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Monday, 23 August 1999
Page: 7476

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (1:55 PM) —In the few minutes left before question time I wish to speak on a particular part of the Regional Forest Agreements Bill 1998. The Democrats believe that there are so many problems with this bill, deceptively short looking bill that it is, that we have each chosen to address separate areas of the bill. In particular, I would like to look at the fact that it unfairly discriminates against the plantation industry. The national forest policy statement is claimed to be the impetus behind this regional forest agreement legislation. I note that in the explanatory memorandum to the bill it states that the bill gives legislative support to the RFA process `as part of the implementation of the National Forest Policy Statement'. This is a total distortion of that forestry policy statement. The RFA process seeks to add more subsidies and completely and utterly entrench Australia's forest industry in our native forests, with a large part of the RFAs meaning that native forests are woodchipped and sent overseas.

The NFPS is fundamentally based on the transition from old-growth forests to regrowth and plantation timber forests. However, the regional forest agreements process and the legislation not only seem to completely ignore the plantation sector; they provide no information from that sector and also significantly disadvantage that sector.

With the information that has been made available to the Senate committee on this matter, it is difficult to believe that the Commonwealth and the states have accidentally overlooked the trends in the timber industry, the goals of the NFPS and the considerable propping up given to the native forest sector at the expense of the plantation industry. The forests issue in parliament, and often in the media, has largely been portrayed as a stoush between loggers and environmentalists, and while I am sure that is a very convenient stereotype to perpetuate, the truth is rather more complex. The Australian forest industry is now more a plantation than a native forest industry, and this will become more and more so as time goes on. However, an observer would not learn this from listening to those in this chamber who profess to represent the forest sector or the forest communities or glean such an understanding from consideration of the RFAs from the RFA legislation.

Perhaps nothing emphasises the flawed nature of the RFA process and legislation as much as its failure to consider the largest forest resource, the only increasing forest resource, the largest sector of the industry and the generator of the most employment and the best prospective employment outcomes. Evidence to the committee from a number of witnesses to appear before it certainly gives rise to the suspicion that the native forest tail may be continuing to wag the forest industry dog, because many of the major companies involved have interests in both sectors. Their political imperative has been to protect a highly subsidised and privileged access to a public resource, the native forests, ahead of using relatively unsubsidised or more directly or appropriately costed plantation resources.

The Democrats understand that it is natural for those who have interests with extensive subsidies in possession to resist any methods or any changes that might actually threaten or seek to reduce those subsidies, but on this issue the Democrats would prefer to see applied the so-called level playing field rhetoric so often heard from the government. This alone would do much to preserve native forests, protect biodiversity and reduce social conflict, and it is likely to do so while boosting employment, contributing to gross national product and fostering regional development. Instead, the Australian community is being subjected to a prime example of doublespeak. The stated goal of the process is to develop internationally competitive forests and forest based industries. The explanatory memorandum to the legislation says that it is intended to implement a national forest policy statement which has as its stated goal a transition from native forest exploitation to plantation harvesting.

Debate interrupted.