Sunday, 21 September 2008 10:47 AM

A Former Logger Becomes Australian Federal Opposition Leader

A former logger in the Solomon Islands has been elected as the new leader of the Australian Federal Government Opposition in an unexpected snap internal party election that wrong footed the media and caught political commentators and critics unaware.

Malcolm Turnbull, 54, defeated Dr Brendan Nelson, who took over the Liberal and National Coalition party late last year following the lost of the John Howard government, but since then failed to make an impression with Australian voters.

A snap election on Tuesday this week, aimed at wrong footing the former lawyer and banker, who just got back from a week holiday in Europe somehow backfired and gave the Federal Opposition leadership to the former logger 45-41.

Mr Turnbull connection to the logging industry in Solomon Islands began in 1991 and 1992, when he owned shares and also chairman of the then Hong Kong listed Axiom Forest Resources that own logging operations and forest concessions in the country.

The logging company was operating in Solomon Islands under the trading name, Silvania Forest Products, which was operating in Western Province and other parts of the country.

Mr Turnbull claimed in a media interview with ABC last year that "his attitude towards forestry today was informed by his involvement in the (Solomon Islands) logging industry".

He rejected accusations that he had once played a huge role in bad logging practices in Solomon Islands, claiming "he was trying to encourage local landowners to change logging practices and ways".

Mr Turnbull then further claimed ".... the company (Silvania) brought in some of the best foresters in the world. There was a lot of work done on reforestation, on plantations".

A report by the Australian International Development Aid Bureau - now Ausaid - in 1994 described the logging practices of Axiom subsidiary Silvania Forest Products as:..."more like a clear-felling operation and bearing little relation to an attempt at even retaining a token sample of future commercial crop on the site."

A separate report also described Silvania's forest practices as "amongst the worst in the world."

Following the reports, the Solomon Islands government then, which was led by a Prime Minister with logging interests and ownership, the former and late Solomon Mamaloni, threaten to close down Silvania's operations due to constant breaches of logging practices.

Since the height of the logging boom in the 1980s and 1990s, where Mr Turnbull and Axiom were making millions of dollars and enjoying the luxury lifestyle of Sydney's Eastern suburb, the poor people of the Solomon's endured social problems and lasting environmental damages.

Mr Turnbull is a millionaire and current Federal Member of Parliament for the Sydney seat of Wentworth - one of the wealthiest suburbs of the Sydney's Eastern suburbs.

He also admitted: "I went to the Solomons (1990s) and I met with government officials there and I was certainly aware of the ... of the criticism of logging practices in the Solomons, and I was as concerned about them today, or then, as the founders were".

"I mean, you've got to understand the whole purpose for indigenous people in the Solomons and other Melanesian countries' getting involved in this project was to stop these practices", he added.

Since the 1990s, the pre-dominantly Asian logging industry in Solomon Islands has been blamed for creating political instability through backhand financial backings of certain individuals and politicians to shift political allegiances at critical times.

Logging remains at unsustainable levels in the Solomons today according to World Bank and environmental groups recent reports.

###TIME###