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Wednesday, 15 July 1998
Page: 6113

Mr McARTHUR (12:25 PM) —Members of this House, including the honourable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr Campbell), will recall the blockade around the parliament in 1995 when the Labor Party were unable to resolve the matter of the regional forest agreements. There was conflict between the conservationists and the timber industry, with the timber industry wanting security of tenure for their product for a long time. We well recall the conflict within the Labor Party. Minister Beddall, we understand, was basically on the side of the timber industry but he was run over the top of by Senator Faulkner, who at that time was the minister for the environment. So we had a major argument within the Labor Party and it took Senator Bob Collins to sort out the mess. All the timber workers from the south-east forests and all around Australia blockaded in Canberra for 10 days to focus Australia's attention on this fundamental argument of providing jobs for regional Australia and providing security of tenure for the timber industry.

The Regional Forest Agreements Bill 1998 finally, under a Howard government, provides security of tenure for the forest industries, provides jobs in regional Australia and makes sure there is long-term access to that timber product. The regional forest agreements, as members have alluded to in previous comments in this House, have been worked out coupe by coupe with a fundamental assessment of forest areas done in a particular area state by state. That was done by scientific assessment and genuine forest rationale, rather than the emotional hysteria which has surrounded this debate for so many decades. It was done by those officers of state departments who have had lifetime experiences of observing forest practice. They ensured there was a proper scientific analysis of good and bad timber, of old-growth forests and of those areas that should be locked up for conservation purposes. Then there was an agreement by the federal government and their departmental officers, taking into account the state recommendations.

The RFAs, as everyone would be aware, take into consideration biological diversity and heritage values, with the locking up of certain forest areas and the management of forests in a sustainable, long-term manner. Again, a very important aspect of the general thrust of those people interested in forest matters is that the areas can regrow, and we have seen examples of those areas that were cut 20, 30 or 40 years ago or which were burnt out by fire and which have now regenerated into massive important economic units of forest.

The RFA for East Gippsland has been concluded quite successfully, I might say, although there was a lot of debate on some of the criteria. I see at the table the member for Braddon (Mr Miles), who played a very important role in ensuring that the RFA for Tasmania was concluded on a scientific, sensible, reasonable basis, taking into account the timber industry of Tasmania which is the major industry of that state. That state depends largely on that industry for its growth, its wealth and its long-term future. There has been so much debate around Australia on that industry, and the member for Braddon ensured there was a sensible outcome for the regional forest agreement in that state, ensuring that certain areas were locked up and that other areas were used for sustainable timber production.

The RFA for the central highlands of Victoria has been concluded satisfactorily, in my view, although there was a certain amount of debate about final demarcations of certain areas in terms of whether they should be kept because of heritage values or used for the sustainable production of timber. There are another nine RFAs to go. They are in the south-east forest area and the northern area of New South Wales and there is one in the Otways, which is in my own part of Victoria in the seat of Corangamite.

The current legislation before the House, which I strongly commend, ensures that the state and federal governments work together. The state legislation will ensure that there is continuity of wood supply from the forest reserves and that there are binding agreements between the state authorities and the timber companies. The federal government, in return, has ensured that there will be no export controls imposed under the Export Control Act 1982, especially in relation to woodchips. There is special reference to the Australian Heritage Commission Act and the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974. If the federal government wishes to terminate any of these RFAs, it must have the consent of the states.

The important feature, however, is the incorporation in this legislation of compensation payable if either party reneges from the agreed RFA position. That is what the timber industry is looking for—that is, a commitment by state and federal governments to long-term responsible planning processes. Those people associated with the timber industry—the timber companies and the timber workers in all the jobs, particularly in Tasmania and in the south-east forests—are now assured that although governments may change over the next 20 or 30 years, these agreements will be adhered to. If they are not, then compensation will be payable. I am delighted that the government have seen fit to incorporate that in the legislation so it ensures that governments will not easily move away from these RFAs that are agreed to by both the state and Commonwealth departments.

So, after years of debate, we finally have legislation in this House that has solved the very difficult and complex problems of state and federal jurisdictions, of the arguments between the environmentalists and the logging industry and, of course, of the other fundamental argument of logic and scientific assessment of the coupes and the RFAs compared to an emotional, political argument of the conservationist to use the forest argument to further other causes. Fundamentally, at long last, we do have this legislation backed up by this compensation clause.

In my own territory in Corangamite, the RFA in the Otways is up for negotiation and settlement. Hopefully, because of the experience in Victoria, there will be some sensible outcomes in that area, there will be an evaluation of good quality sawlogs, the residue that will be used for woodchips will be allowed for and the industry, which is a good industry in the Otways, will be able to continue to harvest that in a long-term sustainable way and yet retain those heritage values that those people based in the cities and a number of people in Australia are keen to maintain.

I conclude by commending the Midway woodchip operation at Geelong, which takes in the residue woodchips and the second-grade timber from other areas around Victoria, particularly the central highlands and the Otways. This material is woodchipped and then exported and provides export dollars from material that otherwise would have been burned. It is a very good operation. It ensures that these products are used, that exports are generated and that we do not create pollution in the atmosphere.

I commend the legislation. I commend all those people who have taken a sensible view. The member for Braddon, who is at the table, has had a lifetime interest in this parliament in this matter. He has provided a very intelligent assessment from the industry's point of view and has taken account of the conservation values that are required, particularly in his home state of Tasmania. The member for McMillan (Mr Broadbent) has fought a long battle, both political and personal, and the member for McEwen (Mrs Bailey) and the member for Eden-Monaro (Mr Nairn) have had a very close interest and support for the timber industry. I hope that this legislation will, at long last, put to bed those ongoing arguments, give a sense of future, a sense of security, and maintain the jobs for all those people in regional Australia who are so closely associated with the timber and forest industries.