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Monday, 23 August 1999
Page: 7474

Senator COONEY (1:36 PM) —We are debating the Regional Forest Agreements Bill 1998 . As you well know from your experience in Tasmania, Mr Acting Deputy President Sherry, this is a very emotional issue, and so it should be. There are great issues, and everybody realises there are great issues. For example, there are the issues of jobs and economic sustainability. On the other hand there is the issue of the symbols of our nation, the things that make us Australian, those things of the mind and spirit which we want to maintain. It is not by bread alone that the world lives.

The dilemma that these conflicting demands make is set out in the legislation itself—the Regional Forest Agreements Bill 1998—where it says that any agreement entered into in accordance with this legislation must take into account environmental values—including those for old-growth wilderness, endangered species, the National Estate, world heritage, indigenous heritage—the economic values of forested areas and of forest industries, social values and the principle of ecologically sustainable management. The difficulty with all these principles, which no doubt everybody would agree upon, is this: who is to decide what the evidence is to which these principles are to be applied?

This is the great problem in this area: you send one expert out and he or she sees a pristine piece of forest that should be preserved no matter what, whereas another expert goes out and says it is a very poor showing of tree growth—it is in the area of decision making on the facts rather than on principles. As I understand it, everybody says, `If there are jobs to be obtained, they ought to be obtained,' and those who cut the timber down say, `Yes, we want to preserve the environment,' but the issue is: what is the right judgment about a particular area or indeed about the whole of the country?

In deciding that issue there are different ways of looking at things. Last week I was in Sydney, a fine city, with my son on the shores of Bondi beach and we were looking for the whale that got everybody in Sydney so excited—and so it should. As I understand it, it is a right whale, the sort of whale that used to be harvested. We did not see the whale but lots of other people did and they were very excited about it. Is that whale a thing of beauty, a piece of magic upon the waves, a matter that raises the spirit, or is it a resource that can be harvested? What is the answer to that question? The answer in the case of that particular whale is clearly that it is a matter of magic. It was a moment of magic that you could look upon the waves and see the whale, and it is certainly not a resource to be harvested.

Who is going to decide those issues? We already make such judgments within the community. We say that the carp which pollute the river systems of my state are certainly not worth saving. We certainly say the Murray cod should be preserved. These are simply instances of the great questions, and they are the sorts of questions upon which this parliament ought to have a say. The regional forest agreement concept was developed by the Australian Labor Party when it was in government. It is a concept that hopes to gather together around a table, metaphorically at least and in the right spirit, a number of people who can come to some agreement about how our forests are to be treated.

As elected representatives of the Australian people, we have an overriding obligation to see that agreements about how the resources of this country should be used are right and correct, not only legally but also in terms of what is best for Australian citizens. It seems to me that, as this regional forests legislation presently stands, there is no concept that parliament will in any way have a say in the agreements that are made. It seems that these agreements will be made just between states, between the ministers of the various states around the country. I do not deny for one minute that they will go about the task with every intention of getting the right result for their state. Nevertheless, we as an elected parliament must have a say in whether or not the particular agreement is a good or bad one. Otherwise why are we elected? How can we responsibly shut ourselves out from the task that we are elected to perform? The questions about our natural resources and of what is magical in Australia and should be treated as such—as things of the soul and things of the heart, as distinct from resources to raise income—come up again and again. When they are discussed, they should be discussed as far as possible in a dispassionate way with one side respecting the other.

I acknowledge that Senator McGauran, who knows Gippsland well—he grew up there—came in here to put the position as he saw it. He went a bit far when talking about demonstrators and protesters. He said that the protesters were, in large part at least, social welfare cheque recipients. I do not know whether there is any evidence for that but, even if they were, does it mean that people who receive social welfare cheques are not entitled to protest? He talked about timber trucks surrounding the Western Australian parliament, and he said that that was a good protest. Although he did not say this, the inference was that it was because they were protesting about the right thing. This legislation will be able to work only if the people who come to it come with respect for each other. This is an area that requires not the smart line of denigrating the other side but a debate and, ultimately, an agreement based upon mutual respect.

There are certain areas of life which will always lead to debate. One of those is industrial law and what goes on in the workplace. There will always be debates about that because, on the one hand, the employer wants to make a success of the business and to make a return upon it and, on the other hand, the employees want a fair return for their labour and want to work in safety in a way that enables them to go about their social life. There is conflict in those two positions which will forever lead to legislation.

It is the same with Corporations Law. We have to pass laws that enable entrepreneurs to go about taking that risk which is likely to produce income, likely to produce new ideas and likely to lead to a better lifestyle. They have to be allowed to go about their business of being businesspeople. Against that, we have to have laws that restrict people so that they cannot dishonestly take from shareholders what is properly the shareholders' due and so they cannot treat the environment in such a way that it becomes degraded, such as the oil spill in Sydney Harbour recently. So you will always have conflict in that area. You will also always have conflict in the family law area, and that is so notorious that I will not go into examples.

The regional forest agreements are a category where there are difficult issues. It can be very hard to work out what the right decision is, and the right decision might change from time to time—what is right now might not be right three or four years down the line. It is for that reason that there should be some oversighting by this parliament of the agreements. There should be some exercise on the part of the institution elected by the people of Australia to see whether or not the agreement in this most vital area has been properly dealt with.

On the issue of how timber is to be treated, Australia has some magnificent forests. The magnificent forests down the west coast of Tasmania and in the highlands of Victoria are the ones I know best, but I have also been into the Daintree forest and through Kakadu. To dismiss the greatness of those forests and to have them destroyed is, in the minds of some people, beyond acceptance. We want to live in a world where our feelings can soar high and our souls can be uplifted. Timber has been exploited forever, and we should be very careful when exploiting it or similar areas. It seems to me that, as this legislation now stands, there is not that check upon the people who will, in effect, be controlling all those areas from now on.

This legislation simply gives some legislative underpinning to an agreement. It does not set out the agreement itself. It defines certain terms that will be used in the agreement, and it defines them in terms which it is hoped will strike that very difficult balance between exploitation and those things of the heart and the soul that I was talking about. It says that the Commonwealth cannot terminate an RFA except when it is done in terms of the provisions set out in the RFA. There is nothing in the legislation itself that says how it is to be terminated, and I would have thought that that was a most vital issue. I would have thought that that was the sort of thing that this chamber—indeed this parliament—ought to have some say about. Section 5 of the bill says:

(1) RFA wood is not prescribed goods for the purposes of the Export Control Act 1982 .

It goes on to say in subsection (3):

The effect of RFA forestry operations must be disregarded for the purposes of the following . . . the Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975 . . . the Environment Protection (Impact of Proposals) Act 1974 . . . the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983 .

They are vital acts. They form a body of legislation that should not lightly be put aside. They are acts of this parliament. So any agreements made on the basis that those acts do not apply should certainly be subject to an oversight by this chamber. If they are not, it means that governments and government officials in the various states can ignore the legislation that we have passed as a parliament—legislation that has gone through both the House of Representatives and the Senate, been signed off by the Governor-General on behalf of the Queen and then come into law. That legislation can be set aside without this parliament having an opportunity to see what is put in its place.

The legislation put to us by the government comes from ideas that were put forward by the Labor Party when it was in government. The opposition, the Labor Party, now says that that idea ought to be fleshed out, ought to be executed in terms that allow a responsible government and a responsible parliament to carry out their functions. That is why we press the amendment.