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Wednesday, 25 August 1999
Page: 7663

Senator TROETH (9:49 AM) —I thank honourable senators for their contributions to this debate on the Regional Forest Agreements Bill 1998 . The bulk of the criticisms raised by non-government speakers about the bill focuses not on the bill but on alleged deficiencies in the regional forest agreement process itself. I must say at the outset that the government rejects those criticisms. The RFA process represents the most rigorous and scientifically based assessment of our native forest resource ever undertaken, including the biodiversity it supports and the regimes required to ensure ecologically sustainable management of that forest resource on a regional basis. It does not end with the signing of the RFAs. We should not gloss over the fact that RFAs are designed to provide both a blueprint for ongoing improvement in the management of our forests and a basis for an internationally competitive and ecologically sustainable forest products industry.

RFAs provide for a world-class national, comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system and will clearly identify those forest resources available for multiple use, including resources available for sustainable timber harvesting. RFAs and the comprehensive and transparent process that lead to them provide industry, environmental interests and the community with unprecedented certainty. However, it is clear that industry and environmental groups alike are concerned that future governments might simply walk away from such agreements. These concerns are under standable. That is exactly what previous governments have done when it suited them and what the current Western Australian government appears to be doing right now.

To address these concerns, the government has introduced this bill, which underpins, as far as the Commonwealth government is concerned, its commitment to the RFA process and its outcomes. This bill provides RFAs with the legislative backing to ensure that all Australians can have confidence in the long-term management of Australia's forest estate as far as the Commonwealth is able to do.

Clearly, control of native forests and lands rests largely with the states. However, through the RFA process the Commonwealth has been able to work with the states to ensure that, across all of Australia, adequate levels of native forest reserves are protected. At the same time, the RFA process ensures that the remaining forests are managed on a sustainable basis. The Commonwealth cannot stop individual states from unilaterally taking action outside these arrangements, but the Commonwealth can examine whether the state has breached the RFA and, if so, it can consider what action it might take to remedy the situation within the terms of the RFA. This legislation ensures that the Commonwealth will continue to ensure that its commitments made under the RFA are met.

In summary, the RFAs themselves remain the focus of the Commonwealth government's policy approach. It firmly believes that community and investor confidence in forest industries will be secured by strong RFAs which provide for ecologically sustainable management of our forests. This bill will add to that confidence. This is not to say that the government is putting all its eggs in one basket. Much has been said about the current capacity of plantation sourced wood to replace wood sourced from native forests. While these comments represent a simplistic assessment of the real situation, they also fail to acknowledge the great initiatives being undertaken through Vision 2020 to treble the area of plantations in Australia by the year 2020—a vision which is well on track.

As outlined in the second reading speech, the government is also taking action to facilitate industry development and higher value adding, particularly through the action agenda process, so that this country can play a positive role in the provision and utilisation of a sustainable resource in an international marketplace. That is why a vital and sustainable native forest industry is needed right now to ensure that we have a viable and sustainable forest and wood products industry into the future with both native forest and plantation based components. I have already stated that this bill provides a broad legislative base for RFAs, with each RFA including provisions appropriate to the region concerned. Consequently, the bill is concise, and it has been drafted to ensure that it can accommodate the necessary flexibility within and between individual RFAs.

One of the main objectives is to provide legislative rigour for RFA termination and compensation provisions. The bill will ensure that the termination of an RFA will have no effect unless done in accordance with the RFA's termination provisions. It will also ensure that the Commonwealth is liable for any breach it makes of an RFA while it is in force, even if the agreement is subsequently terminated or expires. The bill provisions will mean that the Commonwealth will not be able to agree to water down termination or compensation provisions in the future without legislative amendment. The bill also provides that the termination and compensation provisions in the RFA at the time of the commencement of the legislation, or the provisions which apply at the commencement of the RFA itself, whichever is later, will continue to apply.

The other main objective of the bill is to remove certain Commonwealth controls and restrictions which in the past have been used as an indirect means to attempt to control timber harvesting. Time and again the government of the day has been involved in a highly emotional and highly politicised imbroglio surrounding the issue of licences to export hardwood woodchips derived from native forests, as if this Commonwealth action could in any meaningful way ensure either sustain able levels of harvesting within a state or that that harvesting was undertaken in an environmentally friendly manner.

That process is in stark contrast to the RFA process, which is based on comprehensive scientific assessments of the environmental, heritage, economic and social value of forests in the region. Such comprehensive assessments conclude the Commonwealth's environment and heritage obligations in relation to forestry operations in the RFA regions. For that reason, the bill exempts RFA forestry operations from specific trigger provisions contained in current Commonwealth environmental and heritage legislation. Therefore, contrary to the claims of the Australian Democrats and the Australian Greens, there is no abrogation of the Commonwealth's powers in this respect.

I welcome the opposition's support, at least in principle, for the bill. However, the opposition has foreshadowed a number of amendments to the bill. The government will not be supporting those amendments on the grounds that they are constitutionally invalid, unworkable or do nothing to improve the effectiveness of the legislation. For example, the opposition will be proposing a mechanism so that parliament can disapprove RFAs before they are able to be signed and obtain the protection of the bill. The main concern appears to be that if the Commonwealth is going to exempt the operation of Commonwealth legislation on forestry operations under an RFA, it must be confident that the replacement regime is just as rigorous.

Without going into any detail at this time, we believe that this proposed amendment has serious deficiencies, both constitutionally and practically. The government also believes that adequate scrutiny by parliament is achieved through acceptance of the measures recommended by the majority report of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee, which recently reviewed the bill. That report recommended that, while the bill should be passed without amendment, each RFA should be tabled in parliament after it is signed; that the first five annual reports of the operation of RFAs should be tabled in parliament; and that the ABS be requested to, when compiling its annual survey of employment, compile comprehensive employment information for each RFA region.

The Minister for Forestry and Conservation, the Hon. Wilson Tuckey, MP, has already publicly welcomed the recommendations of the majority report. We agree that, in the interest of transparency and accountability, completed RFAs should be tabled in parliament. We believe that the Commonwealth parliament should focus on monitoring the implementation of all RFAs, and so agree that the annual report should be tabled in parliament. We also agree that better information on employment impacts is an important part of monitoring the implementation of RFAs, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics will be consulted about how it might best contribute.

I am also intrigued by the amendments to the bill to be moved by the Australian Greens. In his minority report, Senator Brown recommended that the bill be opposed. He is now proposing that the bill be passed with certain amendments. Is this a dramatic about-face? No, not when you examine those proposed amendments. Contrary to the national forest policy statement, which was adopted by all states and territories and the Commonwealth, it is still the Australian Greens' unbending goal to prohibit all logging from native forests. That goal is anathema to the government, and we will oppose the Green amendments. We will, however, be proposing our own amendment, consistent with the recommendation of the majority report, to establish a forest product advisory council; its functions and constitutions to be prescribed by regulation. I commend the bill to the Senate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Knowles) —The question is that the amendment moved by Senator Brown be agreed to.

Question resolved in the negative.

Original question put:

That this bill be now read a second time.