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Monday, 23 August 1999
Page: 7471

Senator McGAURAN (1:17 PM) —I join this important debate on the Regional Forest Agreements Bill 1998 , a significant national debate that we are having. You would have noticed that the previous speakers—all from their particular states—were able to reference the importance of this legislation to their particular state and region. While the bill has a national significance, it does have a more specific rural and regional significance, bringing with it environmental and economic advantages for the rural areas. In effect, it gives legal backing to the forest agreements—bringing certainty, to all intents and purposes, for the next 20 years, as the agreements hold. I have to disagree with Senator Allison, who seems to want more time to discuss these matters. It has been an absolutely exhaustive process, begun way back in 1992 by the previous government.

So it is very important that the legislation be passed. As the previous speaker has told us, the numbers weigh in very heavily in support of this legislation. But it was not always that way. We have now basically had the Labor Party opposition dragged kicking and screaming to supporting it. The irony of it all is that back in 1992 it was their legislation, their concept to produce regional forest agreements which we supported at the time. But as soon as they went into opposition they went cold on the idea. They saw a different constituency to appeal to, they backed off and could not support it—in the face of the importance of this legislation, in the face of the fact that they introduced it when they were in government, in the face of the fact that it employs 82,000 people, of which many, unashamedly, are their constituents: timber workers, true blue-collar workers.

It is in fact the second largest manufacturing industry in Australia, with a turnover of $11 billion. It should be noted too that we have a trade deficit in this industry: we import well over $1 billion—it could be up to $1.5 billion—of timber products. Yet we know we can create a sustainable and renewable resource to meet that trade deficit, to meet the employment requirements of so many unskilled blue-collar workers and to really have a rural and regional industry once and for all which is sustainable and down pat. The Labor Party in opposition did not support this legislation but now they tell us, thankfully, that they will—and we accept their support, graciously, I should add. But it is only because of the union pressure put on them. And that is good. This is where the unions do work. This is a good union working for their workers. The heavy pressure that the CFMEU put on the Labor Party has obviously paid off. Although they are seeking to move amendments, they are at least going to support the main thrust of this bill.

But their amendments are playing to another constituency, at the possible cost of their blue-collar workers. It was Mr Trevor Smith, the secretary of the CFMEU, who attacked the federal ALP, in particular Mr Beazley. I quote from a press release of Mr Smith's some months ago regarding the amendment that the previous speaker, Senator O'Brien, was foreshadowing:

Moving an amendment which is inconsistent with the National Forest Policy Statement and commitments given by previous Federal Labor Governments is a disgrace . . .

What we have here is the ALP demonstrating a lack of process, a lack of nerve—

well, of course—

and a huge lack of common sense . . .

It is a pity that those who need to show strong leadership in this area failed their responsibilities.

While the CFMEU does not support the ALP amendment and signals the dangers of the amendment, it certainly has, at the very least, dragged you to support this legislation in its third reading.

The importance of this legislation, as the explanatory memorandum points out to us, is that the RFAs are a central focus of a package of measures designed to implement the national forest policy adapted by the Commonwealth and all the states and territories in relation to native forests. The completion of an RFA for a region will ensure the following: firstly, the long-term protection of environmental and heritage values through the establishment and management of a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system and, secondly, the ecologically sustainable management and use of native forests outside that reserve system. To date we have had three RFAs signed—East Gippsland, Central Highlands and the Tasmanian regions. The process of assessment and negotiation of the RFAs is currently under way in the nine other regions. In total there are 12 RFAs.

As I said previously, in 1992 the Commonwealth and the states and territories signed the national forest policy statement, which outlined agreed objectives and policies for the future. It provided national goals in 11 areas which indicated the breadth of the forestry issues that needed to be addressed by the Commonwealth: conservation; wood production and industry development; integrated and coordinated decision making and management; private native forests; plantations; water supply and catchment management; tourism and other economic and social opportunities; employment; work force education and training; public awareness, education and involvement; research and development; and international responsibilities—11 areas of national objectives.

A regional forest agreement is an agreement between the Commonwealth government and a state government about the long-term management and use of forests in a particular region. Its purpose is to reduce the uncertainty, duplication and fragmentation in government decision making by producing a durable agreement on management and use of our forests. There are three broad criteria, for biodiversity, old-growth forests and wilderness. Firstly, a benchmark of 15 per cent of the pre-1750s distribution of forest community is to be protected within the conservation reserves. Secondly, there will be retention in reserves of at least 60 per cent of existing old growth, increasing up to 100 per cent for rare forest community old growth. Thirdly, there will be protection of 90 per cent or more, where practical, of high quality wilderness.

As I pointed out to the Senate, in Victoria the East Gippsland and the Central Highlands RFAs have been signed. I particularly point out East Gippsland, my home territory, to point out the advantages of a regional forest agreement. Arguably, East Gippsland was, before the agreement, the most studied region of the state from the perspective of land use with extensive public consultation. They had exhausted it; in fact, it had become a political football. It had become a centre of protest and study. Anything to delay the process or to bring the industry down was used in East Gippsland. For example, back in 1977 the LCC—the government, in effect—commissioned a study. In 1983 another study on the East Gippsland area was commissioned—an alpine study. In 1985 there was a Victorian timber industry study. In 1986 there were another two. All this held up the growth of the industry and created enormous uncertainty.

There were huge protests at the time. In 1987 there was a review of the previous study—can you believe it? In 1990, then Minister Crabbe made a decision—another study. In 1991 there was the LCC rivers and stream study and another LCC wilderness study. In 1992 the federal government Resources Assessment Commission undertook a timber inquiry. In 1994 there was an old-growth study undertaken. These were all undertaken in this one particular region, which is not a particularly massive one. In contrast, the regional forest agreement, when signed and backed by this particular piece of legislation, will be set for 20 years. Can you imagine the uncertainty the timber industry faced under all those studies? We know only too well about the disruptive, sometimes violent and certainly socially disruptive protests that were undertaken in the East Gippsland. The town of Orbost was subjected to an invasion of protesters, many of whom were, it was proven at the time, simply taking social welfare cheques and becoming full-time protesters up in the hills—chaining themselves to tractors or climbing trees. Quite frankly, they would do anything for a 10-second grab on the 6 o'clock news.

They achieved more by the signing of the RFA in the East Gippsland than they ever did previously. In East Gippsland we were able to meet and in many cases exceed the nationally agreed criteria that I have just read out. That means that at least 15 per cent of the pre-European distribution of each type of forest, at least 60 per cent of old growth and 90 per cent of wilderness have been protected in East Gippsland. In addition, the RFA has ensured that processes are in place to ensure the forests of East Gippsland are managed in a way that is ecologically sustainable. Senator Abetz will be interested to know that there is still a residual of protesters in East Gippsland—you never quite flush them out of the forest. I think some of them just enjoyed living full time in the forest, and there is nothing particularly wrong with that, as long as they use the stream more often than they did.

Senator Abetz —Was Senator Margetts flushed out of the forest?

Senator McGAURAN —I suspect that Senator Margetts has gone back to the forest. There is nothing wrong with that; that is a good, healthy lifestyle. But let us face it: it is proven that they are all taking their social welfare cheques and becoming full-time protesters in the forest. However, I digress.

The protesters in East Gippsland have failed to acknowledge that an additional 1,200 hectares of the Goolengook forest have been protected in a dedicated reserve as a result of the RFA and that the environmental values of the Goolengook are well represented in the overall reserve system. That is proof positive, and East Gippsland is a classic case, of the benefits of the regional forest agreement. The regional forest agreements have been applauded by many within the environmental movement. It is only some on the fringes who will never be brought to the table of agreement. It does not suit their political purposes, their economic purposes, their social purposes or any purpose—name it and it does not suit them. Senator Brown represents them. You cannot bring them to the table. They do not want to be brought to the table. Their whole lifestyle will collapse if they come to any sort of agreement where there is a sustainable industry where people can be employed, where there is an economic advantage and where you can balance one against the other.

As I say, Senator Brown represents them, but he is in a small minority, I believe, within the environmental movement. The World Wide Fund for Nature has given great credit to this government's environmental policies, in particular its RFAs. Let me quote Dr Claude Martine, the Director-General of the World Wide Fund for Nature, which is a most respected—or noted, I should say—conservation group. He said that Australia's policy for the conservation of forest biodiversity and protected areas significantly exceeded the minimum goals of the WWF. That is not the boxing federation, it is the World Wide Fund for Nature. Dr Martine, the Director-General of the WWF, said that it was very impressed with Australia's program for conservation and sustainable use of forests. That is a pretty big tick.

But we are not just stitching up 20-year agreements to bring certainty into the industry. We got no credit from Senator Allison for this, but we know that running parallel to this we have to have an incentive system in place for plantations. The more plantations you have running parallel to a forest policy, the less trees you have to cut down. We support that policy. It will take many years to get it to the stage that we would want, but we are seeking by the year 2020 to treble the number of forest plantation estates we have in this country. That is a goal we believe is perfectly achievable, and we believe it should be acknowledged. Australia has an estimated total plantation estate at the moment of over a million hectares. To achieve the goal of trebling that will require the establishment of about 80,000 hectares of plantation per year, or two million hectares over 25 years, and we are on track to achieve that goal. We have in place incentives and codes of practice in relation to achieving that particular goal.

More than that, we have encouraged the industry to the tune of over $100 million in relation to structural changes that in many respects the regional forest agreements will bring about. The adjustment program will assist the native forest industry businesses and workers affected by the introduction of such agreements. Further to this, we have allocated over $31 million to wood and paper industry strategies to promote growth and investment in the forest industries, including greater downstream processing, value enhancement plantation development and farm forestry. Under the Natural Heritage Trust of Australia, a further $36.5 million over four years has been provided to the farm forestry program. So there is a flip side to this, and that is the encouragement of the plantations.

We believe we are at last bringing order into this most troubled industry and we are giving it legislative backing. And at the final hour we have the support of the opposition. So the parliament in fact gives great support to this legislation. Gone will be the days when timber trucks surrounded this Parliament House in one of the biggest, most vigorous protests we have ever had at this parliament. I cannot think of one bigger or worse, or more damning of the then government. Gone will be those days, hopefully. Gone will be the days when all the conservation movements were able to band together to bring down this industry, to create havoc in our forests, to take enormous political advantage in the run-up to an election on this particular issue, to blow it out of proportion and to exaggerate and misrepresent the issues. It will all be down on paper, signed and agreed to. There will certainly be hiccups along the way; nothing ever runs completely smoothly. But we have brought a degree of stability and certainty into this industry, and I urge the Senate to support the bill.