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Thursday, 21 October 1999
Page: 10171

Senator MURPHY (12:22 PM) —I have never heard such extraordinary claims about a piece of legislation and its value. The minister for forests would have us believe this is the be-all and end-all for everything related to forestry; that it will guarantee Tasmania will get a pulp and paper mill; and, indeed, it will guarantee that somehow we will have sustainable forestry as a result. The minister's representative, the parliamentary secretary, Senator Troeth, said a number of things in here yesterday. She said:

. . . the consequence of the opposition's amendments would be the immediate cessation of woodchip processing in all areas except those where RFAs were signed before 1 March 1999, because the exporters would have no guarantee that their product could be shipped.

Nothing could be further from the truth. If I did not already know that the parliamentary secretary knows very little about this matter, I would accuse her of deliberately misleading the Senate.

The fact is that woodchip exports are dealt with under the Customs Act. There is no way that a delay of this bill, its non-passage or the amendment of it will have any impact on the government at a Commonwealth level or state governments getting approval for woodchip exports. That is simply the fact. Nothing that the parliamentary secretary said yesterday could be further from the truth, but I forgive her because I know she does not really know the processes relating to the granting of export woodchip licences. She went on to say:

The mere fact that Senate approval was required would prevent a woodchip exporter from processing residues.

Again, this is a blatant misrepresentation of the facts; no way is that the case. She further said:

Timber mills would either close or lay off workers, and contractors would be unemployed. These impacts would hit hardest in small mills where sales of residue play a larger part in cash flow.

She got the last part right, because residues do play an important part in the cash flow of small sawmills.

Nothing in this bill, amended or otherwise, will have any impact on that. The biggest impact on small sawmills in this country are the decisions made in the boardrooms of North Forest Products, Boral and others. That is where they stand to lose, because those people take decisions about the amount of money they pay them for residues. Indeed, even under the Customs Act, there is nothing that can prevent the domestic processing of wood in this country. Under the Constitution, the Commonwealth has no control over the domestic processing of wood, that is, the processing of timber in this country.

I am sure some senators would recall the debate about the Wesley Vale pulp and paper mill. If they do recall, they will understand what the facts are in respect of this matter. The minister said that unless we passed this legislation Tasmania would not get a $2 billion pulp and paper mill. What a load of rubbish. The parliamentary secretary said:

There would also need to be a freeze on industry development . . .

Even with RFAs there has been a freeze on industry development. There are a whole range of other reasons, which I will go into further if I get the opportunity. The parliamentary secretary further said:

Therefore, the only thing that these amendments are achieving is delaying the bill until after all the RFAs are signed and preventing the government from getting on with the job of restructuring the industry under secure RFA regimes.

Nothing in the RFAs will allow the Commonwealth to get on with the job of restructuring the industry.

Although this legislation may claim to do a number of things, essentially it is designed to do one thing. It commits the Commonwealth to the payment of compensation should the Commonwealth breach a regional forest agreement. That is essentially all it does—nothing more, nothing less. A regional forest agreement is a signed agreement between the states and the Commonwealth and it is already in place in some states. It is an agreement regarding the conservation and preservation of certain areas, and other areas which are available for commercial forestry.

I say to the parliamentary secretary: read the bill. That is what it does. The parliamentary secretary says that the effect of the amendments proposed by the opposition will bring the forestry world to an end. What a load of nonsense. It has no effect. It is a disapproval process. A constitutional question was raised by the parliamentary secretary. As I understand it, the Constitution indicates that the Commonwealth cannot make a law for part of a state or a law that has different application to other states or parts of other states, but in this case the amendments would not have the effect of making a different law. There is nothing wrong with the parliament reviewing a process. We do it with a number of other acts and processes when we review what is proposed to be put in place. With regard to the constitutional aspects of this matter, at the end of the day a state or a region within a state gets an RFA. It may not be the RFA that was initially proposed for whatever reason, and I have my own personal views about that process. However, the reality is that we ought to deal with the facts in this place.

Finally, I did not think I would ever hear this statement, but somehow the $2 billion trade deficit in the pulp and paper industry has been thrown up at us. If the government is really serious about doing something about that, it would not be worrying about a major debate on this piece of legislation. It would get on with the job and actually give this industry some direction. The government would take the sort of direction that can be taken at a Commonwealth level in conjunction with the states and bring about some real industry development.

This piece of legislation will not guarantee that. We have had a regional forest agreement in my state for 12 months. Despite the grand claim made by the former minister—I think it was Anderson—along with the Prime Minister that a thousand jobs were going to be created, not one has been. In fact, we have probably lost 500 or 600. Let us not try to concoct stories about how important this piece of legislation really is. It is important for one reason; and at the end of the day it is not all that important for that reason, because the opposition in this place, both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, cannot stop the government from paying compensation to a state.

Remember, it is the government that has to make the decision to take action against the state if it feels it has not complied with the regional forest agreement. It is the government; not the opposition, not the Senate. If you read the bill, there is a certain process even for the Commonwealth to terminate a regional forest agreement. But at the end of the day it is the government that makes that decision, as it is the government that will make the decision to issue woodchip licences, if it deems fit, for the export of woodchips from areas that are covered by a regional forest agreement, whether or not it is certified by regional forest agreement legislation in any form.

It is about time that this minister and a few others around this place stopped saying that somehow this legislation is the fundamental underpinning of the future of the forest industry in this country—because it is not. We proposed an amendment other than the one for disapproval, and that was to set up a Wood and Paper Industry Council. To my mind, it was one of the most important aspects of this legislation because it would have put back into regional forest agreements something that would have had some effect, to actually lead this industry to some appropriate development. But, oh no, we could not get that. The Democrats—some of whom indicated to me that they would support that proposal and who I thought were going to support the proposal—did not support it.

Senator Brown did support it. Despite the fact that I have had many disagreements with Senator Brown over time, his environmental credentials are way ahead of those of the Democrats. He at least was able to grasp the nettle in respect of the relevance of having an industry council that actually, from my point of view—and I know he understood this—gave workers the opportunity to have a say, albeit limited, in the future direction of the development of their industry. But that was lost on the Democrats. So we now propose another amendment which goes to the setting up of another form of a council.

I have to say to Senator Greig that he has to understand that despite the fact that he may have a view—and I know Senator Brown has the view—that we should not be harvesting wood from native forests, the reality is something different. If we are going to have harvesting of native forests—and whether you or I like it, at this point that is not going to change—what we ought to do is put in place a mechanism through which there is some say about the utilisation of the wood that we take from those forests. That is what we ought to do. That is why we ought to have a Wood and Paper Industry Council in the legislation—not a stupid advisory council proposed by the government that is not unlike the one they set up before, even though they gave a commitment to the national forest policy process that they would adhere to the council to which we, when last in government, gave a commitment. I say to the Democrats that that is why we want a Wood and Paper Industry Council—because it is the one small aspect of this whole process whereby you might be able to drive some appropriate utilisation of a very valuable resource that in many respects right now is being wasted.

I ask the Democrats to think about that because it is an important aspect. I agree with the Democrats that in looking at the use of commercially available forests, that is, where you harvest forests, be they native or plantation, then environmental issues ought to be taken account of. That is an important aspect of it. That commitment is even in the government's bill in terms of ecologically and sustainably managed forests.

So I have no problem with any suggestion about including environmental representatives on an industry council, but what is important is that we move towards sustainable utilisation of the wood that we take from our forests. We have no guarantee that that will be the case in a regional forest agreement. We have no guarantee in this legislation, without an amendment that goes to the setting up of a forest industry council. That is why, when we proposed our amendment, we wanted it in legislation—not something that the government proposed to set up by regulation, because it will not work. It did not work before; it is just another farce. I say to the Democrats: think very long and hard about that because fortunately we have been given the opportunity to move the amendment again and I would hope that after consideration you will support it.

I say to the parliamentary secretary: you had better understand clearly what this bill is proposing to do because I think at the moment you do not. We will question the government. I will ask you at some point where you think one of the amendments that we propose to move will block export woodchips. I want you to provide some evidence of that.