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Wednesday, 15 July 1998
Page: 6100

Mr KERR (11:16 AM) —The starting point for this debate on the Regional Forest Agreements Bill 1998 is to recognise that securing long-term confidence of this industry is dependent upon policy certainty that can come only from bipartisan support. The starting point of this debate must stem from the fact that, after more than two years in government, the minister last week brought forward legislation without any consultation with the opposition and, plainly, with inadequate consultation with interested parties, both on the environment and industry sides. And now the parliament is being asked to rush this legislation through without the prospect of its examination by a committee of this House, and to do so in a framework which can be regarded only as playing to the political gallery without any respect being given to the serious issues that underlie this legislation.

The objects of the RFA process are twofold: firstly, to secure protection of the environment and, secondly, to provide security for jobs. But, in this government legislation, the key element that is missing—in fact, it is completely ignored—is any industry strategy. The government seems blind to the fact that the Australian community will not tolerate the prospect of the export of largely unprocessed forest products, especially whole logs and woodchips, whilst our own manufacturing sector is in serious decline and in competition with imported products sourced from forests which are not in any way managed on an ecologically sustainable basis.

How can speaker after speaker on the government side stand and pat themselves on the back about giving confidence and security to an industry when, in my own home state of Tasmania, the very instant that resource security legislation was secured we find a massive disinvestment in the sacking of hundreds of workers from downstream processing in Burnie and this government standing idly by, condemning Labor's proposals to do something about an industry strategy to protect those people in the work force in Burnie who shortly will be losing their jobs as a result of this government's irresponsibility?

Look also to the environmental side of this package. This bill aims to remove Commonwealth legislative control from forestry operations in every area of Australia covered by regional forest agreements. Clause 5 of the bill states that the effect of the RFA forestry operations must be disregarded for the purposes of sections of the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975, the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 and the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983.

The difficulty arises because the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill, the government's own proposal currently before the parliament, will replace those various acts, but not the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975. So the RFA bill itself may then require consequential amendment. Also, with the haste of this process, it is interesting to note that the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Bill itself in the parliament already makes mention of the Regional Forest Agreements Act that is proposed in division 4, clauses 38 to 41. So the various proposals in this bill seem to mirror and duplicate quite unnecessarily proposals that are already before the parliament.

This bill has been introduced in haste not as a result of complex consultations with all affected interests but rather out of the desperate realisation that this government had not met undertakings it had given two years ago to progress these measures with the bipartisan support of the opposition. It has come up with a bill which does have very serious deficiencies. We have given in-principle support to these measures, but we have flagged in our second reading amendment where those deficiencies lie.

Let us not fool ourselves that those deficiencies have been identified only by the conservation movement. I have in my hand a letter addressed to my shadow parliamentary colleague the member for Perth (Mr Stephen Smith), the shadow minister for resources, and me from the CFMEU. The CFMEU is, of course, the principal union representing timber workers right across Australia. What does that union say? It calls on us to oppose this legislation unless it is substantially amended. I will read the concluding paragraph of this letter. It states:

In conclusion the Union does not support the Bill in its present form as it removes the Commonwealth from its responsibilities to fully implement the National Forest Policy Statement. That is, not only establishing a Comprehensive Adequate and Representative (C.A.R.) reserve system and resource security but also a world class ecologically sustainable value adding forest and forest products industry. The Commonwealth by passing the Bill in its present form will walk away with the job, in the Union's view, "only half done".

That comes from the principal union that represents forest workers. Yet we have all this sanctimonious back patting coming forth as if this bill has had widespread community support.

When this measure was, without notice, sprung on this parliament in the last week and brought forward to today, my shadow col league and I sent out to all interested industry and conservation groups a note saying, `Whilst we only have a week, we would appreciate your comments.' So far we have received 38 detailed submissions. Let me go through those 38 detailed submissions very briefly. Four of those 38 submissions support the bill as it is drafted, 19 oppose it outright and 15 say not to pass it unless it is substantially amended. What is this nonsense about this being the product of consultation and support across the Australian community? When the principal union representing timber workers in Australia is one of the groups that say we should oppose this bill unless it is substantially amended, where is your virtue? There is none.

The most vigorous reaction has come from Western Australia, which is hardly surprising. Look at the comments that have been made by people from such diverse organisations as the Shire of Denmark, the Western Australian Forest Alliance and the Conservation Council of Western Australia. I choose to read just a small part, because of the very limited time, from a submission that was sent forward by Dr Helen Henderson. She is concerned because this bill would not only have retrospective application to the already signed RFAs, of which this parliament can at least be imputed to have knowledge, but also is presumably intended to apply to RFAs yet to come into existence, no matter how ill-fitting they are in relation to the objectives of this legislation, the scoping agreement settled previously by the former Labor administration and states, and the special deal that was done by the current government for the Premier of Western Australia. She says, about her qualifications:

I am a key stakeholder representative of a national parks association on the official Western Australian Regional Forest Agreement Stakeholder Reference Group.

At page 2 she says:

At this stage, the Western Australian public is considering the RFA public consultation document Towards a regional forestry agreement for the south-west forest region of Western Australia , a paper to assist consultation. This document contains three RFA options, all of which many key stakeholders totally reject at this stage. These include nationally recognised biodiversity scientists, local authorities, forest based industry associations and conservation groups.

That leads me to the next point. There is a genuine and proper concern in this parliament not to give the executive power to act in a legislative capacity. We do not act properly as representatives of this parliamentary process by signing away to the executive blank cheques, particularly when we have no knowledge of what will come forward in those future draft RFA processes.

That is why the amendment moved by my colleague and seconded by me says that it believes it is inappropriate to extend the benefits of this bill to any future RFA which purports to meet the objectives of the bill but which in fact does not. It expresses concern, in this context, that the bill provides no mechanism to allow parliament to review the adequacy of future RFAs. There is widespread concern at the prospective signing of an RFA in Western Australia. I take it no further than that. Both my shadow colleague for resources and I are very acutely aware, however, of the deep feeling in the Western Australian community. We have publicly expressed our concern about the process and the way in which that process appears to be going quite off the rails in Western Australia.

The process has not concluded. The public consultation process is still open; it has been extended. But I put this parliament on notice that we do not accept the proposition that, not knowing what may come forward in the future, we should sign up to an approval of a document that has not yet come into existence. That is wrong in principle and that is so too with the other RFAs which might be flawed in their creation in other jurisdictions.

I come also to the point of compensation. There has been considerable debate in the Australian community about the multilateral investment agreement. That is an agreement which, if it were to be signed, would give to multinational corporations the opportunity to sue in Australian courts were they, for environmental or other reasons, precluded from pursuing their objectives. The argument that is advanced is that that passes away sovereignty from the Australian parliament to others outside this nation. Why should we buy a pig in the poke in relation to future agreements not yet cited, made potentially between executives, which command less than a majority in this House or the support of the Senate—there could be minority governments in the future; these are plausible scenarios—and which are not subject to parliamentary review and yet give rise to substantial financial obligations to multinational corporations? What would we be holding our hands to?

Let us look at the Tasmanian RFA. It says that the agreement is intended to require the Commonwealth to pay compensation for any action taken:

. . . to protect the environment and heritage values in native forests and in connection therewith the protection of:

(a) CAR Values; or

(b) Old Growth forest; or

(c) wilderness; or

(d) any Priority Species; or

(e) any Endangered Forest Community; or

(f) National Estate Values; or

(g) World Heritage values; or

(h) Wild Rivers . . .

If the Commonwealth takes any action during the period of this agreement which is inconsistent with any provision of this agreement and with a foreseeable and probable consequence, then compensation would flow. But, of course, we do not know yet what will be the final form of compensation measures, because this government has said that it wants to go back and change the RFAs that have already been signed. So RFAs are not sacrosanct now; they are going to be changed. RFAs are going to be altered because their compensation measures do not mesh with what is intended in this bill. We do not know what is intended. We have no measure of that.

What is known is that the government has indicated that the commencement of this RFA legislation, whenever it passes the parliament, will be delayed. It intends to allow examination of existing RFAs with regard to compensation provisions to ensure consistency. Of course, those negotiations have not yet been timetabled.

So we are being asked to have a pig in a poke. We are saying to this House that there is an opportunity for a committee of this House to examine these questions that remain unanswered. We are not coming back for some three or four weeks. There is no prospect of this being passed in the Senate. Why not use that time constructively to get over these problems and to secure the kind of understanding across the community which would go to enabling the opposition to give the bill wholehearted bipartisan support?