Mixed reaction to mill news

Gippsland East and Gippsland South MLAs Tim Bull and Danny O'Brien speak with media following the government's announcement regarding Australian Sustainable Hardwoods in Heyfield this morning.
Gippsland East and Gippsland South MLAs Tim Bull and Danny O'Brien speak with media following the government's announcement regarding Australian Sustainable Hardwoods in Heyfield this morning.

AFTER six months of uncertainty, the announcement that the Australian Sustainable Hardwoods mill would be saved after all has prompted mixed reactions from the community.

ASH chief executive Vince Hurley said the employees were relieved when the announcement came through that there would still be an ongoing business in Heyfield.

"I'm relieved too; we have a world-class facility here, Australia's largest timber manufacturing operation, it has unique operations, things that are done nowhere else in Australia, and it's a relief we can continue doing those operations," Mr Hurley said.

Mr Hurley said the mill will operate business as usual for a year, before management is forced to consider putting the Green Mill from two shifts back to one shift in August 2018.

"There will be no, certainly no, compulsory redundancies in that time," he said.

"We know the business is about people ... people are the most important thing in our business, people are the business."

Mr Hurley has been completing one-on-one interviews with the Heyfield workforce, allowing his staff to speak with him privately and ask questions.

"In my time, we've come through the recession of the early nineties, we've come through the GFT, we've come through the GST, and we've also come through the ownership of the previous owners to Hermal that were heading into receivership," he said.

"We've come through all that, and not only have we survived, but we've thrived.

"We have more products, more customers, more processors, and I'm sure we'll continue to do that on an ongoing basis into the future."

Drying supervisor Shane Phillips followed in his father's footsteps and began working at the mill when he was 17-years old, and has continued to work there for the past 38 years.

He believes a timber supply of 80,000 cubic metres for three years means nothing if there is no long term supply to follow it.

"I don't reckon we've won anything," he said.

"All they've done is said you've got a job for another three years, and to me that's not good enough.

"We need long term security, that means a contract that goes for 10 to 20 years.

"Our only hope now is that it'll get us into another election and hopefully, we'll get rid of this government and hopefully we can deal with someone who'll deal with the facts of life instead of dreamland."

Wellington Shire mayor Carolyn Crossley expressed enormous relief at the news.

"There will undoubtedly be a period of adjustment over the coming months and council will continue to have discussions and meetings with the Hermal Group and parliamentary representatives.

"Although the Hermal Group and the state government have agreed 'in principle' the sale of the mill, council would like to alleviate any concerns and ensure that the jobs will be saved and we want to hear that reassurance from the government firsthand."

Gippsland MHR Darren Chester said the state government must guarantee all 250 jobs, as if a single job is lost then the Premier had failed Gippsland.

"The Labor Party in Victoria has sold out blue-collar workers in the regions for green votes in the city," he said.

"I am concerned the State Labor Government will seek to blame the new management team if there are any job losses from the Heyfield mill."

Gippsland East MLA Tim Bull said the government's claim that "no jobs (will be) lost in transition" gave no security beyond the next 2-3 months.

"It's particularly concerning when mill workers advise both myself and the media they have been told there will be job losses and redundancies after the transition to the new ownership," Mr Bull said.

"When asked about longer-term job security, the Minister simply does not answer and all she says is 'we know the industry needs to change', which is hardly comforting.

"It's a disgrace the Minister has said this is a 'great day for Heyfield' and a 'great relief' for workers when the Andrews government has led a process that will result in significant job losses in the town.

"Daniel Andrews needs to come clean and admit he is overseeing the loss of 100-plus jobs."

Shadow Minister for Agriculture Peter Walsh said the only way to save all the jobs was to increase timber supply.

"Labor starved the mill of a timber supply and caused a fire-sale and then the government bought it at bargain basement price," he said.

"Instead of seeking accolades, Daniel Andrews should get down to Heyfield, come clean and admit he has failed to save all 260 jobs."

Eastern Victoria MLC Jeff Bourman cautiously welcomed confirmation of the in-principal agreement, acknowledging the hard work Heyfield residents undertook lobbying for a sustainable and long-term solution to keep the mill alive.

"We'll need to see the details of the government's proposal, and how that will affect the long-term employment status of workers," Mr Bourman said.

"It is unfair for the timber towns of Gippsland to be held ransom to the whims of a sitting government."

Gippsland South MLA Danny O'Brien said the announcement was no cause for joy.

"Labor clearly knows there is no good news in this announcement - why else did they choose to make it in Churchill, not Heyfield?

"The minister's hollow statement that 'we fight for every job' simply does not represent the fact of the matter."

Victorian Association of Forest Industries CEO Tim Johnston said the announcement did not change the overarching issue of long-term timber supply, and ongoing certainty for the industry in Victoria.

"Of the eight million hectares of public native forest in Victoria, more than 90 per cent is unavailable through reserve protection, or unsuitable for timber harvesting," he said.

"VAFI supports a strong, secure, and sustainable forest, fibre and wood products industry in Victoria and all businesses in this industry need long-term security of resource to be able to make investment and product development decisions."

The Wildnerness Society Victorian campaigns manager Amelia Young said the government needs to get on with the job of protecting eastern Victoria's forests and creating the Great Forest National Park.

"Recent revelations that native forest logging operations have killed a koala, and that logging continues in greater glider habitat-despite Environment Minister Lily D'Ambrosio listing the species as critically endangered just last month-means decisive leadership across the full range of forest issues is required from this government.

"Genuine solutions need to involve the creation of new national parks, and the creation of other regional jobs."

Friends of the Earth spokesperson Ed Hill also called for the creation of the Great Forest National Park, and said that the decision to prop up the business was short sighted.

"For several years the mill owners and the Andrews government have known that Victoria's timber supplies are running desperately low after at least 40 per cent of the resource was lost in the 2009 Black Saturday fires," he said.

"A government bailout for a loss making industry that's destroying a critically endangered public asset is a clear signal this government isn't progressive on environment issues."

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