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Thursday, 26 August 1999
Page: 7817


Senator FORSHAW (11:47 AM) —As opposition amendment No. 3 is identical to Greens amendment No. 3, which has previously been carried, I do not need to move that, I understand. I move opposition amendment No. 7:

(7) Page 3 (after line 30), after clause 4, insert:

4A Public scrutiny of draft RFAs

(1) Within 21 days of receiving agreement from a State or Territory to the text of a draft RFA, the Minister, after consulting with the Minister for the Environment, must publish in the Gazette :

(a) a statement as to whether the draft RFA is in accordance with this Act; and

(b) a notice of the Minister's intention to enter into the RFA; and

(c) a copy of the draft RFA.

4B Parliamentary scrutiny of draft RFAs

(1) The Minister must not enter into an RFA on behalf of the Commonwealth except in accordance with this section.

(2) Before entering into an RFA on behalf of the Commonwealth, the Minister must cause a copy of the proposed RFA to be tabled in each House of the Parliament.

(3) Either House of the Parliament, within 15 sitting days of that House after the proposed RFA has been tabled, may, under motion upon notice, pass a resolution disapproving of the proposed RFA.

(4) Where:

(a) a notice referred to in subsection (3) is given with respect to a proposed RFA; and

(b) at the expiration of the period during which a resolution disapproving of the proposed RFA could have been passed:

(i) the notice has not been withdrawn and the relevant motion has not been called on; or

(ii) the relevant motion has been called on, moved and seconded and has not been withdrawn or otherwise disposed of;

the proposed RFA is deemed to have been disapproved of.

(5) If:

(a) either House of the Parliament passes a resolution in accordance with subsection (3); or

(b) the proposed RFA is deemed to have been disapproved of under subsection (4);

the Minister must not enter into the proposed RFA on behalf of the Commonwealth except in accordance with subsection (7).

(6):

(a) neither House of the Parliament passes a resolution in accordance with subsection (3); and

(b) the proposed RFA is not deemed to have been disapproved of under subsection (4);

the Minister may enter into the RFA on behalf of the Commonwealth on or after the day immediately following the last day on which a resolution disapproving of the proposed RFA could have been passed.

(7) If an RFA has been disapproved of under subsection (3) or (4), the Minister may resubmit the RFA under subsection (2) provided that a period of not less than 15 sitting days has elapsed since the day on which:

(a) a resolution disapproving of the RFA was passed by a House of the Parliament; or

(b) the RFA was deemed to have been disapproved of.

(8) An RFA which is resubmitted under subsection (7) may be resubmitted in an amended form.

Let me indicate that this is a substantial amendment to the legislation and, we hope, one that will be carried by the Senate—we hope one that will be supported particularly by the Greens, the Democrats and Senator Harradine.

We have heard the outrageous comments of the minister in response to this proposal. I take this opportunity to put on the record precisely what is involved so that everyone understands. What we are proposing is a system of public scrutiny and parliamentary scrutiny of draft RFAs. We see this as important because ultimately what this government is doing is giving legislative effect to regional forest agreements and all that flows from those agreements for at least the next 20 years. There is a substantial amount of Commonwealth funding and taxpayer funding underwriting the RFA process. That funding is in excess of $100 million, not counting additional structural adjustment funding. For that reason alone we would submit that it is important for parliament to have some opportunity to at least scrutinise the content of a regional forest agreement negotiated between a state government and the Commonwealth government prior to its being signed off by the relevant Commonwealth minister.

I note in passing that yesterday the Joint Public Works Committee of the parliament handed down a report in regard to another matter, the proposed new reactor at Lucas Heights. I have made my views known about that and it is not relevant to this debate, except that the reason the Public Works Committee actually came to report upon the proposal was that there is a substantial amount of taxpayer funding involved in it. It is a project that will run to a couple of hundred million dollars in construction and will operate for the next 40-odd years. Indeed, it is a requirement that any substantial government expenditure on projects of such a nature, infrastructure projects et cetera, must be considered by the Public Works Committee.

I think the principle is one that can equally be applied in this case. That is, where you have a system whereby the states and the Commonwealth will be negotiating regional forest agreements that will operate for up to 20 years and will involve a substantial allocation of Commonwealth taxpayer funds, at some point in time the parliament should get an opportunity to at least oversight those agreements. The public scrutiny stage of the process is outlined in amendment No. 7, in proposed clause 4A. That proposed clause reads as follows:

(1) Within 21 days of receiving agreement from a State or Territory to the text of a draft RFA, the Minister, after consulting with the Minister for the Environment, must publish in the Gazette :

(a) a statement as to whether the draft RFA is in accordance with this Act; and

(B) a notice of the Minister's intention to enter into the RFA; and

(c) a copy of the draft RFA.

That is straightforward. That is a requirement on the minister after a draft RFA has been prepared after that lengthy process of Commonwealth and state assessment and negotiations involving all the relevant parties. It is appropriate, we would submit, that the text of that draft RFA be published in the Gazette so it is available for public scrutiny. The benefit of course is this: by having a requirement on the minister to make a statement as to whether the draft RFA is in accordance with the act or not, that establishes the foundations upon which the draft RFA can be scrutinised by the public and by interested stakeholders to assess the position enunciated by the minister.

The next part of the process is the parliamentary scrutiny. I will not read the entire new clause 4B because it is lengthy, but I will summarise it as follows. Firstly, the process is that, before entering into an RFA, the draft text of which of course has been previously published in the Gazette, the minister must cause a copy of that proposed RFA to be tabled in each house of parliament. Secondly, within 15 sitting days after the proposed RFA has been tabled, each house may, upon motion made with notice, pass a resolution disapproving of the proposed RFA.

So that clause sets up a scheme whereby the draft RFA is laid on the table and then there are 15 sitting days for the parliament to pass a resolution disapproving of the proposed RFA. That is a tight timetable. It is deliberately so because we do not want to see a situation where there is a delay from spurious objection to an RFA that meets all the criteria, has been the subject of ongoing public scrutiny, has been the subject of negotiation over some period of time and has been in the public arena and in the parliamentary arena. So there is a heavy onus upon the parliament, if it is to disapprove of the RFA, to consider it quickly and effectively.

Of course, situations have arisen, particularly in Western Australia, where there has been a lot of public debate and parliamentary debate about whether or not an RFA appropriately meets the criteria. But if—as we hope—the RFAs do meet the criteria in the future, they would lie on the table and a motion would not necessarily have to be moved.

It is of course the intention of the whole process that the outcomes will be in accordance with the requirements of the national forest policy statement and so on. But at least, by having this, if there is a problem with the RFA—it does not meet the criteria—there is a mechanism available for a member of the House of Representatives or a senator to give notice of a disapproval motion and then have that debated. That then ensures that the issues would be raised and that the problems that would need to be identified can be identified within parliament, and parliament can have a vote on them.

Further procedures are laid out in this amendment which relate to an RFA being disapproved of by either house of parliament. The RFA may be resubmitted provided that a period of not less than 15 sitting days has elapsed since the day upon which it was disapproved. Furthermore, it may be resubmitted in an amended form.

I want to quickly make some points in respect of some of the erroneous comments that have been made about this, and no doubt I will have a further opportunity after we hear from the government. It has been suggested that the process that we are putting forward is contrary to the original national forest policy statement and the whole basis of the RFA process. That is nonsense. At no stage in that process did the Commonwealth ever abrogate its responsibility—and certainly at no stage did the parliament ever abrogate its responsibility—for the constitutional aspects that it can cover in respect of Australia's forests and forest industry.

That would indeed have been quite the wrong thing to have happened. Some argue that the RFA process really means that the Commonwealth is vacating the field because it is supposedly all too difficult and too much of a hot political issue. They say that the Commonwealth has handed this issue back to the states who may happen to own the resource or have management of the resource—that is, the state forests—and that therefore the whole issue should be resolved at that level. Those who argue that are wrong.

Certainly there is still a major responsibility for the federal government and the federal parliament to ensure that the outcomes of the regional forest agreement process are proper and appropriate. We make no apology for that. If anything has demonstrated the need for such a process to be available for parliamentary scrutiny, it is the debacle that has gone on in Western Australia in recent times, where an agreement was negotiated after a lengthy period of time, signed off and then abrogated by the state government within a matter of a couple of weeks. We now have this debacle between the Commonwealth minister and the state government over just what is a legally binding agreement and what is not.

I am aware that there are other arguments and criticisms of our proposal. It has been suggested that, somehow, it will frustrate the entire RFA process. That is rubbish. Our proposal has been on the table and known to the state governments, the industry and all the players for quite some time now, ever since the Senate committee handed down its report early this year. Just in the last couple of days we have seen further RFAs negotiated and signed off in Victoria and New South Wales. Negotiations are continuing in New South Wales and Queensland to complete the process, hopefully before the end of this year. That is a vast improvement on the minister's record up until a month or so ago. It is quite clear that the process will continue and that our amendments will not frustrate that process. (Time expired)