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Monday, 23 August 1999
Page: 7467

Senator O'BRIEN (12:57 PM) —I want to deal with some matters pertaining to regional forest agreements which have been entered into in anticipation of the passage of Regional Forest Agreements Bill 1998 in order to highlight the strong grounds which underlie the opposition's position to support this legislation with amendments. I remind the Senate that we do not take the position of the minor parties which are reported as being adamant that the legislation ought to be defeated. For that reason, our position is in contrast with the position of the minor parties. That should not be a surprise because that is the position that the Senate legislation committee minority report, to which I am a signatory, committed the Labor Party.

I want to touch on some comments which were made over the last three or four days at the Liberal Party conference in Hobart—with Mr Howard attending—and some comments which have been made about this particular piece of legislation. In the Hobart Mercury on Friday, the Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, was alleged to have said that Labor's amendments would undermine the Tasmanian agree ment, that is the RFA, that he doubted that they would pass and, if they did, the government would use its numbers in the lower house to defeat it, effectively bringing about a stalemate. I take that to be an accurate representation of the position of the Prime Minister and, unless it is contradicted in debate on this matter, that is what I assume to be the government's position.

It is curious then for the government, through its position as enunciated by Mr Tuckey and by the Prime Minister, to be accusing other people of seeking to undermine agreements already reached, particularly the Tasmanian RFA, when the amendments which Labor is pursuing in effect tick the Tasmanian RFA and the two regional forest agreements already entered into in Victoria, which were known quantities at the time that the Senate legislation committee completed its work inquiring into the legislation.

If I might digress, there is a tale in that in itself in that that piece of legislation was referred to the legislation committee late last year and there was actually a debate in this chamber regarding the reporting time to be allowed to that committee to consider the legislation. The government at that time insisted that the legislation be available to be debated in the first sitting week of 1999. That position was, in the view of the opposition, not a reasonable one, given the importance of the legislation and the fact that it would not be dealt with at the time that it was suggested it would be dealt with. The committee was given a small extension to report, I think, in the first sittings in March of this year, but who would have thought that debate on the legislation would not in fact commence—or certainly be concluded—in August of this year. One has to say that the timing of this debate has been a matter entirely in the hands of the government, yet the government has chosen to keep this legislation back and to have the debate now.

We have not sought to delay dealing with this legislation. The opposition has made it particularly clear that it took the position that the legislation ought to be improved by amendment, but that it was supporting the legislation—and, of course, with good reason, because the regional forest agreement process is a process which was initiated by Labor and which has the support of Labor. Labor believes that there needs to be some checks and balances in terms of the substantial protection that the Commonwealth legislation proposed in this bill would give to agreements entered into between a state and a federal government. For those reasons, we are pursuing amendments which would in effect have regional forest agreements which are entered into between state and federal governments subject to a disallowance process in this place.

The important fact to note, of course, is that the disallowance process proposed by Labor would apply to those agreements which were not publicly known at the time the Senate committee reported to the parliament. They included the Tasmanian RFA and the two regional forest agreements in Victoria. They did not, of course, include the subsequent agreement entered into in Western Australia which has been the subject of so much publicity—indeed a war between federal Minister Tuckey and Western Australia Liberal Premier Richard Court. The situation with regard to that RFA is probably one of the reasons that Labor's amendment should be supported. In that case, we have a regional forest agreement entered into between a state and federal government. We now have, prior to the implementation of the agreement, the state government seeking to change the agreement—to withdraw from aspects of it, to make alterations to it—in the face of sustained opposition to the original agreement from sections of the community: from the conservation movement, from the National Party in Western Australia and from within the Liberal Party's own ranks in Western Australia. And now we have a full-blown war between the federal minister, Mr Tuckey, and the Western Australian Liberal government over a regional forest agreement which Labor clearly says ought to be the subject of a disallowance process in this place.

How could the parliament have any confidence in an agreement which, prior to its implementation, one of the parties has sought to withdraw from or seek amendments to—I am not sure which is the correct term, but certainly make substantial changes to—the original agreement. That very circumstance highlights the justification for Labor's position in relation to regional forest agreements which were, at the time the Labor Senate committee reported, unknown to the parliament. As I said, of course that was in the knowledge that Labor was giving its support to the Tasmanian RFA and to the known Victorian regional forest agreements at that time.

What did we see on the weekend in Hobart? We saw those statements I have referred to by the Prime Minister and we saw a comment by the Liberal Leader of the Opposition in Tasmania, Mrs Napier, alleging, quoting from the Examiner of 22 August, that:

Tasmanian Labor senators were traitors to their State for meddling in our Regional Forest Agreement . . .

I must say Mrs Napier must have been particularly badly informed when she made that statement, given what I have just said about Labor's position on the Tasmanian RFA.

Senator Abetz —She was listening to Paul Lennon.

Senator O'BRIEN —Senator Abetz suggests she was listening to Paul Lennon, but I know that she would not have made that statement had she been listening to Paul Lennon. What she was doing of course was listening to her federal colleagues. She was listening to the Prime Minister, who I think was trying to beat the drum and to make an issue where there really is not one in relation to the Tasmanian RFA.

Mrs Napier ought to be careful in talking about matters that she obviously knows nothing about. She has obviously made those comments at the behest of the Prime Minister and her federal colleagues—and one can see what has occurred when she listened too closely to her federal colleagues, because she was then put in a position by Mr Howard suggesting that the Tasmanian Liberal Party should maintain a policy of selling Hydro, the electricity generating authority in Tasmania. Mrs Napier backed away from that particular statement at a hundred miles an hour, know ing that the Liberal government lost office in Tasmania at the last elections there on just such a policy.

Obviously, Mrs Napier had better be particularly careful about following in the footsteps of her federal colleagues because they will only get her into trouble. She should also be concerned by the Prime Minister's comments I referred to earlier—and I remind the Senate that Labor's amendments do not impact on the Tasmanian RFA in the sense that they are not intended to require that RFA to be the subject of disallowance process—because what she is effectively giving support to is the process that the legislation not pass at all. Frankly, that is more damaging to the Tasmanian RFA than Labor's position. Mrs Napier would want to be fairly careful about the position that she adopts or she will find herself hoisted by her own petard.

There is another quote on the matter from Mr Howard, speaking at the Liberal Party conference in Hobart at the weekend, in the Advocate today. It says:

Mr Howard told the Liberal Party State Conference in Hobart at the weekend, that Labor members were playing fast and loose on the issue.

You could certainly not say that the government is very fast on the issue because, as I just set out, the timetable for the processing of this debate, entirely at the hands of the government, has been anything but fast. In terms of the comment that Labor members were `playing fast and loose' on this issue, if anything is loose on this issue it is the cohesion between the Western Australian Liberal Party and the federal Liberal Party as to the RFA process and the agreement that has been entered into. On AM this morning, there was a slanging match, effectively between Mr Tuckey and the Western Australian government, where Mr Tuckey has been blamed in part by the Western Australian government for inflammatory comments which have led to the outrageous behaviour by certain people in relation to a protesters camp in Western Australia. I concur with comments made on AM this morning which deplore that action.

In terms of the overall impact of the legislation, there is no doubt that there is a need for federal legislation. That is the reason that Labor will support this bill. As I said, this is a matter of policy which was initiated by Labor. There is no reason why Labor will be backing away from supporting the principles which underlie this legislation. But having said that, Labor will not simply allow the legislation to pass without seeking to make it better and fairer. In terms of our amendments and particularly the amendment which requires future RFAs to be the subject of disallowance, Labor is of the strong view that there needs to be a process which requires some scrutiny of agreements entered into between the Commonwealth and states about particular areas, given that the agreements which are entered into under this legislation will become binding with the potential for substantial compensation to be payable by the Commonwealth in the future if an agreement is not adhered to.

If the parliament is now going to say, `We support the Commonwealth binding itself to providing compensation in the future to all future RFAs'—and we could be talking about regional forest agreements which are entered into many years down the track, and the agreements look likely to run for a period of 20 years in each case—then why should the federal parliament not have a say in approving or disapproving of such agreements, given the Commonwealth responsibility to pay compensation and the exemption from certain other Commonwealth legislation of areas covered by regional forest agreements?

We support the process of establishing the agreements. When that process is properly followed and when there is clear community support for an RFA, why should there be any concern? Why indeed? Can one say that about the Western Australian RFA, the subject of so much debate at the moment? The answer is clearly no. In such a case—and I do not need to create a fictional example because we have one in the Western Australian RFA—Labor's amendment would mean that Labor would be looking very carefully and making a considered decision on that particular RFA in the process of any disallowance motion which might be moved. Perhaps in certain cases Labor would move disallowance motions in relation to future RFAs. That process, to require that the matter be the subject of scrutiny, would obviously be available to any member in the House of Representatives or senator in the Senate.

With our amendments, if the parliament supports an RFA then it will have as much certainty as, or arguably more certainty than, it would have under the RFA legislation as proposed by the government without our amendments. There is the distinct possibility, once an RFA has gone through the disallowance process, that challenges would be made to an individual RFA in certain circumstances for, perhaps, want of administrative process or the like. There is nothing that this Senate can do to prevent that. But, having gone through the process of scrutiny in the parliament, the likelihood of success of any such action would be reduced because—one would have thought—any such deficiencies would have been raised in considering whether there was proper process in establishing the RFA in the first place.

So indeed our measure is arguably a measure which gives greater certainty. Does it shorten the period of the RFA? No. Does it limit the time at which it can be implemented? Yes, but effectively only by 15 sitting days from it being tabled—in the context of normal sitting patterns of this place by a fairly short time. In the end, is that not a better result if we obtain more certainty?

But if the case were to arise—I do not believe this will be the case, so I guess I am saying this as a cautionary note—that each and every RFA, including the Tasmanian and Victorian RFAs that were entered into prior to February this year, had to come before the parliament and had to be the subject of a disallowance process, then what is the problem in relation to those RFAs? I think everyone here can count—they would not be here if they could not—and the fact of the matter is that Labor has indicated that it is supporting those RFAs, and I take it that the government is, so 35 and 29 seems to add up to a lot more than 50 per cent of the Senate. I would have thought that would suffice to ensure that there would be no uncertainty about those RFAs in the future. I will be listening very carefully to what Senator McGauran is going to say, as I understand he is going to follow me—

Senator Abetz —It will be a lot better than yours.

Senator O'BRIEN —I hope so, Senator Abetz, because I hope the timber industry is not expecting him to support their case, given his record. I am reminded of the treble he predicted some years ago—was it that St Kilda, Manly and Peter McGauran were all going to get up and they did not? So just be careful what you say—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—Senator McGauran. We would not want you to jonah the case of the RFAs in your contribution.