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Scoop Opinion: More West Coast Grief Ahead

More grief for the Government as the West Coast/Tasman Labour Party electorate committee treasurer says he will back a former opponent in court if the Government tries to cancel its rimu contracts. Scoop's West Coast correspondent, John Howard reports.

Frank Dooley, a Westport accountant and Labour Party stalwart, said Friday, the West Coast's largest sawmiller, Westco Lagan, was right when it said the Timberlands contracts were not hurriedly signed to pre-empt Labour's forestry policy.

Mr Dooley was the former secretary of Westport Sawmilling, which succeeded in a High Court case against Timberlands over the 1994 West Coast rimu tender round, won by Westco Lagan. Westport Sawmilling went into receivership three years later after unsuccessfully seeking damages from Timberlands.

The Government, the Greens and environmental lobbyists are now saying the signing of the 1999 rimu contracts were "suspicious" - "highly dubious" - "signed in secret" and "designed to tie the hands of any new Government."

That argument was put to rest by Timberlands chairman Warren Young who said last month, " There is no basis whatsoever to an accusation that Timberlands in any way was hastening contracts to pre-empt a policy change by Government."

Mr Young was supported over the weekend by Mr Dooley's statement.

"The tenders opened on June 4, closed on July 8 and tenderers were advised on August 23 - 2 1/2 weeks before Labour announced its policy to stop native logging once existing contracts expired," Mr Dooley said.

The Timberlands tender process was "absolutely clean" and he would happily give evidence to that effect if Westco Lagan sued the Government, he said.

"I can't believe that (Prime Minister) Helen Clark actually called those contracts shonky. It shows a total misunderstanding of the process that was adopted by Timberlands," Mr Dooley said.

Finance Minister, Michael Cullen had made a statement on November 3, promising income from Timberlands' rimu contracts to a West Coast trust as part of Government's development package for the region, he said.

Mr Dooley said, " If he (Dr Cullen) didn't think the contracts were justified he would never have included that as part of his release."

Mr Dooley did not believe the rimu escape clause (force majuere) proposed by Forestry Minister, Pete Hodgson, would stand up in court because, unlike for beech, the Accord guaranteed a continuing supply of rimu in perpetuity.

In a recent sawmillers case Justice Hammond said " These provisions (force majuere) - which are in unusually wide terms - were included in the contracts which were executed, precisely because in the latter part of 1999 New Zealand faced a general election to Parliament."

That statement from Justice Hammond shows that contrary to what is being said by politicians and lobbyists now, Timberlands went out of their way to support the new Government.

Whether Timberlands, or the Government, can action force majuere or halt the contracts without having to pay additional substantial compensation under the West Coast Accord only time, the Cabinet, or perhaps yet another court case, will tell.

But Mr Dooley said, " I'd be happy to be a witness about the (tender) process that was taken."

Mr Dooley said he agreed with Westco Lagan managing director Grant Carruthers, that rimu contracts were different to beech and were legally binding under the West Coast Accord.

Pre-election the Labour Party issued a policy card on the West Coast stating, " Existing rimu contracts will be managed by the Crown with all profits going to the Trust."

West Coaster's say that if the Labour Party had concerns about the contracts, which they are now claiming, then why, just before the election which was held on November 27, did it distribute a pre-election policy card saying, "The Labour Party is offering.......," the profits from the rimu harvest to a trust.

The Labour Party card also said the offer was "The Facts of the Package" and was "worth considering."

The Labour Party manifesto about the contracts says " All logging of Crown owned indigenous forests will be halted as soon as supply contracts in existence at the time this policy is announced are completed."

The manifesto does not say logging will be halted "as soon as possible" which the spin-doctor's are putting on that part of the policy today.

The Alliance policy is to phase out indigenous logging over a transitional period.

Both Dr Cullen and Mr Anderton are, in fact, following their party policies to the letter in wanting to advocate the reality of the situation to the Cabinet.

Meanwhile, journalists on The Press and the Sunday-Star Times newspapers, over the weekend, attacked both Dr Cullen and Mr Anderton for promising to advocate on behalf of the West Coast at today's Cabinet meeting.

Sunday Star-Times political editor, Ruth Laugesen, described Dr Cullen's actions last week as " a stunning reversal" and an "about turn" of Government policy.

She wrote "Cullen and Anderton's misjudgment was striking, swimming so far from the mainstream of opinion within their own parties."

"Cullen and Anderton will have ensured there is an argument in Cabinet on observing the full term of the contracts, but no one expects them to win," Ms Laugesen wrote.

The Press journalist Peter Luke, in his Saturday column, also attacked Dr Cullen and wrote about the uncertainty of the rimu contracts.

On the other hand, when a error was pointed-out in an IRN radio news logging article, carried on the Internet site XTRA, the IRN political editor, Barry Soper, apologised and the error was quickly rectified.

That is the difference, in my view, between a professional journalist and a sloppy one.

Clearly, West Coaster's, including this correspondent, are fed-up with some mainstream journalists, who should know better, misrepresenting the facts to the general public particularly when the facts are so readily available and accessible.

I understood the first rule of journalism to be; - check your facts.

ENDS

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