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Thursday, 11 November 1976

Dr JENKINS (Scullin) -It is obvious from the attitudes expressed in this debate that honourable members accept this as a holding piece of legislation and that the more vital debate will take place some time in the future. That is in contrast to the spirited debate that accompanied the 1972 renewal of the softwood forestry agreements. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Uren) has been wise in expressing the concern he has. I believe that such concern must always be in the forefront of consideration of these matters.

I have some concern. The Government has referred a number of factors contained in the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation on the softwood forestry agreements for examination by bodies which previously had a preconceived view of the matter in that they had prepared material for the Forwood Conference and, indeed, had given evidence before the Committee. I am not suggesting that there was any conscious act on the part of those people examining it. But I suspect it would be rather difficult, having made up one's mind that a certain course of action was right and that certain facts were beyond question, to sit back and remove oneself from that opinion and express a fresh opinion because of the recommendations that were made.

In discussing the softwood plantings, perhaps we should realise that much of the debate in regard to this matter is like much of the debate with regard to other agricultural products. The questioning in the community of the need for further clearing of land for plantings of other crops applies just as much to softwood plantings as it does to many of the grains. After all, in those crops we are dealing with material that is used for food. Many members of the community are interested in the very versatile material that comes from this crop- timber- in the building of their homes. That is a versatile material that can be put to many uses. The foresters have shown that they are extremely competent in growing the crops, particularly softwood. The softwoodspinus radiata and so on- enjoy an excellent prospect of growth in Australia because of the freedom from pests found in their countries of origin. During the course of the inquiry into this matter, the parallel was drawn constantly between the growth of eucalypts in California imported from Australia and the growth of softwoods in Australia. Eucalypts are growing very well because of the lack of their natural predators. With the rapid rate of growth of softwoods, we are talking about a 20-year to 25-year cropping instead of the 80-year cropping in trying to regenerate hardwood forests.

Added to this concern and questioning that has built up in regard to the clearing of further areas for the growing of crops, with these agreements we have the fact that most of the growth is taking place on public land. The farmers growing the crop are public fanners. They are employees of the various State governments. There is a massive injection of public money. Of course, the end product goes into private industry. I suppose that that is fair enough in the economy where it is used for useful purposes, provides employment and so on. But it means that there must be a heightened public interest in the programs that are carried out. I referred to the rather spirited debate that took place in 1972 with the renewed agreement. I remind honourable members that, at that time, we were in Opposition. It was before the Australian Labor Party became the government. An amendment was moved to the Bill which sought to establish the agreements. The spirit of the amendment was not in opposition to the Bill but criticised the failure of the then Government to prepare and to publish in consultation with the States a national plan for: (a) The full use and development of Australia's forest resources; and (b) the conservation of existing hardwood forests and associated flora and fauna in relation to softwood plantings. At the time, the first Government speaker, who followed the mover of that amendment in the debate, referred to it as frivolous. I do not think that present honourable members would accept it as a frivolous amendment. What was being said was what the Deputy Leader of the Opposition put today which I think would be accepted, that is, that we cannot look at the softwood agreements in isolation from the other forestry resources.

At some stage we have to consider what we do about the total timber industry- the total forestry industry- for economic and resource reasons in addition to the environment and conservation aspects that have been mentioned. I make passing reference to that debate. I think it is well worth reading. One point shines through in it and that is the importance of economic considerations in making judgments on these matters. The Tasmanian members of the Australian Labor Party Opposition at that time were most vocal in discussing the legislation because so much of the economy of that State depended on the softwood plantings that took place there. I think that they properly talked of those matters.

I turn now to the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation which dealt with the reference on the operation of the Softwood Forestry Agreements Acts. It was a report in which I had a great interest as Chairman of the Committee at that time. After some months of consideration of the matter, I must admit that I was becoming pretty sick of pine trees. I would not have cared if I never saw another one. We took the trouble to see how these plantings were carried out in the various States. We examined not only the principles being used in the growth, actual farming and harvesting of the crops but also what measures were taken to ensure protection for the natural environment and the natural flora and fauna. There was a great difference among the States on that matter. Of course, because of the importance of our overseas suppliers, we visited New Zealand to look at that country's resource. I think that honourable members who have read the report of that Committee will have noted the summing up contained early in the report of the need at the time for that type of inquiry. There had been an intense polarisation between the timber industry and those who were talking on the conservation side. The Committee summed up that argument on page 2 of the report in these words:

The Committee's report will attempt to be fairly representative of this debate.

That is the debate that was going on at the time.

It hopes that by placing the issues in perspective a national approach to the future legislation can be reached. Due to the complexity of the problems connected with forestry and the paucity of knowledge on its environmental and social effects, this approach may appear to be cautious. It is hoped that by considering all the elements adverted to in this report, that caution will be seen to be justified.

I believe that that statement is just as valid now as it was then. It is a matter for caution because of the involved nature of forestry, and because of the difficulty in divorcing from a consideration of softwood forests consideration of hardwood forests, the preservation of native forest and many natural features of our environment.

If we examine Australia's timber resources we find that Australia really has very little quality forest for its area. If we take a liberal view- I spell that with a small '1', not a political '1'- Australia has less than 6 per cent of its land in forest. I made the point earlier about public involvement, and there should be when of that 6 per cent, 78 per cent is publicly owned and some 35 per cent of that is dedicated to timber production of all sorts. So there should be still greater scope to use our native forests if we apply proper principles to that use. There must be an appeal when talking of softwood forestry plantings for consideration of proper use and the proper use of alternatives. One of the great arguments for the softwood program revolves around the demand that without softwoods would be made on our native forests which, as I mentioned before, have an 80 or 90 year regeneration cycle and would be incapable of regenerating and keeping the flow of timber going.

Along with this we are told that there is an impending shortage of softwoods from overseas. In relation to that suggested impending shortage, the Committee was given varying views, and it depended on which side of the Tasman you were, about the availability of New Zealand softwood resources for Australian use. Because this matter is so tied up with the New ZealandAustralia Free Trade Agreement and the general economic structure of both countries the Committee was unable to make a firm decision. This is one area in respect of which the Parliament should ask the Government: What is the situation from the Government's point of view with regard to the future reliability of softwood from New Zealand? We believe that substantial encouragement could be given to Australian companies to get long term contracts for supply from New Zealand. We were assured in New Zealand that it had the capacity to supply and would look for such long term contracts. New Zealand certainly can grow softwoods very well. Admittedly it can do so because it has just about completely destroyed its native forests, in the North Island at least. I hope that we would not want to follow New Zealand's example in that sense. I would like further information about the supply of timber from New Zealand and what firm commitments we could get before we make a final decision on the new agreement.

Arising from that would be factors which determine the extent of our future softwood planting program. Obviously when talking of a crop that takes the length of time that this takes to grow there must be a deal of forward planning to see that we would have a harvestable crop at the time when it will be needed to be used by industry. In looking at this question the Committee suggested that the predicted planting rates were too high, and here again it took the cautious approach. Against that it felt that the financial commitment under the old agreement was too short to be effective and that if the softwood program was to continue at the diminished rate further consideration should be given to more certainty of finance. Certainly more frequent examination should be made of the predictions for use, the progress of the plantings and the likelihood of the material being available. These are the sorts of things that we need to be informed about if we are to make a proper judgment on the fresh agreement when it comes up.

I do not think that the Deputy Leader of the Opposition (Mr Uren) was being too harsh when he asked that this sort of information be made available to the House, because it is basic to the whole question of land usage and the proper financing with public monies of a public crop that will be used by private industry. My colleague the honourable member for Petrie (Mr Hodges) made some comment about the environmental hazards of softwood forestry. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition referred to the obvious- the lack of undergrowth, the lack of secondary growth in softwood forest areas and they are the features one can see when examining these areas. The things that do concern us are more hidden; for example, the effect on, say, the quality of water in these areas. In fact, the areas might be quite stable and there may be no effect on the water quality but to date one has the impression that too little examination has been done in the way of environmental impact statements for the foresters or the public bodies concerned to be able to say with certainty that water quality, the habitat for our native fauna and a number of other matters would not be affected. So the appeal for environmental impact statements is a reasonable one.

Another matter that arises, and this was exhibited fairly well in Victoria, is the necessity for the States to give some consideration to appropriate land use bodies. There was intense public interest in how the determination for the use of land for this and other purposes was made. I mention in passing the importance of proper land use bodies at State level which are able to specify the areas and to ensure that there is proper use. As I said earlier, we must also consider the clearing of native forest for other crops. There is a lot of land being cleared for taxation advantage and its clearing is quite ineffective in respect of the growing of productive crops.

Reference has been made to marginal farm land as being an appropriate type of area for softwood planting and that view requires further encouragement. All in all, I welcome this legislation and hope that answers to enough of the questions that have been raised seeking further information will be given before the next agreement comes forward, and that there will be a sound inquiry into not only softwoods but also the whole of our timber resources and the general question of forestry to give us guidance in the future.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time-

Message from the Governor-General recom mending appropriation announced.

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