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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 7069

Mr ZAHRA (4:30 PM) —I want to address my remarks today, during this consideration in detail stage, to the Regional Forest Agreement process and, in particular, to the forest and forest products sector, which is an extremely important employer in my electorate and in the region of Gippsland generally.

`Closure of mill'; `Another blow for Tambo Valley'. The headline from the East Gippsland News tells the story of failure on behalf of this government to guarantee resource security and generate job security for the people employed in the forest and forest products sector. The article reads:

The embattled Tambo Valley has been delivered another tragic blow with Neville Smith Timber Industries (NSTI) yesterday announcing the temporary closure of the district's last sawmill.

I should point out that at this stage—and this article was published in the newspaper on Wednesday, 10 February 1999—it was anticipated that it was to be a temporary closure. However, I regret to inform the parliament that it is now confirmed as being a permanent closure. That means that 22 workers in a community of 150 people living in the Tambo Valley in East Gippsland now have no future. Those people living in that town now have nothing to look forward to. The article continues:

Revealed at noon, the decision to close the mill not only stunned the community, but has left 22 employees contemplating an uncertain future.

Unfortunately, that is all that they have to look forward to whilst we have a government which refuses to engage the industry sector in committing to value adding and to adding that value in Australia, so that we keep these jobs in Australia and in regional areas like the Tambo Valley in East Gippsland.

I think it reflects badly on this government that people have not taken enough interest in what is happening in East Gippsland to actually intervene and try to save that community. Governments are there to step in and help communities when they get into trouble. Certainly, the community of Swifts Creek is in strife and they need all the help that they can get.

For my own part, I have approached the Minister for Forestry and Conservation, Mr Wilson Tuckey, to implore him to help on behalf of the people of Swifts Creek. It seems a shame to me that there has not been more advocacy on the part of the local member, the member for Gippsland, Mr Peter McGauran, in trying to help his constituents. In particular, I can well remember attending a meeting in Swifts Creek at which there were 150 people in attendance, which I think represents the entire community of Swifts Creek, but of all the local representatives, be they state or federal, there was only one person in attendance, and that was the state member for Gippsland East, Mr David Treasure. So the member for Gippsland Province, Peter Hall, and the other member for Gippsland Province, Phil Davis, were not in attendance. It was not important enough for them to break their schedule and go to this meeting which was deciding the future of the town.

This conservative view of the role of government in relation to the forest and forest products sector is not just reflected in the federal government; it is reflected in the state government of Victoria. I refer to a letter which I received from Marie Tehan, the Minister for Conservation and Land Management in Victoria. She wrote:

Dear Mr Zahra

Closure of Swifts Creek Sawmill

Thank you for your letter . . .

As you would be aware, the Government has worked closely with the Swifts Creek Community over the last two years to provide support during the period of drought and the subsequent flood events, which devastated parts of the Tambo Valley. The recent events leading up to the closure of the sawmill at Swifts Creek are, like the devastating flood event, outside the control of Government.

Why on earth do we have governments if not to intervene and try to help communities when they are in strife? This is not an act of God; this is a commercial decision. These people are getting this resource, to which we as a community in Victoria allow them access, and they should sign up to their end of the bargain as well. If we are granting them access to our community resource, there should be community benefit which is drawn from their accessing of this resource. The minister continued:

NSTI is free to act commercially regarding where it processes any timber that it has rights to.

It continues:

The action by NSTI is not related to the Regional Forest Agreement process.

This is where I think she is all wrong. It has everything to do with the Regional Forest Agreement process, which the Labor Party put in place. An important part of the Regional Forest Agreement process was to guarantee resource security so that those people in those small communities that rely on the forest and forest products sector could have job security. In the Labor Party, we see the two as being inextricably linked. We will not be interested in entering into a debate about resource security until companies start to talk seriously about job security. (Time expired)