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Wednesday, 21 April 1999
Page: 4042

Senator BOLKUS (4:13 PM) —We have had seven minutes from Senator Abetz. We heard a constant tirade of abuse at Senator Brown and everybody else involved on the Green side of the debate. The one thing we did not hear was the defence of NAFI. Why not? Because their action was indefensible. In this debate on a matter of public importance we are talking about an issue which should be and is critical to debate in Australia. We are discussing another attack—not an unprecedented one but another attack—by this particular industry group and by Dr Bain in a debate which is of particular concern to Australians.

They have attacked this industry group, this company and this book because NAFI did not like what its opponents were saying in the debate. They did so because they had the financial resources to do so. They are the two unavoidable facts in this debate. This is not the first time. Senator Brown has mentioned other occasions on which people have been threatened with legal action. In 1991 I, as Minister for Administrative Services, wanted to restrain the use of old forest timber in government constructions and I also wanted to restrain the import of rainforest timber. I was met with a similar sort of reaction from NAFI and Dr Bain. I got a letter from a solicitor threatening me with defamation proceedings. This is the way this person has conducted public affairs when it comes to this issue. In this instance Dr Bain has gone over the top and I think he has embarrassed industry because of it.

What actually was said that led to this reaction from Dr Bain? What were the actual comments in the booklet that caused such a reaction? There were five objections to comments in the book that were raised by NAFI's solicitor. One was a satirical comment by Mr Marr, who wrote:

Are you the sort of customer who strides through the doors of your local hardware store and demands, `Give me a 15-metre beam . . . and make sure it's covered with the blood of at least one endangered species'?

It was not a critical comment that was made in any other sense but the satire. NAFI then takes exception to the assertion that:

. . . half our forests have disappeared. Australia has the worst record for plant and mammal species extinction in the world.

Whether it is right or wrong, that was sourced to a document published by the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales in 1991. Does NAFI want to go back to that source and tell them that they should withdraw as well? The third comment, on page 10, was:

Less than 18 per cent of the average timber logging of an old-growth coupe in East Gippsland ends up in the sawmill.

Where was that from? It was misreported, but it was from the Statement of Uses, Resources and Values put out by the Victorian state government in 1993. Let Dr Bain threaten Jeff Kennett as well.

These are comments that are part of a normal political debate. As I said earlier, the action of NAFI was not just undemocratic but an abuse of power. We have here an industry organisation that is prepared to spend a lot of money to advocate its cause, but it was also prepared to spend more money to try to stop its opponents.

Whatever you think of the arguments in this debate, I think all of us would reckon that particularly community organisations should not be under this sort of threat when they involve themselves in this debate. What is at the core here? I think the proprietor of Timber Wholesale and Timber World, Kim Booth, put it properly when he said:

They've got no right to dictate to the public what they want to read.

That is the essence of the debate here and that is the point that Senator Abetz could not address and could not rebut. We are talking in this area of a long and ongoing debate in Australian politics. But it is not just that issue of logging; it is also that fundamental issue of consumer information that Senator Brown referred to earlier on.

This is not just the issue of democracy; it also reflects what I think is wrong with political debate on logging. What we should be getting here is encouragement of a relationship between industry and those in the community who are concerned about some logging practices and who are concerned about environmental and ecological outcomes. There needs to be more of this cooperative relationship between industry and retailers in a way that helps inform consumers. That is exactly what is going on across the world. Eco-labelling, consumer information and those sorts of initiatives are running worldwide. NAFI attempts to basically try and derail this particular initiative also poses problems because it does run contrary to what is happening in parts of Europe and North America and in other parts of the world.

As I said, NAFI's action is a dangerous precedent for freedom of speech in this country. It is an attack on freedom of speech and it is one that I am pleased to see there has been a broad community reaction to. In response to those comments in the booklet, NAFI lawyers wrote to BBC Hardware saying that the booklet contained misleading and deceptive statements, and warned that they would seek a Federal Court injunction if it was not withdrawn.

The Victorian Association of Forest Industries, which claims to have led the reaction, is warning that the timber industry could actively campaign against the national hardware chain. VAFI head Graeme Gooding wrote to BBC, saying:

While you may gain some sales from `green' builders or consumers influenced by the misinformation in this book, you could lose as much in any backlash, if the people you are harming choose to campaign against BBC.

So we have the threat of an active campaign against a national hardware chain—a threat which Mr Gooding says would lead to financial loss.

It is no wonder that even Professor Alan Fels of the ACCC is investigating whether NAFI breached the Trade Practices Act in demanding that the BBC Hardware chain withdraw the book from sale or face legal action. I have not agreed with Professor Fels for quite some time, but I think his comments last week, when he dismissed NAFI's claim that the book contained deceptive and misleading comments, were pretty well to the point. He said it was pretty clear, as far as he could see, that the statements in the book were not actionable. He also said that any action to stop sales of the book based on alleged TPA practices would get a `frosty reception' in the Federal Court. I will tell you where else it would get a frosty reaction: it would get a very frosty reaction in the High Court as well. The High Court, over recent years, has entrenched in our constitutional structure freedom of political debate.

The law is one thing, but I am really concerned with the fundamentals of this debate. There has been an overreaction which does threaten free speech. The reaction of civil libertarians was to be expected, but the reaction of a broad spectrum of people is something that this Senate should note as well. NAFI's threats in this particular instance got a reaction from Terry Lane, for instance, in the Sunday Age. He, I think quite pertinently, says:

If the Trade Practices Act is used to stop evangelical greenies preaching their creed and fishing for converts, then it will be used against those who argue the ethical and environmental cases against eggs from battery chooks, pork from battery pigs, freeways through the forests, the eating of meat or the smoking of cigarettes.

The point he makes is that it will become illegal to advocate whatever your cause might be. If it is not illegal, then it will become a lot more difficult.

We should not underestimate the importance of financial resources in these sorts of battles. On the one hand, you consistently have—not just in this industry but across the spectrum—industries with resources to pursue their cases in court and elsewhere, and through lobbying exercises. On the other hand—I will not say more often than not, but I think universally—you have community organisations and individuals who are prepared to stand up and fight for environmental and community based concerns. What we do have here is an abuse of power, stifling democratic debate. As I said, it is based on this use of resources to bring about the outcome.

We have had some interesting developments in this debate over the last couple of days. Again, it is worth noting that the National Party of Western Australia has taken a position which is quite different from the National Party in the federal parliament. Only yesterday, when the State Director of the Western Australian National Party, Jamie Kronborg, launched this particular book, Forest-Friendly Building Timbers, in the state of Western Australia, he said, `We're supporting sustainable forest management.' I think that is an act on his part that signals to the Australian government and to NAFI that maybe they need to pause in this particular debate and to take into consideration a broader spectrum of issues.

As I said earlier on, I think Bain's reaction was over the top. It does damage to his cause but, unfortunately for him and the industry, it does damage to the timber industry as well. We have had one speaker from the govern ment, Senator Abetz. Probably more than anything that Senator Brown or I could say in defence of the booklet, Senator Abetz said it by not uttering a word in defence of the National Association of Forest Industries.