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Wednesday, 15 July 1998
Page: 6105

Dr LAWRENCE (11:40 AM) —I object to the Regional Forest Agreements Bill 1998 for a number of reasons which I will outline. Principal among them is that, firstly, it falsely assumes that the RFA processes have been or will be conducted properly and that, therefore, the outcomes of those processes will be broadly accepted by the community. That is clearly a false assumption, one that I challenged in a recent submission on the WA RFA public consultation paper.

I feel particularly strongly about this because I was one of the signatories to the original agreement between the state and federal governments. I am appalled that the options outlined in the recently released paper in my own state, presumably to form the basis for an RFA, deviate so far from the original intentions of the national forest policy statement. This bill would do nothing about that problem.

In particular, in my state only three `options' are presented. None of them seems likely to achieve the conservation values that are fundamental to the original agreement. How can any of them be accepted by the community? What is envisaged in all three options is the substantial and unsustainable destruction of old-growth forest. This is definitely not the outcome that was anticipated by the premiers at the time—me included—or the Prime Minister when it was established.

I have also watched with increasing alarm in Western Australia as a so-called `consultation' has proceeded without the input of local conservation groups and the relevant scientific expertise; they have simply been excluded. Since these agreements are expected to bind all the parties and set policy for the next 20 years, I think this `failure to seek and achieve widespread community input and support'—as I put it in my submission—is likely to prove fatal to any future planning.

Even those who are only superficially acquainted with WA forests and their management will be clear that the options contained in the latest report do not provide for a comprehensive, adequate and representative forest conservation estate, as was required in the original agreement. So how can we sign off this legislation, not knowing what is going to occur in a state like Western Australia? Old-growth forest in Western Australia is already under a very severe challenge from the timber industry in which the major companies have been very unwilling so far to undertake sufficient investment in plantational alternatives. Indeed, the subsidy inherent in the low royalties charged by the state can be seen to inhibit such investment.

One of the continuing flaws in the proposed RFA process in WA is the inclusion of road and stream reserves, which enables the state government to meet the reserve criteria in a completely phoney way. This was—when we were in government—and still is unsatisfactory. It means that, while small and degraded areas of forest will be preserved, largely as tourist window-dressing, substantially untouched and aesthetically superb areas such as the Giblett block, which I know well and which is on the interim register of the National Estate, will almost certainly be logged.

The replacement of such forest with regrowth ignores the importance of old-growth forest as a nursery for biological diversity, and irreversibly—and I underline that—destroys the cultural and aesthetic characteristics so loved by Western Australians, including the coach of the Eagles, Mick Malthouse, who came out on this recently; a businesswoman, Liz Davenport; and a former Liberal, Dame Rachel Cleland. It is not just the extreme green movement, which we heard being denigrated by the previous speaker.

Public opinion in Western Australia has consistently opposed the logging of old-growth forest, especially for purposes such as woodchipping and charcoal logs. The people of Western Australia are concerned, as I am, that we are logging old-growth forests—and these options continue it—without proper regard for their value, especially for future generations. This report, which is to lead to the WA RFA, is deficient in several important respects, all of which, I might say, appear designed—as this bill is—to avoid the close scrutiny of interested citizens. In other states, at least maps and detailed descriptions of the areas to be reserved and those to be logged were made available. Western Australians are apparently to be kept in the dark about the specifics.

In this options report, there are no maps, and specific forest blocks are not named, although they are well known to Western Australians. The government in Western Australia are apparently trying to avoid mobilising opposition which they know is certain once blocks such as Giblett, Jane, Gardner, Sharp, Hilliger and Hawke, to name but a few, are identified as candidates for logging. It is not made clear in the report whether any of the options outlined are ecologically sustainable or on what scientific basis they might be assessed. There is, in general, a dearth of data in these reports and a dearth of argument about biodiversity, heritage and other core values, which were supposed to be respected. Also, there has not been a careful and objective assessment of the employment consequences of the stated options or any strategy to deal with any structural unemployment as there has been, for example, in New South Wales and Tasmania.

At the outset, both state and Commonwealth governments recognised that there would need to be financial provision and planning for structural adjustment since some scaling back of the native timber industry was inevitable. This is to be provided in New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria but apparently not in WA, since there is no mention of structural adjustment in the options paper. This clearly signals either the intention to continue what is clearly an unsustainable level of exploitation of native forests or the desire to maximise the threat to, and hence the objection from, those who may stand to lose employment without such adjustment—and I suspect the latter.

At the same time, the economic and employment values associated with other industries such as tourism and recreation, and the opportunities that could be provided through agroforestry, are not given any serious attention by the authors of the report. There are also considerable grounds for suspicion about the accuracy of both the definitions and the measurement of some of the key targets and values—problems which were evident during the time of the former federal government and which do not appear to have been remedied in this options paper and, presumably, would not be in the final RFA.

The result of all of this is that any remaining forest of high commercial value—and, incidentally, almost always of high conservation value—is likely to be open to clear-felling and woodchipping and not to any value adding employment. Those objections are clear in Western Australia, but they apply to all future agreements as well. We know the deficiencies in these options in my own state, yet we are being asked to sign off on this and others that we have not seen.

This bill assumes that without parliamentary scrutiny the management agencies in the various states will do exactly what they are legally required to do—I suspect that that will not always be so; there is no guarantee of it. For example, in my own state, in recent court action, the Department of Conservation and Land Management argued explicitly that it was not bound by the Environmental Protection Act or the Wildlife Conservation Act and, sadly, the Supreme Court agreed. So they can do whatever they like with our own conservation and wildlife acts. In WA, at least, compliance with laws and regulations would appear to be discretionary. They will be removing the Commonwealth controls as well, if this legislation were to be passed.

In addition, in this legislation the native forest industry has been offered very wide ranging exemptions from national laws on heritage, environmental protection and so on. In other words, this bill not only locks us into values that are already under challenge in some parts of this country, including in my own state, but also denies the possibility of taking into account any advances in scientific thinking about biodiversity and the damaging effects of logging, for example, and clear-felling.

When these agreements were signed initially, when the national forest policy was signed up to, it was never envisaged—and I underline the words `never envisaged'—that the Commonwealth would abrogate all power and responsibility for forest conservation and the timber industry to the states. That simply was not contemplated. This legislation would make the termination of any of these agreements virtually impossible, no matter what the circumstances, and, as we have heard already, it would probably require massive compensation to an already heavily subsidised industry. In my view, it represents not only a further capitulation by this government to very narrow vested interests but also a failure to provide for the future for the plantation industry generally, for agroforestry, for the wood and paper industries. These have been completely absent from the government's thinking. At the same time, the legislation further erodes environmental protection measures and increases the wholesale forest clearance for low grade exports such as woodchips and whole unprocessed logs—something the union now objects to, quite sensibly. It is effectively exporting our heritage and our jobs. What we need are independent reviews by this parliament and others of each regional forest agreement to determine the extent to which they meet the Commonwealth's national and international commitments and obligations and the intentions of the original agreements.