Heyfield timber mill can be saved, vows union leader

Union leader John Setka has declared that the Heyfield timber mill dispute in Gippsland is "fixable", and warned that if the mill closed it would be "a catastrophe".

"There are not insurmountable things to fixing it," he said.

Speaking to The Age before hundreds of timber workers marched from Trades Hall to Parliament House in Melbourne, the CFMEU leader urged the government to make more forest available for the industry.

"I'd like the state government to free up some more forest and there's no reason they can't do that, there's no adverse effect to anyone," he said.

"If they release some more of this forest, there's no reason that this mill can't operate for another 20 years."

Mr Setka, the Victorian Secretary of CFMEU Construction, said that in some country towns there were "not too many opportunities".

"If a place like this closes down, it is an absolute disaster for the whole community."

With hundreds of timber industry workers and their families holding placards as they stood out the front of Trades Hall in Carlton, Mr Setka described the mill as one of the biggest in Australia.

"Peoples' livelihoods are at stake, there's a whole community at stake. I mean let's get it fixed. I mean this is a pro-jobs government, so how about they get on with the job and create more jobs, and not let some of these communities just die away," he said.

Michael O'Connor, CFMEU national secretary, said the protest was about protecting the Heyfield mill and "to champion the timber industry in Victoria".

"The industry is important for regional Victoria, it provides thousands of jobs throughout this state, and we want to make sure that the Andrews government gets the message that we need a sustainable log supply for Heyfield, a sustainable log supply for the Victorian timber industry," he said.

"We deserve what every other Victorian should have - a decent living and opportunity.

"I'm pretty confident that if we don't give up and you don't give up ... we can get a decent balanced result out of this government.

"I think the community will back us in."

Asked about the state government's offer to buy the mill, Mr O'Connor said the mill already had an owner.

"What we need the premier to do is make sure we have enough sawlogs to maintain the employment at Heyfield," he said.

"If we don't get enough sawlogs then jobs will go and jobs going is unacceptable to the union, it's unacceptable to the community, and it's unacceptable to the timber industry."

About 40 semi-trailers parked outside State Parliament Tuesday morning as protests against the closure of the Gippsland hardwood mill ramp up.

The mill's owner, Australian Sustainable Hardwood, announced on Friday it would close its doors in 2018, despite pledges from Premier Daniel Andrews that taxpayers would step in and buy the site in the High Country gateway town of Heyfield.

About 250 workers will lose their jobs when the mill closes, and the CFMEU claims this could further affect 10,000 local jobs, and other Victoria businesses that rely on the timber mill.

Brett Robin is a fifth-generation logger in the Central Highlands, from where the Heyfield mill timber is sourced.

He left his home in Yarra Junction at 2am, met fellow truck drivers and loggers at Officer at 3am, and started the convoy to Spring Street.

"They reckon the timber is not out there, but it is," Mr Robin said. "They" is the "greenie Labor government".

Australian Sustainable Hardwood (ASH) chief executive Vince Hurley said the company needed 130,000 cubic metres of sawlogs each year but was offered just 200,000 over three years along with a $4.7 million operational subsidy.

Government-owned VicForests harvests the timber for ASH and says the supply offer was "at a level we believe can be sustainably produced", while also considering existing contracts with other customers.

"We share the concerns that have been raised over potential impact on jobs and the town of Heyfield as a result of the reduction in timber available to the mill," VicForests acting chief executive Nathan Trushell said on Friday.

The CFMEU doesn't accept what VicForests is saying about the availability of timber, Victorian forestry division secretary Frank Vari says.

"Members have made it clear their jobs are not for sale. We don't care who owns the mill - it's the jobs that matter," he said in a statement.

The Tasmanian government says it would welcome "with open arms" any forestry businesses considering moving their operations.

Premier Daniel Andrews said "a number of commercial parties" were interested in buying the businesses but the government would step in as a "purchaser of last resort".

"This is a viable business," he said.

Mr Andrews urged the owners of Heyfield to engage with the government in a "meaningful way".

He said he hoped the mill could continue to operate with the volumes of timber VicForests had agreed to supply.

With AAP

The story Heyfield timber mill can be saved, vows union leader first appeared on The Age.