AUSTRALIAN Sustainable Hardwoods management has indicated it may consider “a genuine offer” from the government to buy its Heyfield mill.
ASH spokesperson James Lantry said while the owners were working on the feasibility of relocating the ASH’s high value production equipment from Heyfield to Burnie, Tasmania, it was the best outcome for all parties that jobs remained in Heyfield.
“The owners of the mill have always put the staff of the mill first and they, the owners, may be willing to consider an offer to purchase the mill, however it would need to be a genuine offer and one that the CFMEU supported,” Mr Lantry said.
Mr Lantry said no time frame was provided by the government as to when it would step in to buy the mill in the event that a new private operator could not be found, when Premier Daniel Andrews proposed the idea on Melbourne commercial radio in March, adding a private operator was yet to surface.
“With inadequate timber supply to operate a viable mill, it would be no surprise that no other buyers have come forward,” Mr Lantry said.
The release of a timber supply report from the Victorian Environmental Assessment Council last week indicated that ASH could continue to operate at a viable capacity, if the government reviewed its timber harvesting policy, Mr Lantry added.
“[The report] clearly identified over 60,000 cubic meters of additional timber that could be provided to ASH annually if the government were willing to look at their policy around future exclusion zones for the Leadbeater’s possum and support VicForests in harvesting in less commercially viable areas of the forest,” Mr Lantry said.
While the government has upgraded its initial offer to 80,000 cubic metres for the first year of contract, followed by two years of 60,000 cubic metres each, to 80,000 cubic metres for the next three years, ASH management said the future of the company depended on a government review into Leadbeater’s possum numbers.
ASH management confirmed no offer had been put on the table from the government to date.
The Premier was less than forthright at a recent Public Accounts and Estimates Committee hearing.
When questioned by Gippsland South MLA Danny O’Brien where in the budget the allocation was for the purchase of Australian Sustainable Hardwoods’ Heyfield timber mill, the Premier said the government had plenty of contingencies in the budget, and not everything had its own line item.
“There is no line item on the basis that no sale has been finalised,” he said, before ignoring Mr O’Brien’s question regarding whether the state government had actually made an offer to buy the mill yet.
“No-one should doubt that commitment, and again, the notion that there’s not a specific line item that would report the conclusion of a negotiation that has not yet concluded, should not be misused to scare or confuse anybody in that proud community, or anyone else for that matter.”
The Premier said there had been some positive discussions with mill owners, and contended there were other parties interested in buying the business.
“It is very pleasing that we’ve got a heightened level of engagement with the current ownership that we perhaps hadn’t in the immediate aftermath of VicForests’ decision to allocate 200,000 cubic metres to the mill, I think that’s good news,” he said.
“We believe it is a viable business, and it seems the government is joined in that view by a number of other industry players who are interested in the purchase of the mill.
“I can’t make announcements today, and of course I would never go through the details of those commercial negotiations.
“I look forward to those negotiations coming to a conclusion, and this business having a strong and viable future, and as many of those jobs being there for the long term as we can possibly manage.”
When prompted, Mr Andrews confirmed he had not visited the mill, despite promising in February to visit.
“I have, however, had the great opportunity, it was a privilege, to meet with a number of Heyfield mill workers at the offices of Latrobe Valley Authority some weeks ago,” Mr Andrews said.
“I made it very clear to them that I would continue, and the government would continue to work towards resolving this matter.”
When asked if the government had reconsidered ASH’s counteroffer, Mr Andrews deflected.
“The government makes no such offer, VicForests makes the offer, because VicForests manages the resource,” Mr Andrews said.
In his response, the Premier did not make mention of the government’s Forest Industry Taskforce, headed by Special Minister of State Gavin Jennings, which was authorised to review VicForests’ offer, or the policy guidelines set by the government to which VicForests works within.
Before the Gippsland Times went to print, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union Victorian district secretary Frank Vari confirmed redundancy negotiations between the Hermal Group, ASH owners and the state government had resulted in an in-principle understanding from all parties concerned, but was yet to be signed off by both parties, with the result known in the coming days.
ASH expects closure of the Green Mill in August, with complete closure anticipated late next year, unless a viable supply of timber is secured.