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Wednesday, 15 July 1998
Page: 6110

Mr McGAURAN (12:05 PM) —I wish to direct my comments to the historic first regional forest agreement that was signed, namely, the East Gippsland RFA. It is true, as the member for Hotham (Mr Crean) says, that value adding is absolutely essential to any of our resource industries, particularly the timber industry in East Gippsland. But a prerequisite for extending into value adding furniture and wood products and the like is resource security. East Gippsland suffered decades of resource insecurity. It became the plaything of the environmental movement in conjunction with Labor governments both state and federal. It was an ad hoc policy for the region. The resource would be made available for a short period and then withdrawn, given back and then withdrawn for even longer. Surely nobody with any sincerity in either the federal or state Labor parties would argue that East Gippsland have had under their regime resource security. How could investments be made? There was no guarantee and often no hope of the supply of the resource which would then lead to value adding. The first thing this government had to do was to provide certainty for a secure investment climate. The RFA process achieves this by providing security of supply under the agreement for the next 20 years, although allowing for provision of a performance review every five years.

If I may, I will explain what the regional forest agreement means for the East Gippsland community. The population of the region is about 10,000 people, and 45 per cent of those live in Orbost, the major timber and tourism centre of the region. The rest of the population is obviously spread very widely throughout small communities, even hamlets. The local timber industry directly employs about 500 people and has a turnover of more than $50 million per year. It accounts for about 27 per cent of local manufacturing turnover and about 14 per cent of total Victorian saw timber production. There are about 20 sawmills in the area of varying sizes processing between 1,000 and 30,000 cubic metres of timber annually.

When the survey was taken under the RFA for the social impact, which is a very important initiative of the coalition government, in conjunction with the environmental, scientific and timber surveys, we found that nearly 30 per cent of East Gippsland households had a family member whose employment was dependent on the timber industries. So it hardly needs to be said that this is an absolutely essential and fundamental economic and social industry for a large part—in landmass at least—of Victoria, although I hasten to add that tourism is another key employer in East Gippsland.

Tourism provides about 300 full-time jobs at any given time, with industry estimates of over 2,000 jobs for part-time workers. In 1995-96, we discovered under the RFA process that about 600,000 visitor days were made to East Gippsland parks. East Gippsland forests are, therefore, important for a range of economic activities other than timber production—tourism, beekeeping and other industries.

The signing of the East Gippsland regional forest agreement on 3 February 1997 consolidated the major economic industry in the region. There was a great deal of cooperation, effort and thought invested in the RFA process, particularly given that this was the first one. It was essential that we got it right and struck a balance between conservation and industry development. I believe we have done that; I believe that we do protect wilderness, old-growth forests and the biodiversity values of the region at the same time as providing for ecologically sustainable development of the forest system.

It is particularly interesting that, while 90 per cent of the East Gippsland region is public land, 50 per cent of that land is within the comprehensive, adequate and representative—the CAR—reserve system. That way we get the security of investment because there is security of resource which provides that basis for investment in the timber industry so that we do go on to value adding and increase the number of jobs in the industry whilst at the same time we ensure that the community's legitimate expectations of conservation protection are met.

So it is a quite outstanding agreement that has been reached. So many people have invested so much of their time and intellect in the issue. There have been scientists, researchers, officials and community groups. Above all, it has been a credit to all those members of the public who took part in the very extensive consultation process locally throughout East Gippsland. There were workshops and public meetings.

I would like to congratulate the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy (Mr Anderson), who has spearheaded the RFA process and has overcome all of the bitter wrangling, political opportunism and sell-outs of the past. East Gippsland, I dare say, has been the worst of all the political footballs in the timber industry versus conservation—and that is saying something. Tasmanians may lay claim to that, and I am happy to surrender the title to them if the facts bear them out. It is not a badge of honour on our part. It has set back development of our region for decades.

Now we do have hope for the future. I do not pretend for a moment that hundreds of jobs are going to materialise overnight. There are always the economic vagaries of the industry itself which will be retardants on investment and growth in the industry, but when times are good we have to ensure the resource is available on an ecologically sustainable basis. The East Gippsland RFA does exactly that.