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Monday, 19 November 2012
Page: 8948

Senator XENOPHON (South Australia) (13:11): I indicate that I will be supporting the Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill 2012, notwithstanding that I have reservations about how effective it will be. Clearly, it is far from perfect. There is an old saying that 'The perfect should not be the enemy of the good' and I think that, on balance, this bill will do some good. If the opposition—and I say this respectfully—share the view that the issue of illegal logging should be addressed, then what alternative approach is there in respect of this so that it can be dealt with effectively rather than simply opposing the bill? That is what I got from Senator Macdonald's contribution and I respect his position on this. I do agree with Senator Macdonald that we do need to work closely with our neighbours, with Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. We have seen significant reports of corruption over the years in relation to illegal logging. Obviously, a cooperative approach, engaging with those governments, is the preferred course. But with good friends—as Papua New Guinea and Indonesia are to Australia; it is a mutual friendship, formed with very strong ties—we sometimes need to be not so much undiplomatic but more straightforward in our views and concerns about illegal logging.

Obviously, the committee stage of this bill will give us an opportunity to look at the potential effectiveness of this bill. I think this bill is, at least, a step forward. There has been wide consultation with the industry in relation to the bill. Industry is broadly supportive, although there are concerns about issues of red tape and effectiveness. I believe that we need to put this in context in terms of the evidence that has been heard by the committee and what is on the public record. This bill requires due diligence requirements to mitigate the risk of importing or processing illegally logged timber and, to me, that is important because without that sort of due diligence then the trade in illegally logged timber will continue unabated. We need to be aware of the impact of illegal logging, the level of corruption involved and the importance of tackling this issue. I see this bill as one of a number of steps and measures in tackling illegal logging.

At this point I think it is worth referring to the work that has been undertaken by Clare Rewcastle Brown. She is a British investigative journalist. She was born in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. She is the founder of the Sarawak Report website and Radio Free Sarawak. In terms of her biographical details she is the sister-in-law of former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, so she is also known by virtue of her relationship by marriage to the former British Prime Minister.

During a visit to Sarawak in 2005 to speak at an environmental conference, Ms Clare Rewcastle Brown was asked by local journalists and others who were concerned about the impact of illegal logging to help publicise issues of deforestation. When she began to investigate this issue, she was not able to enter the state of Sarawak; she was blacklisted, despite being born in Sarawak. She also received death threats. In February 2010, she founded the Sarawak Report. This is a blog that seeks to highlight the issues of illegal logging and the destruction of the tropical rainforests of Sarawak. They have made a number of serious allegations of corruption against the state government, which is led by Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud. These are matters that have been widely publicised due to her advocacy and that of the radio station, Radio Free Sarawak, which broadcasts into Sarawak to publicise these issues. Their DJ is Peter John Jaban, who is well known to the people of Sarawak.

These are issues that are in the public interest to publicise. The level of corruption associated with illegal logging is quite staggering. The profits made are staggering. This bill sets out a framework so that we can at least begin to tackle it.

It is also worth reflecting on a report about Sarawak on the ABC's 7:30 program last year on 14 April by Mike Sexton, an Adelaide based reporter. Mr Sexton made the point that Sarawak is blessed with natural resources, including stunning tropical rainforests. But during the 30-year reign of Taib Mahmud much of the forest has been cleared by logging and replaced with palm oil plantations. The deforestation has marginalised wildlife—most notably the orangutan, which is now an endangered species—and destroyed the lifestyle of the indigenous people, who traditionally live in communal homes known as long houses. Mr Sexton pointed out that the Sarawak government strenuously disputes the claims made by the radio station, arguing that it has a sustainable forestry industry and that it has delivered wealth and advancement, such as hydroelectric schemes. The home minister says that a police investigation has begun into what he calls 'the broadcast of malicious lies'. Obviously, the Sarawak government contests the claims made, although there have been investigations by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and there have been continued reports of threats and intimidation.

Most disturbingly, Clare Rewcastle Brown and Peter John Jaban decided to go public after one of their informants, a former Taib aide, was found dead in suspicious circumstances. These matters that I am referring to are on the public record. It is important to put into context the seriousness of illegal logging, the money that can be made doing it and the corruption involved. This bill will go some way towards demanding a level of accountability, due diligence and some basic levels of regulation, which will be of some considerable use. But it should be a building block for other measures to tackle illegal logging.

It is relevant in the context of considering this bill that the Australian timber industry has suffered because of illegal logging overseas. It has suffered because it cannot compete with cheap, illegally logged imports. That has cost Australian jobs and damaged the Australian industry significantly. I also note that, for instance, the Australian Network News recently, on 17 October 2012, had a story about the Premier of the Solomon Islands Guadalcanal province, Anthony Veke, calling on the government to act on illegal logging after a foreign logger was shot one weekend. This is an issue not just in Malaysia. It has been raised in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. This is an important and fundamental issue that this bill at least makes a genuine attempt to tackle.

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to meet with Tan Sri Bernard Giluk Dompok, who is the Minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities of the government of Malaysia. I discussed with him the concerns expressed by many with respect to the issue of labelling palm oil. This is not about getting people to not harvest palm oil but to ensure that it is sustainable. That means having a labelling system in force that will encourage greater production of sustainable palm oil, which is environmentally desirable. Several years ago, I introduced a bill, along with my colleagues Senator Bob Brown from the Australian Greens and Senator Barnaby Joyce from the Nationals—an unusual unity ticket if there ever was one—that sought to have palm oil products labelled. That is something that I still think is desirable. I am happy for other oils to be labelled also. I note that the opposition has shown some sympathy for that. The government has yet to act. It is important that this move should not be one against palm oil per se but about the way that palm oil is harvested. We need to make sure that it does not take place at the expense of forests being harvested illegally. The meeting that I had with Mr Dompok was a useful one.

I also had a meeting with Dr Jalaluddin Harun, who is the Director-General of the Malaysian Timber Industry Board. I must say that I was quite impressed with the approach of Dr Harun and his colleagues to the value adding of timber products. It is something that I have discussed with Michael O'Connor, the National Secretary of the CFMEU, who is quite excited at the potential for value adding of timber products, which would create jobs and is the future of a sustainable Australian timber industry.

So I think it is fair to say that the innovations through the Malaysian Timber Industry Board are very encouraging in terms of value adding, and that is clearly a relevant factor.

Going back to the issue of illegal logging, it is fair to say that there is widespread corruption. The allegations in Sarawak are incredibly serious—allegations of death threats, allegations of lives being lost—and that is very disturbing. I think this piece of legislation, by requiring due diligence to mitigate the risk of importing or processing illegally logged timber, will be useful. But I also think it would be useful for the Australian government to engage, as Senator Macdonald suggested—and I think quite wisely—with governments of those countries in the region where illegal logging is still a significant issue. But if it is the case that illegal logging in the state of Sarawak, for instance, is being sanctioned at the highest levels through the Sarawak government, then that is something Australia has to be outspoken about, and I hope this bill provides a vehicle for accountability of illegal logging that is taking place.

So I support this bill, and I look forward to the committee stages. And whilst this bill is far from perfect, I believe it contains a number of useful measures for accountability, for transparency and for due diligence that are long overdue.