By Noel Towell
Victoria’s forest wars are set to spill into the aisles of the nation’s supermarkets just four weeks before Christmas with Australia’s largest producer of wooden pallets used by Coles, Woolworths and Aldi preparing to cease production as early as Friday because of a lack of timber.
The grocery industry is warning against panic buying but says an already “desperate” supply chain situation will be made worse if the Pentarch plant in Dandenong South stops making pallets. The Food and Grocery Council has advised consumers to start their Christmas shopping early.
Pentarch, which produces 70,000 pallets a year, is blaming court injunctions won by environmentalists that have put a stop to native logging in areas of East Gippsland, as well as the devastating bushfires of 2019 and 2020 for the shortage of timber that has already caused production at Dandenong South to be cut.
But Environment East Gippsland, one of the main groups taking cases to court against state logging company VicForests, dismissed as “rubbish” the claim that injunctions were responsible for timber shortages.
The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union says the state government’s decision to end all native logging in the Victoria by the end of the decade has also played a role in the dwindling timber supply.
The union claims the shortages of toilet paper and other essentials seen around the country in early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began, are soon to be repeated.
The pallet supply crisis was already acute by mid-October when Coles warned that a shortage of wooden pallets threatened to stymie inventory levels heading into Christmas.
Now, the Pentarch Group has told The Age that it cut production by 35 per cent this week and expects production to cease if a fresh application to the Victorian Supreme court for a widespread injunction on logging native timber succeeds.
“I would expect we would be out of logs by Friday and we have already started discussions with the unions about standing people down,” Pentarch chairman Malcolm McComb said.
Jill Redwood, Convenor of Environment East Gippsland, said it was “extremely disingenuous” of Pentarch to blame a timber shortage on environmental activism.
“There are hundreds of coups that are available for logging and we’ve had a bushfire that’s burnt 80 per cent of the region, we’ve had heavy rains, five inches of rain over a week,” Ms Redwood said.
“There’s so many reasons why they’re probably a bit short of logs at the moment, but it’s very handy for them to blame environmental legal cases.”
Food and Grocery Council chief executive Tanya Barden told The Age that a shutdown at Dandenong South would force pallet providers to try to source stock from elsewhere but that there was no guarantee it would be available, with the whole sector in a “scramble”.
“Things are very desperate. We think of it a bit like the toilet paper shortages last year, there is this scramble for pellets in the food and grocery sector,” Ms Barden said.
“The shortage of pallets is starting to impact on production and availability of products and with this new shortage of timber, we hope that the pallet providers are able to source additional pallets.
“We certainly don’t want to spark panic buying in the market, but consumers do need to be aware that they may be limited in some of their choices and if they have particular products that they want, they should get in early.”
The union, which protested outside Premier Daniel Andrews electorate office in suburban Mulgrave with timber workers who expect to be stood down from Pentarch’s sawmill in Swifts Creek in East Gippsland, blames the state government’s forest policy for the dwindling timber supply.
CFMEU manufacturing national secretary Michael O’Connor said the pallet shortage could affect deliveries of food, alcohol and household supplies in the lead-up to Christmas.
“After another year of COVID pain, Victorians are facing looming supermarket shortages yet again, while hundreds of timber workers face a bleak Christmas being stood down due to log supply shortages that could have been avoided,” the union official said.
The government has been contacted for comment.
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