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Monday, 23 August 1999
Page: 7567

Senator BOURNE (9:27 PM) —It would be worth while if senators looked again at some of the evidence given to the committee. I would like to go over a little of that evidence. It is extremely worrying that a fundamental part of the RFA seems to have gone so awry. There was strong evidence given to the committee that its basic scientific criteria agreed upon had been corrupted by the industry and bureaucrats involved in the process, to the detriment of natural areas and the advancement of the woodchipping industry. Peter Robinson of the WA Forest Alliance told the committee that:

There is a complete lack of scientific credibility to the RFA, and I have here before me and I will submit to the committee, a two page summary of some of the statements made by the most pre-eminent scientific organisations in Western Australia, including the Royal Society of WA, the Ecological Society of Australia, WA Branch, the Kings Park and Botanic Garden, the WA Museum and also independent academic scientists, all pointing out that the WA RFA is absolutely not based on science.

Well respected forest biologist, Professor Harry Recher, starts his submission to the inquiry with the strong statement:

The Regional Forest Agreement process is a political exercise with the primary intent of guaranteeing resource security to the timber industry. The establishment of a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of forest reserves, the protection of old growth forest and wilderness and the conservation of Australia's rich forest biodiversity are secondary considerations. Despite this, science has been used to validate the process and create a public image of balance and conservation.

The Blue Mountains Conservation Society, in their submission, claim that the RFAs in New South Wales will cause the regional extinction of over 25 fauna species and 100 plants, due to inadequate reserves and their vulnerability to logging. They also point out that there are `major problems with the reserve design and the lack of wildlife corridors, both north-south and east-west'. They say:

The JANIS criteria and targets for ecosystem and species survival have been ignored.

It is claimed that scientists involved in the original establishment of the JANIS criteria and the development of the comprehensive, adequate and representative criteria believe the system is defective. Professor Harry Recher said:

The group of scientists appointed by the Keating Government to develop criteria on which to base a CAR system were no doubt well intentioned. However, they failed to follow fundamental scientific protocols and were exploited by the political system to validate the granting of resource security to the timber industry after the Keating Government had failed to pass the resource security legislation in Parliament.

A perusal of the evidence submitted demonstrates that at best it is open to interpretation as to whether the criteria have been adhered to in a professional way by the bureaucrats; at worst they may have been deliberately rendered defective.

The international convention on biodiversity is also at risk, with many rare and endangered species and ecosystems endangered by the RFAs. These seem to be little understood by the federal government, which appears surprisingly unconcerned. It is also astonishing that in a separate piece of legislation under consideration by the Senate—the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill—all areas included in an RFA are excluded. Since the RFAs will deleteriously affect biodiversity, will breach our international agreements and are based on incorrect information, it is of grave concern that another piece of Commonwealth legislation, allegedly one that is prime in the protection of Australia's biodiversity, would lock out our forest areas.

Ironically, this means the industry is not pursuing its stated goal of ecological sustainability. This will be to the eventual detriment of the industry and the workers in it. However, it is simply not responsible to wait until the total collapse of the forest industry to prove that point. There are enough indicators so far to trigger a precautionary approach to forest management, but this other international goal seems to be anathema to state and federal officials and also to some industry representatives.

Senators are now being asked, in the face of much independent evidence to the contrary, to take it on good faith that the promise of JANIS criteria and comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve systems will be met with the RFA process. The explanatory memorandum for this legislation states that it is the way of implementing the national forest policy statement. However, it is quite wrong for the explanatory memorandum to suggest this. The national forest policy statement was supposed to be about the transition from heavy reliance on native forests to the plantation sector, but it is not. The NFPS sets in place the comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system. Has this been established as a result of the RFAs? No, it has not. Basic goals of establishing 15 per cent of pre-1750s vegetation, retention in reserves of at least 60 per cent of existing old-growth forest, increasing up to 100 per cent for rare forest community old growth, and protection of 90 per cent of wilderness have simply not been achieved.

The rhetoric is of a world-class reserve system and ecologically sustainable forest management practices developed and faithfully implemented. The reality, however, is quite different. Renowned forest expert Professor Tony Norton said:

There are sufficient scientific data and other objective data to demonstrate that this assumption is false for all of the regions in which the RFA process has been completed.

Even if the overwhelming evidence to the contrary is wrong, even if you attempt to accept in good faith the promises the states make over the science of the RFA, when you look at the milestones that it has been glibly promised to meet in scientific areas it is clear that something is wrong.

Take Tasmania as a case study. We are told that a number of important milestones promised—in fact set in stone—by the RFA have been bypassed in the short term and may, in the nature of many such promises, never be delivered, even in the long term. This RFA was signed on 8 November 1997. Many of the important environmental benchmarks have either not been met or not been met on time. Promised world heritage assessment has still not been done under the signed Tasmanian RFA. Even if it were, it remains to be seen how the RFA bill before us now, which does not apply the Commonwealth World Heritage Act, would affect the existing Tasmanian wilderness world heritage area. The submission from the Tasmanian Conservation Trust also lists the following concerns:

. The strategic plan for implementing the CAR reserve system on private land was to be developed no later than three months from commencement of the RFA (March 1998). The plan was not finalised until, and is dated, September 1998.

. The State was to publish a description of the methods of sustainable yield on Public Land including for special species sawlogs by 31 October 1998. This did not happen.

. The State was to publish and make publicly available compliance audits of the Forest Practices Act and Code and the code of reserve management annually commencing in 1998. This did not happen.

. The State was to introduce in respect of private land mechanisms to encourage native vegetation retention and management by the year 1999. This did not happen.

. The State was to develop and implement a Threatened Species Protection Strategy by 31 December 1998. This did not happen.

. The State was to complete and publish silvicultural guidelines for the management of commercial forest types by December 1998. This did not happen.

Remember, this was only a case study of one RFA, but this was quite an unusual one in that at least some information was available to some stakeholders for a limited period of time. There are two others which have been signed and at least nine more are to come.

Environmental issues may also be compromised where there is fear of compensation. Professor Norton points out that, where new information comes to light that, for example, there may be a previously unknown population of a rare and endangered species or a management practice may undermine key environmental goals, a decision to reallocate land use may be avoided for fear of compensation penalties.

In conclusion, the RFAs have failed dismally. They have not protected high quality conservation areas. They are unsustainable and based on flawed and rejected science. They expose the Commonwealth to potential uncapped compensation and we will lose many areas of ecosystem biodiversity and many irreplaceable native forest areas. At least one state has not met basic conservation requirements under the RFA. The RFA legislation cannot be passed with any exemptions from Commonwealth legislation to protect the environment. It is clear that the assumption that the environment is protected by the RFAs is totally incorrect.