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Wednesday, 28 March 2001
Page: 25965

Mr ZAHRA (11:51 AM) —I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Primary Industries and Energy Research and Development Amendment Bill 2001. Essentially, the legislation provides for a change in the nature of funding for the Forest and Wood Products Research and Development Corporation which would allow for an increase in Commonwealth funding from $1 for every $2 raised from the industry levy to $1 for every dollar raised from the levy. The opposition welcomes that. The shadow minister for forestry and conservation, the member for Reid, Mr Laurie Ferguson, made that plain in his remarks.

We also understand that this industry is a critical one for rural and regional Australia, and that it craves certainty. I will pick up some of the remarks that have been made by the shadow minister for forestry and conservation in response to an interjection from the member for McEwen a little earlier. She talked about the RFA bill, which we have all given much consideration to and have talked about quite a bit in this place previously. The member for McEwen said how important that was. In responding to the interjection, the member for Reid said that, to a large extent, the reasons for Labor's opposition to the RFA bill have been removed. He also made these remarks when he addressed the national conference of Timber Communities Australia on 10 March in Lilydale, Victoria. I commend the member for Reid for his remarks on this issue and welcome this step forward in relation to the debate. I am sure he would not mind if I quote some of the remarks that he made in addressing that conference. His remarks were very well received by the delegates to the conference. This is an extract from what he had to say:

I suggest that there is limited value in constantly replaying old battles.

He was talking about some of the old battles in forestry. He continued:

Our shared challenge is to see if we can discern a way forward.

The member for Reid went on to say:

In certain respects the prospects for doing so have very much improved since the Western Australian State election. The need to empower the Commonwealth Parliament to formally disallow RFAs has now rapidly diminished as an issue. Future progress lies in the reintroduction of the RFA Bill, which the Government set aside as long ago as December 1999. The Commonwealth Minister can no longer offer or receive secret undertakings in respect of Western Australia. Whether Canberra likes it or not, it has no choice but to deal with the elected State Government. That means we now feel less anxiety about the disallowance issue. However, we do certainly feel that there can be far better reporting to the Commonwealth Parliament on the progress of the overall RFA process, and in each State and RFA region.

Providing all key players approach the matter in a positive and constructive fashion the prospect for securing bipartisan passage of Commonwealth RFA legislation is extremely good. For my part I can assure you that I will make every effort to secure such an outcome. I would hope that others would do the same. Together we must move swiftly to provide the industry with the certainty we all desire.

These were the comments which the member for Reid, the shadow minister for forestry and conservation, made on 10 March 2001 at Lilydale, Victoria, in relation to the RFA Bill. I endorse completely his remarks in relation to the bill and, in particular, support his call for some bipartisanship in relation to this issue. I know that the Minister for Forestry and Conservation is at the table at present, and I know that he would have heard those remarks reported back to him from people involved in the timber industry and from those delegates who attended the Timber Communities Australia National Conference.

It is a very sincere offer which the member for Reid is making to the minister—to cooperate and to find a way forward in relation to the RFA Bill—and this is what people want to see. They want to see cooperation. They do not want to see finger pointing, they do not want to see disagreement between those of us in the federal parliament who are in the Labor Party and those who are in the Liberal Party; they want to see us, together, find a way forward. I know that in the past there have been a lot of partisan games played in relation to the way that forestry policy has been managed, but I very much believe that that is just old politics. That is not the politics which people in timber communities want to see. They want to see cooperation, security, serious industry policy and ways forward which will see more value adding, secure long-term jobs and growth in the timber industry, which is so important to so many parts of rural and regional Australia. That is our approach. I sincerely hope that the Minister for Forestry and Conservation will take on board the remarks which I am making and which the member for Reid made in his contribution to debate in relation to this bill.

There have been quite a few developments in my electorate in relation to the forest industry. We have had some substantial concerns raised about the sustainable yield figures which have been prepared by DNRE in Victoria. I have some very grave concerns in relation to the way DNRE have handled this issue and to DNRE's competence in producing these figures. We have all been very much disappointed by the way they have conducted themselves, and it has created a whole lot of uncertainty in the timber industry in my electorate.

Given that this was the situation, though, it was my view that we needed to get a message out to people that this was a matter which needed to be dealt with seriously, just explaining to people that there was a lot of effort being put in by the state government and by stakeholders to deal seriously with this issue. To that end, I called a public meeting, which we held at the Neerim South Community Hall, the J.D. Algie Memorial Hall. We had people there from right across central and west Gippsland. I invited the 12 or 13 timber companies in the district to come; to their credit all of them did come, and they shut down their timber mills for a period of time so that all of the workers and their families could come as well. That meeting was to discuss the best way to deal with the DNRE figures in relation to sustainable yield.

So who did we have there? We had Michael O'Connor, from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union; Graeme Gooding, from the Victorian Association of Forest Industries; Ian Maxfield, the state member for Narracan, in the area most affected; Rosemary Barker, the chief of staff to the Minister for Forestry and Conservation in Victoria; all of those timber companies; and the council. And I was there chairing the meeting, to which some 350 people came, and heard reports back to them as to what the state of play was.

What came out of that meeting was a very unambiguous statement and a very clear conviction, from all of those people I have just mentioned, that we want to move this issue forward to make sure that not one job is lost, not one timber mill is closed as a result of this issue. This is the approach that people want to see. They want to see us all come around the table together, agree on the principles of keeping jobs in country towns and commit to the future of this industry and the people who rely on the industry for their livelihoods.

So we had this meeting, which was very positive. I think people went away from that meeting feeling that they had given a very clear indication to the state government that this was an issue which profoundly affected them and their community and something which they took very seriously. At the same time, there was a very clear statement from me and other decision makers in our district that we were very much backing the community and the industry and were working collectively to make sure that there was a positive outcome for the industry and for the communities which depend on the industry. That was one small example in my electorate of the way forward in relation to dealing with issues on the forest and forest products sector. People want to see that cooperation and people want to see action being taken by governments to achieve those ends which they view as being important—mainly long-term secure jobs, a growing and thriving industry and support for those people who depend on that industry in those country towns.

The state government moved very quickly in relation to this issue. The state Minister for Environment and Conservation, Sherryl Garbutt, last week announced that key stakeholders had agreed to a strategic framework to progress the renewal of native timber harvesting licences in Victoria. That is very welcome. The framework will be headed by a peak strategy group which will receive information on volumes of timber available for harvesting in Victoria from an expert data reference group and a licensing working group—also a very welcome development.

The peak strategy group will comprise the secretary of DNRE, Ms Chloe Munro, and representatives from the Victorian Association of Forest Industries and from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. This is what people want to see. They want to see a government involving key decision makers in this type of process. We do not want a process that stands away from the people who are going to be most profoundly affected by any decision which the state government make in terms of the renewal of licences and how they deal with these sustainable yield figures.

Now we have a process headed by the most senior person in DNRE, Ms Chloe Munro. We have a process which has her at the same level as Michael O'Connor from the CFMEU, who obviously represents the workers from the industry, and Graeme Gooding from the Victorian Association of Forest Industries, who is obviously representing the industry. The workers have a clear point of contact in that whole process, and obviously the industry and the timber mills have a clear point of contact in Graeme Gooding, who heads up the Victorian Association of Forest Industries.

The expert data reference group will be chaired by the Professor for Sustainable Forestry at the Southern Cross University in Lismore—Jerry Vanclay. This group will advise the peak strategy group on all timber resource related issues and is expected to report within three months. I think most people would agree that having Professor Vanclay's group provide independent expertise to examine the validity of the current timber resource data is vital to ensure that the decisions made by the state government in relation to licence renewals are based on the best possible and most accurate information.

So this is a welcome development. I commend the state government for getting on with it and dealing seriously with this issue. I think it is really a credit to the people of central and west Gippsland that, when I called this meeting, we had such a large and overwhelming response, despite the fact that it had to be organised at very short notice—I think we gave people something like less than two weeks notice. I was very pleased, when I arrived and helped set up the hall, to see just how many people had made the effort.

I spent a bit of time in those communities in my electorate which depend upon the timber industry for their livelihood. These people have great spirit and great courage and they are working in a very hard industry. It is a tough industry. Everyone understands that the workers, the timber millers, have family involved, and they understand that it is a tough industry. But it is also an industry which has a fantastic future. We need to ensure that the industry heads in the direction of increased value adding. We need to give it resource security and provide the support it needs in terms of incentives for value adding in industry policy. Through the legislation which we are discussing today we will see a greater focus on research and development. I welcome the legislation that we are dealing with today which will see an increase in funding, small though it is, to the Forest and Wood Products Research and Development Corporation.

As I mentioned before, this debate has been characterised by a lot of rhetoric for at least 10 years, and probably for a long time before that. I appeal today to those people on the other side of politics who represent timber communities and to the Minister for Forestry and Conservation, who is at the table now, to put aside their partisanship and get on with dealing with those issues which are important to people in those communities. I think we owe them that. We owe them a serious response to the issues which they are confronting. We have on the table a very serious offer which has been made by the member for Reid in relation to the RFA bill—to deal with the bill constructively, find a way forward and try and find some agreement so that we can get the legislation in place and provide that security for people in the industry. The member for Reid mentioned very starkly and plainly that a lot of people who attended the national conference of Timber Communities Australia raised that as an issue with him, which they saw as a very important issue. To his credit, he has been prepared to listen to that feedback and to make that offer to the Minister for Forestry and Conservation, which is something that I welcome.

There is no doubt that these timber towns, these small country towns which depend on the timber industry, really do need our support and encouragement in terms of providing appropriate incentives for research and development and value adding in those timber mills. In my electorate, I have got a number of small timber mills which have not focused enough on value adding. When I go to those communities and see how dependent they are on the timber mills, having regard to how many people in the town work there, I can observe that not enough has been done at those timber mills in relation to value adding.

We have got a lot of great success stories in my electorate in terms of value adding. Companies in my electorate have led the industry when it comes to value adding and the development of export markets. That is exactly what we want to see. Most of us who represent electorates where there is a vibrant timber industry understand that ours is unquestionably one of the most progressive timber industries in the world. We must look at ways in which we can encourage the timber industry in our nation to face the world, better understand the export opportunities which exist in terms of our products, and provide that security and encouragement for them to get on with value adding and increasing investment in their timber mills and operations.

I welcome this bill. It is a step in the right direction. It is a small matter that we are discussing today—the increase in the government's commitment from $1 for every $2 raised to a dollar for every dollar raised. Nonetheless, it is a welcome development. The Minister for Forestry and Conservation now has on the table a very serious and sincere offer from the shadow minister for forestry, the member for Reid, in relation to the RFA bill, and more generally in relation to matters to do with the forest industry. It is up to him as to how he responds. I know that people in my electorate who depend on the timber industry for their livelihoods will be hoping that he will respond in a mature manner and will take that offer seriously. I look forward to hearing the remarks of the minister for forestry, and I commend the bill to the chamber.