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Opinion: David Hutchens – Bunnings not my moral compass

David Hutchens

Bunnings has announced it will stop selling Victorian native timber species after a Federal court decision against Vicforests – the state harvesting agency. The Federal Court decision was one of two things: It was either the last straw for a morally outraged and socially aware major Australian company, which has progressively laid down environmental milestones it intends to pass.

Alternatively, it was an opportunity for branding. A green-shaping strategy developed with unlikely mates in the green movement who have mapped out a pathway of brand improvement for Bunnings.

My instincts tell me it was a poorly understood experiment in identity politics. An attempt to project an image they have been led to think was possible. The difficulty I have with the honesty of their stand – Bunnings as a good corporate citizen – is Wesfarmers’ record since 1994.

Their win-at-all-costs and their aggressive purchase policy. Bunnings sibling is Coles supermarket which has had a stranglehold over the Australian dairy industry for some time. By a dominance established with take-it-or-leave-it supply contracts, Coles and Woolworths between them have held the Australian farmgate milk price a full 20c per litre under New Zealand, Canada, Denmark, or any equivalent First World primary producer.

Strangely, Australians abide and forgive an oligopoly. Especially a virtuous one.

Bunnings was not always a conspicuous conservationist. From 1994 they were determined to undercut the traditional timber and hardware market with lowest prices. And they did with Asian timber imports. Merbau timber included.

In the early 2000s they attempted a weak source-verification for their Merbau. More recently, they called for forest certification from a West Papuan supplier. On paper they are happy with both FSC and PEFC brands of forest certification, but in the case of timber from VicForests sources, they insist on FSC certification. Why? Because that’s where the fix is in. That is where radical greens have mapped Victorian forestry’s demise. And they enlisted Bunnings to help them.

Per directives from somewhere within Spring St, VicForests has been obliged to apply for and to achieve FSC forest certification. One reason it has not already achieved this is because it has an unflagging list of formal claims and legal actions against it in several courts. Green funding has been widely disbursed to encourage claims from various groups. The recent successful Federal court action was brought by the Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum represented by Environmental Justice Australia.

Under FSC rules, anyone with a local interest is a stakeholder and all stakeholders can raise objections or demand to be heard. Systematically organised, stakeholder clans are an effective impasse to FSC certification.

The application by VicForests is for the most meaningless level of forest certification – Controlled Wood. The futility of the assignment is underscored by a bigger truth. VicForests is being asked to apply for certification they know in advance will be denied them. They would prefer not to participate in this predestined Circus of Failure. But as civil servants they do the bidding of the department and do not disclose their reluctance in public.

I am unsure whether to call it farce, theatre or brouhaha. The commentary on process is staged and awkward. All this flam and pretence for the benefit of the green lobby but pitched to the media, the newspaper readership, and the viewing audience. Not one of the targeted groups understands events except at the most superficial level: Look, someone is failing at something because they aren’t good enough. After a few years it was failing to enthral and seemed lame and myopic to the public – despite regular puff and scold from Bunnings.

To bring on the final act it needed the Federal Court case. Entering from stage left with a lime green glow and pretending to be disappointed and at the end of patience; giving the issue airtime and themselves a Koala stamp of approval – yep – it’s Bunnings. We cannot wait any longer for you to get certification. The Federal court decision will be our tipping point. We’re wonderful – You’re not. We hereby disown you and your timber.

There will always be a shadow in our future – a sense of loss – if we allow tricksters to take down our traditions and institutions.

VicForests should be a part of any application for forest certification for the forests of the people of Victoria, hand in hand with DELWP and Parks Victoria but not as a stand-alone body.  On its own it is a harvester and a sales agency.

In mission, all these departments are inseparable from government. They represent the interests of the people of Victoria and the people’s forests and no Premier, Environment minister or advisor should create distance between themselves and VicForests. They need to be in lockstep with all their forest managers and share the responsibility of the state’s forests. Calculated contempt by a vaulted retailer against the managers of our forests is contempt against us all.

Bunnings changed the face of hardware and timber in Australia after 1994. Other timber businesses had to be nimble and develop strengths in markets where they perceived a lumbering Bunnings would not follow. Many of us did and one reason we succeeded was because we understood timber better than they did. We understood that the rural culture of men and women in timber towns was a tangible and real tradition. We walked into working mills in high summers or on icy mornings and wondered that generations of the same families attended daily to operate saws, to de-stick boards and to plot better recoveries.

I personally don’t want Bunnings to be my moral compass in all matters forestry. Many of us in the timber industry want to achieve sustainable forestry not participate in media scams. We are open to change and improvement. We don’t want to be ruled out by backroom mandarins with impossible ideologies and systems. We want a future beyond 2020 and beyond 2030 and we will engage with the people whose forests we manage and anyone who will work with us towards that future.

David Hutchens is a timber retailer in Victoria.