The Age, 5th September 2013
In 2001 the world reacted with horror as it saw graphic film of the Taliban dynamiting the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two giant 6th-century statues of Buddha in central Afghanistan.
Later the area's remaining archaeological treasures were included on the World Heritage List. In blowing up the statues, the Taliban provided a vivid illustration of its callousness and willingness to justify acts of irreversible cultural vandalism. Australians like to believe this sort of behaviour is confined to less civilised corners of the globe where democracy and due process are unknown. Yet Tony Abbott has now pledged to remove the world's tallest flowering forests from the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area in Australia.
His plan for Tasmania states: ''The Coalition has never supported Labor's recent rushed and political World Heritage extension, which was put in place against the will of the Tasmanian people, and we will seek to have it removed.''
The extension is 170,000 hectares of forest and mountain wilderness that was added to the World Heritage Area in June, including the Mt Field National Park, the Great Western Tiers, and the Weld, Huon, Styx and Upper Florentine valleys. The forests, measuring up to 100 metres tall, are important habitat for the Tasmanian devil, platypus and giant wedge-tailed eagle. If the Coalition wins the election and goes through with its promise, it will be the first time that a developed country has deliberately removed a property, or part of a property, from the World Heritage List.
While many people will find it uncomfortable to draw parallels between the actions of the Taliban and Abbott's plan, they are essentially the same; the intention is the deliberate destruction of a site of ''outstanding universal value''. The parallel is all the more stark because large trees in Tasmania's forests have been dynamited by Forestry Tasmania - it saves time and money. Abbott has not revealed his mechanics for getting the 170,000 hectares of forest and mountain wilderness off the list. There is no process under the World Heritage Convention for undoing a boundary extension.
A Coalition government would have to request the removal of the entire 1.6 million hectares of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and then resubmit it without the 170,000-hectare extension. The World Heritage Committee which oversees the list is unlikely to look favourably on such a plan.
The Tasmanian World Heritage Area is near the top of the list of 1000 properties. No other site satisfies more than its four natural and three cultural criteria for inclusion on the list.
Removing it in order to facilitate the destruction of part of it will be unprecedented. It undermines the core aim of the World Heritage Convention to permanently protect the world's greatest natural and cultural wonders. It will be met by howls of protest from committee members, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and other nations which have greater respect for the Convention.
The other option available to the Coalition would be to amend federal environmental laws (Abbott plans to effectively abolish them with his promise to get rid of ''green tape'') to allow the logging to proceed while the forests are still on the World Heritage List. This approach would run into similar problems. In particular, it is likely to lead to the entire Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area being included on the List of World Heritage in Danger - a fate also facing the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area if dumping of spoil from the dredging of coal ports there continues under either a Rudd or Abbott government. If the logging in Tasmania continued, the World Heritage Committee could remove the area from the list, as it did recently with Dresden in Germany as a result of a decision to build an ugly modern bridge across the Elbe River in the heart of the picturesque city.
It appears that pandering to the Tasmanian hard right led by Coalition Senate leader Eric Abetz has more appeal to Abbott than protecting a national and international heirloom for future generations. With 48 hours to polling day, Tony Abbott should answer questions about how and why he intends to take on a global convention to fulfil his promise to let industrialised logging back into the magnificent World Heritage forests in Tasmania.
Originally published in The Age, Thursday 5th September 2013