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Wednesday, 3 November 1976
Page: 2278

Mr SINCLAIR (New England) (Minister for Primary Industry) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

To date there have been 2 Acts authorising softwood planting agreements between the Commonwealth and each State, both of which covered a 5-year period. These were the Softwood Forestry Agreements Act of 1967, which marked the commencement on 1 July 1966 of an expanded softwood planting program in the States, and the 1972 Act which terminated on 30 June 1976. The purpose of the softwood planting agreements is to increase the level of softwood planting from that being funded by the State governments prior to the Acts coming into force to a level related to Australia's future needs for softwood forest products. With the assistance of loan funds provided under the first 2 Acts, the area of State government owned softwood plantations in Australia increased by about 220 000 hectares in the decade covered by the Acts. Total loan payments were of the order of $48m, about 10 per cent of which was for purchase of land.

The effect of this proposed legislation will be to enable the Commonwealth to enter into an agreement with each State covering the financing of a program of softwood planting for the year ending 30 June 1977 under the same general terms and conditions which applied under the Softwood Forestry Agreements Act 1972, but at a reduced level. The Government regards a one year extension of financial assistance as a necessary holding measure while the question of further agreements covering a longer term is reviewed.

The Australian Forestry Council has had the question of a third series of softwood forestry agreements under review for some time. Recommendations on the future level of plantings were deferred pending the completion of the study of the operation of the softwood planting agreements undertaken by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation of the Twenty-ninth Parliament. That Committee considered that there was a need for a softwood planting program, possibly at lower levels of planting than covered by the 1972 Act. It also expressed some doubts about the economics of pine planting in Australia and recommended that an immediate study be carried out by a body such as the Bureau of Agricultural Economics to determine the economic viability of the softwood planting program on both strict financial grounds and the broadest possible cost-benefit grounds. As a consequence of this recommendation 2 studies have been carried out. The BAE has reported on the demand for forest products and the economic viability of the industries through which they are processed. The

Bureau also has provided estimates of the supply and demand for these products to 2020 AD. The Forestry and Timber Bureau has made an assessment of the costs and benefits of growing pines in Australia.

The BAE report has been made available for the consideration of the Standing Committee of the Australian Forestry Council and it is scheduled to be published as soon as possible. This series of events has precluded the possibility of a Government decision on the longer term position being raised before the conclusion of the 1972 Act. The 2 studies carried out by the 2 bureaus in my Department indicate that from an economic viewpoint it will be in Australia 's interests to continue with a pine planting program. They provide a basis for assessing what level of future planting is desirable and whether further federal financial assistance is justified. In accordance with the findings of the parliamentary committee report, the level of planting proposed to be financed this year is less than previously. Unlike the previous Acts, expenditure is limited to a specific sum in order to conform with Government policy of financial restrictions. The $6m loan allocation is expected to allow a level of Commonwealth financed planting half of that which applied under the 1972 Act.

Normally, expenditure of Commonwealth funds would require the preparation by the States of environmental impact statements on the proposed plantings. Because of the time required to prepare and consider these statements, insistence on this requirement would negate the purpose of the extension. As a compromise, and in recognition of other recommendations of the House of Representatives Standing Committee, the States have agreed in respect of the extension year plantings that to the greatest extent possible new plantings should be established on land which has already been cleared for agricultural purposes and that the guidelines for forest management procedures outlined in paragraph 159 of the Standing Committee's report be followed. The States have been advised that, should the Commonwealth and the States enter into agreements for a further period, it would be necessary to comply with the administrative procedures under the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974.

Mr Deputy Speaker,in placing this Bill before the House, the Government has given consideration to the benefit to rural communities of the softwood program and to the greater benefits to these areas and to the nation which will accrue when industries using the raw material of the forests are established or expanded. It has given consideration also to the employment opportunities provided in rural areas by the softwood planting program and the social disruption that a sudden termination of Commonwealth financial assistance would bring. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Dr Cass) adjourned. '

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