 23 December 2022.

VicForests has appealed the Supreme Court decision. That appeal is not expected to be heard until March.

There is a lot of finger-pointing going on.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union is blaming Opal; the Opposition is blaming the State Government.

Late last year the State Government said it would minimise job impacts from the timber shortage and accelerate the Maryvale mill’s transition away from native timber harvesting.

As forestry and business consultant John Cameron pointed out last year the Victorian Government’s Forestry Plan announced three years ago was trumpeted as a way to transition the timber industry from native forests to plantations within 10 years.

He pointed out that apart from “ignoring the biological fact that it would take 25-30 years for the new plantations to mature, the plan was always a fantasy divorced from reality”.

Opal says it has been unable to identify viable alternative sources of wood. Even if the State Government had kicked off its great plan, Opal right now would be in the same situation.

Meanwhile Opal continues to consider a number of different operational scenarios for the longer term, in case possible alternative wood sources are below the volumes required or are not commercially feasible.

Which leaves many Maryvale employees facing the possibility of a bleak future in a region of the State already battered by the original decision by the State Government to shut down the native timber industry.

Welcome to 2023 which at this stage does not seem to be a happy new year.