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Thursday, 14 February 2002
Page: 278

Senator CALVERT (11:30 AM) —Yesterday when the Regional Forest Agreements Bill 2002 was introduced into parliament, the Minister for Forestry and Conservation, Senator Ian Macdonald, sought to table his second reading speech. In true democratic fashion, Senator Brown refused to give him leave. As a Tasmanian senator it is my pleasure to, this morning, read into Hansard the minister's second reading speech on the Regional Forest Agreements Bill, which is so important to our state.

Senator Brown —Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I would be quite happy if the minister were to be present, and he is not, and for him to read it out now.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Watson)—There is no point of order, Senator Brown.

Senator Kemp —There is no point of order.

Senator Brown —No, but I have registered the fact that he is not here.

Senator CALVERT —The Regional Forest Agreements Bill provides legislative support and commitment to the outcomes of the regional forest agreements and for ongoing action to implement the forest and wood products action agenda through the Forest and Wood Products Council. The bill commits the Commonwealth unequivocally to the outcomes achieved in the 10 RFAs concluded with four state governments between February 1997 and April 2001. These RFAs were the conclusion of a process which had its roots in a three-year inquiry into Australia's forest and timber resources conducted by the Resource Assessment Commission from 1989-1992. (Quorum formed) Before I was interrupted by the childish actions of Senator Brown—I would ask my colleagues to remain—

Senator Brown —Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. My action was legitimate. The senator may not reflect on or impugn the motives of another senator. I ask you to watch the language he is using. It is perfectly reasonable for me to call a quorum in this place.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESI-DENT —Senator Calvert, perhaps you could moderate your language a bit given the sensitivity of the issue.

Senator CALVERT —The actions of Senator Brown certainly do test one's patience from time to time, Mr Acting Deputy President. I ask my colleagues to hang around because we do not want any more interruptions to this rather important debate. As I was saying, the Resource Assessment Commission found an overriding national need for improved intergovernmental institutions and decision making processes that would support comprehensive forward planning for forest use.

The National Forest Policy Statement 1992 set in motion the regional forest agreement process. It provided a nationally agreed policy framework for a long term and lasting resolution of competing forest industry, conservation and community interests and expectations concerning our nation's forests. The statement committed the Commonwealth and all states to the ecologically sustainable management of forests and a balanced return from all forest uses.

The current 2002 bill has 12 clauses to address the three main objectives of the bill. The first objective is to give effect to certain obligations on the Commonwealth under the RFAs. These obligations involve: (a) ensuring that forestry operations in regions subject to RFAs are excluded from Commonwealth legislation relating to export controls, the environment and heritage (clause 6); (b) binding the Commonwealth to the termination provisions of RFAs (clause 7); and (c) binding the Commonwealth to the compensation provisions of RFAs (clause 8).

In excluding RFA forestry operations from certain Commonwealth legislation, the bill draws a line in the sand for political or bureaucratic goal shifting. The environmental, heritage and economic values of these regions have been comprehensively assessed through the RFA process, and each RFA was signed only after the Commonwealth had satisfied itself that state regimes adequately addressed sustainable forest management, environmental protection and heritage. There is, therefore, no need for further assessment at the Commonwealth level for the 20 years of these agreements. Any forestry operation inconsistent with the commitments in RFA processes are to be addressed within state processes and reported in the annual RFA reports and five-yearly reviews.

The Commonwealth may terminate an RFA only in accordance with the RFA itself. The bill has the effect that dispute settlement procedures in the RFAs must be observed and the state provided with 90 days notice on any failures to comply with RFA provisions, such as implementation of the reserve system or codes of practice or management systems. Specific termination provisions are set out in the individual RFAs.

In binding the Commonwealth to the compensation provisions in RFAs, the bill provides legislative support to provisions in the RFAs. The RFAs set out the circumstances under which the Commonwealth would be liable to pay compensation and the process by which the amount of compensation is determined. They provide that in the event that the Commonwealth takes action inconsistent with the provisions of the agreement that leads to the prevention, or substantial limitation, of the use of land outside the reserve system or sale or commercial use of products from those areas, then the Commonwealth must pay as compensation an amount equal to the reasonable loss or damage sustained by reason of that action.

The second and third objectives of the bill are to provide legislative commitment and support to the National Forest Policy Statement and the Forest and Wood Products Action Agenda and provide for the continuation of the Forest and Wood Products Council. Clause 11 provides for the Forest and Wood Products Council to be a forum for the minister and industry stakeholders to consult on a range of matters, including the Forest and Wood Products Action Agenda.

The bill also provides for parliamentary oversight of RFAs. It requires publication of information about RFAs (clause 9) and requires the minister to table RFAs, amendments to RFAs, RFA annual reports and RFA five-yearly review reports (clause 10). These clauses, along with the objectives (clause 3), are a practical way of addressing issues raised in the Senate in 1999 when this matter was last debated.

The RFAs and the EPBC Act included some assumptions about future legislation, and some tidying up is now necessary to ensure that they are properly aligned. The bill, through a schedule, amends the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) and provides that the EPBC Act and the RFA bill have identical provisions relating to the application of the EPBC Act on RFA forestry operations.

The current provision in the EPBC Act permits a person to undertake RFA forestry operations without approval but defines RFA forestry operations in terms of a non-existent 1999 act. The schedule to the RFA bill corrects that anomaly by repealing the existing provision and providing that references in the EPBC Act to RFAs and RFA forestry operations are as defined in the current bill.

The effect of the schedule is to ensure that part 3 of the EPBC Act—which requires Commonwealth environmental approval for certain actions—does not apply to RFA forestry operations undertaken in accordance with RFAs. This exemption is limited so that RFA forestry operations in World Heritage or Ramsar areas or that are incidental to another action may be subject to the EPBC Act.

The RFA bill, then, is a fairly simple bill targeted at the specific objectives of underpinning the commitments that the Commonwealth has already entered into in its 10 RFAs with four state governments and in the National Forest Policy Statement 1992 and the Forest and Wood Products Action Agenda 2000.

I urge senators to consider the merits of the bill. Let us leave aside the tired old arguments over the use of native forests. Those arguments have been scientifically resolved over the past decade of research and consultation by parties of goodwill, resulting in a world-class comprehensive, adequate and representative forest reserve system and more certainty for those people and communities that rely on native forests for their livelihoods. Let us accept that the RFAs have set the parameters for the balancing of competing environmental, industry and recreation interests. Let us leave detailed discussion about the management of particular forests and forest resources to where they are best handled: at the local level through the processes established in the RFAs, including annual reports and the five-yearly reviews of RFAs.

This government undertook at the last election to focus on ongoing monitoring and evaluation of RFAs through annual reports and rigorous five-yearly reviews, and to investigate allegations of breaches of RFAs and address them appropriately. The government intends to fulfil this commitment through processes set out in the RFAs.

The RFAs contain a range of obligations and commitments for both the Commonwealth and state governments. Both governments are held accountable, through annual reports against RFA milestones and five-yearly implementation reviews, for the discharge of these obligations and commitments. In the event that a government breaches its RFA commitments, a party may serve notice on the other specifying matters in dispute and settle the dispute—within seven days in Tasmania; and 14 days in Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales. So there is a slight difference in those RFAs. In default of a settlement, the RFAs set out mediation procedures.

There are clear state government processes that the Commonwealth has accredited in the RFAs for ecologically sustainable forest management—including legislation, policies, codes and practices. These accredited processes are designed to deal with allegations of breaches of the RFA. In some cases, these state processes have been amended and improved to meet new commitments undertaken by state governments in the RFAs.

If the accredited state processes have not satisfactorily dealt with forestry operations inconsistent with RFAs, then a state may well be in breach of its obligations. This would then be a situation in which the Commonwealth has rights under the RFA to require the state to ensure its processes meet its commitments under the RFA. The minister—who is listening very intently to the speech that I am delivering on his behalf— undertakes to rigorously pursue any such failures of the accredited forest management processes using the dispute settlement procedures under the RFAs. To ensure public confidence in these processes, he proposes to publish the outcomes of any such investigations on the Commonwealth's RFA web site.

To those senators and members who believe they have real evidence of breaches of RFAs, he asks that you make full use of the accredited state processes in accordance with the RFAs. Where you believe there is evidence of a breakdown in those processes, you should detail those to him fully so he can have them fully and effectively investigated.

I remind the Senate that the Australian Constitution does not provide the Commonwealth with power over forest management. That power is vested in the states. However, we do have certain rights under the RFAs that the minister will use fully.

Having said all that, the minister would indicate that he is not going to waste the taxpayer resources of the relevant state authorities with every unsupported comment or allegation that might be tossed around by those with some agenda that is not relevant to the sustainable management, use and enjoyment of our forest and the conservation of our ecology. But he will pursue documented breaches of RFA commitments, as he has indicated.

What the RFA process has delivered is what the Resource Assessment Commission found to be an overriding national need for back in 1992: improved intergovernmental institutions and decision processes that would support comprehensive forward planning for forest use. Let us use those intergovernmental processes to the full. On behalf of the minister, I commend the bill to the Senate.