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Wednesday, 13 February 2002
Page: 130

Senator BROWN (9:36 AM) —This is quite an outrageous motion. What we have at the outset of this parliamentary sitting is the government purporting—

Government senators interjecting

Senator BROWN —The government members opposite may well leave the chamber, but it shows the disdain they have for a debate on a bill—the Regional Forest Agreements Bill 2002—which they claim to be urgent. That makes my point. The government is claiming to make urgent a piece of legislation which is now appearing, amended, for the fourth time in this chamber, which has been brought persistently to the chamber by the government over the last three years and which, most lately, has been mishandled in the week leading to the federal election when the government tried to have it bombed through the Senate and failed to do so.

This is a piece of legislation with amendments that the chamber has not yet seen. Nobody in this chamber, other than the minister, has a copy of this bill on his or her desk. How can you fast-forward a piece of legislation which senators have not seen? The government has said obliquely that there is only a minor amendment to the bill, but where is that minor amendment? Could I be provided with a copy of the legislation—to be the first in the chamber, other than the minister, to see it—with the amendment and the attendant pieces of legislation?

The dynamics of this legislation are that the woodchip industry has been able to manoeuvre both the government and the Labor Party into having this as the first piece of legislation on the Senate slate. And what a horrendous piece of legislation it is! The legislation is to fast-forward the regional forest agreement process being validated in law by the passage of this bill through the parliament. The regional forest agreements were signed by Prime Minister Howard and several state premiers over the last three years, and they effectively give all of the unprotected forests in Australia to the logging industry.

The aim of this piece of legislation is to ensure that the federal parliament and the federal minister for the environment and for forests is hogtied as far as the destruction of Australia's forests in the future is concerned. It removes the power of the minister to intervene to protect forests and wildlife, including endangered species and world heritage forests, effectively for good, while the chainsaws move in and the destruction of those forests, as in my home state of Tasmania, continues at the greatest rate in history.

At the outset of this debate I need to say that this legislation must be considered carefully. There is no way that an overnight look at the legislation and its ramifications can allow members of this house to go to their electorates and get feedback on this piece of legislation. Is it important to the electorate? Yes, it is. It is very, very important to my electorate, to the half a million or so Green voters in Australia and, in particular, to the tens of thousands of people who made a record Green vote in the elections in Tasmania. This was one of the major issues in mind. If you are in Tasmania you see what the regional forest agreement is doing to Tasmania's wild forests—the greatest rate of destruction in history of the grandest forests in the Southern Hemisphere. This year 150,000 log trucks, including B-doubles, will take those destroyed forests to the woodchip mills to be exported to Japan and China, where they are processed into paper and ultimately end up on the rubbish tips of the Northern Hemisphere. The woodchips are being exported not only at the greatest rate in history but also at the lowest price in history for the fewest jobs in history.

Prime Minister Howard, when he signed the regional forest agreement in Tasmania in 1997, to howls of protest from the Tasmanian people, said that the regional forest agreement would produce jobs. What you will not get in the debate that is going to follow on this legislation, from either the Liberal Party or the Labor Party—because they speak as one on this legislation—is any justification of the Prime Minister's statement, because it was a false promise. Instead of jobs being created, 1,000 jobs have been lost in the industry even though the rate of destruction has increased. That is because the sawloggers and the downstream processors in Tasmania are losing out. More than 90 per cent of the destroyed forests, the trees being cut down in these grand eucalypt and rainforests, in Tasmania is going to the woodchip mill. The latest count was 93 per cent. That means that, for every truck that gets to the sawmill for downstream processing, seven are going to the woodchip mills where the chips are sent to Japan and now, through Gunns, to China.

The opinion polls show that in my home state, as in the rest of the country, 70 to 90 per cent of people are opposed to this process. But we will find in the voting pattern on the vote we are about to have and in the coming days in debate on this matter that more than 70 per cent of the politicians are with the woodchippers. So there we have the dynamic: most Australians are opposed to this process and most politicians are in favour of it. We may ask: how can that be? The fact is that a corrupt process is afoot, whereby there is money going into the coffers of the political parties which is influencing the outcome of the political process. And the money is coming from the very logging companies that are going to gain from this piece of legislation. During the course of this debate over the coming month I will be seeking some explanation from the political parties about that process of influence, because it needs to be discovered.

If you look at it more carefully, the process in Tasmania is much more dangerous in this legislation than just validating the regional forest agreement. I again ask for a copy of the legislation to be given to me. We are debating this matter without any member of the chamber having a copy in front of them, and I do not think that is fair or proper—but it shows how this debate is going to be run. It is going to be run with an unenlightened Senate, ignorant of the impact of this legislation. Members of the Labor Party will join members of the Liberal Party and the National Party, ignorant of the economic and employment impacts of this legislation on their electorates, and simply vote for the legislation as it goes through to benefit the big end of town, which is the woodchip corporations.

When you look at the impact on the economies in Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia where the woodchip industry operates and where regional forest agreements have been signed or put forward, you can see that the public loses out all the way down the line. There is in this legislation provision for compensation. Who gets the compensation? The woodchip corporations do. Under this legislation, there is compensation if a future federal government moves under public pressure to protect a world heritage forest, such as the Weld Valley or the Great Western Tiers in Tasmania, or the Tarkine Wilderness in the north-west of Tasmania, or the tallest forests of the lot in the Styx Valley. Mr Acting Deputy President, I do not appreciate members walking between you and me when I am debating an important matter.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Chapman)—Senator O'Brien, that is not an appropriate standard. I ask that you maintain the standards of the chamber.

Senator Ian Campbell —Mr Acting Deputy President, I rise on a point of order. Is it within standing orders to debate the detail of the bill when we are actually debating a notice to suspend the provisions of standing order 111?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —The question is that the bill be exempt from standing order 111. I would ask Senator Brown to confine his remarks to the issues relating to that motion.

Senator BROWN —And you will find me doing that. I have done so far and I will continue to do so. The Leader of the Government in the Senate should know that you cannot debate whether a bill is urgent or not without looking at what the bill means. It will be interesting to see if the leader of the government gets up and defends the urgency of this legislation when the opportunity arises.

Senator Ian Campbell —Mr Acting Deputy President, on the point of order: is the senator now canvassing your ruling?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —As I heard the senator, I understood him to be saying he was abiding by my ruling.

Senator BROWN —You are right, Mr Acting Deputy President, and the honourable leader is simply wasting time.

Senator Ian Campbell —Mr Acting Deputy President, on the point of order: you actually upheld my point of order, which was that Senator Brown should restrict himself to matters relating to the suspension of the provisions of standing order 111. He certainly was not, and that is why you called him to order. He is canvassing, and he should not canvass your ruling.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —I drew the senator's attention to the terms of this debate, and, in his comments subsequent to that, he indicated that it was his intention to confine his remarks to matters relating to the suspension of standing orders. I will be listening very carefully to ensure that he abides by that commitment.

Senator BROWN —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I do hope the honourable member opposite stops wasting the chamber's time, because this is a very important matter. I want to get back to the matter at hand, which is the lack of urgency with this legislation. But with that comes the very important consideration for the Australian public, and that is that it has time to know what is in legislation that is before this chamber and that it has time to feed back to the members of this chamber so that the debate can be in the interests of the wider Australian public—not simply the well-heeled lobby groups and the woodchip corporations, which have got the Labor Party to join the government in railroading this legislation through this chamber. A simple question arises: of all the legislation that a new government can bring forward in the interests of the people of Australia in the first week of a Senate sitting, is the regional forest agreements legislation, which has been before this chamber three times in the last three years, the most urgent? Is that what the government is saying? That is what the government is trying to put forward here, and patently it is not true. Patently, that is false.

The urgent component of this legislation is that the public be aware of what it contains and that there be full and proper debate on its contents and its ramifications. What I was saying earlier, before I was interrupted by the leader opposite—who will have his opportunity—was that this legislation has in it a compensation mechanism for the woodchip corporations. Is that an urgent matter? Only if the woodchip corporations believe that they are moving into forests of world heritage value, like the Tarkine, the Great Western Tiers and the Styx Valley—which contains the tallest forest in the Southern Hemisphere and, indeed, the tallest forest anywhere outside North America. That forest is about to be razed, chainsawed down from end to end, by the woodchip corporations.

The only way that you could argue that this matter is urgent is if the government and the opposition believe that the increasing tide of public horror at what regional forest agreements mean for those forests is going to prevent them being logged. In that situation, this legislation will lead to the woodchip corporations being compensated out of taxpayers' money for those forests as if they were a pile of woodchips. In other words, if a minister of the federal parliament responds to public pressure instead of to the woodchip corporations' moves to protect world heritage value forests in Tasmania, if this legislation is passed, then the woodchip corporation will put its hand out for tens of millions of dollars in payout from the taxpayers' pockets—even though the woodchip corporation never paid a red cent towards those forests.

What is urgent here is that we look at the economics and the dynamics of this industry in the small state of Tasmania. How is it that in Tasmania we have the biggest per capita income from exports of any state in the Commonwealth, in an average period of statistics, but the poorest people in Australia? It is because the Labor Party and the Liberal Party serially intervene on behalf of big extractive industries like the woodchippers to feather their bed against the interests of the public who own those resources. Here we have it writ large, because the compensation in this legislation goes to the woodchip corporations if they are denied access to destroying heritage forests and wildlife in Tasmania.

Where is the compensation mechanism for the workers who are being sacked from that industry by the woodchip corporations while the CFMEU and the Labor Party sit on their hands and say nothing? Where is the compensation mechanism in this legislation for local government in Tasmania, which pays millions of dollars each year on the upgrade of roads damaged by huge log trucks hurtling along them to the woodchip mills, and for the Roads and Transport Division of the state Department of Infrastructure, Energy and Resources?

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Order! Senator Brown, please confine your remarks to the motion before the chair.

Senator BROWN —Mr Acting Deputy President, I am going to do that and I will continue to do that, but if the Leader of the Government in the Senate wants to indicate to you that he has a point he should get to his feet and make it. Where is the urgency—and the government can respond to this—in putting through a piece of legislation which is going to leave local government, state government and the people of Tasmania out of pocket without compensation but which will have the big woodchip companies, like Gunns, potentially putting their hands out for millions of dollars and then exporting those profits to shareholders out of state? Where is the urgency in this piece of legislation? It is not there.

It is up to the government and their fellow travellers in this matter, the Labor Party— who failed in the defence of even the workers' interests in this matter—to justify the urgency of this legislation. I am making this move at the dawn of this new parliament because I believe the government and the Labor Party should justify their actions when they try to upset the forms of this Senate to urgently deal with a piece of legislation which patently is not urgent. It was not urgent enough for the government and the opposition to put it through during the last period of parliament. It was not urgent enough for the last Minister for Forestry and Conservation, Wilson Tuckey, to bring it on in the last six months of the last parliament. He brought it on in the last week when it was too late. It was not urgent enough for him to bring it on during the last six months of that parliament until the death knock, so why has it now suddenly become urgent? What is in the `minor amendment' from the minister that makes the legislation so urgent that it should be debated today?

This is a travesty of the forms of the Senate. That is why I am objecting to it. This is not an urgent piece of legislation. The whole notion of urgency, which allows pieces of legislation to be put through quickly when it is in the public interest, is being abused by the government that moves this motion and by the opposition that, so weakly, is going to support it. It is being abused in the interests of the big end of town—the woodchip corporations; the donors to the Labor Party, the Liberal Party and the National Party. I object to that. If there is now an urgency which did not exist in the last period of parliament, when this could have been brought through and debated at leisure, let the government or the opposition state what it is. If they say, `Well, it didn't get through last time,' let them explain why they did not get it through, because they had the numbers.

The Labor Party is acting in an appalling fashion here. It should hang its head in shame. It has sold out the workers—1,000 have lost their jobs since the regional forest agreement was signed in Tasmania—and what has the Labor Party or the CFMEU done about that? They have never stepped off a footpath. But when the corporations say, `Jump! Make this urgent!' they jump, because that is who they serve. That is who the Labor Tasmanian government serves, that is who the Labor opposition in this place serves and that is who the government in this place is serving. We will debate this in full in the coming debate, but I object to the process now being used whereby this spurious claim of urgency means that this is the first piece of legislation we deal with in this parliament when there are so many more important issues that we should be debating.