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Victoria: Premier reveals $80 million has been allocated to assist sawmillers affected by the overhaul of the forestry policy.

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JOHN HIGHFIELD: The axe has fallen, literally, on timber communities in Victoria who are facing cuts to their industry of up to 80 per cent in an effort to save dwindling forest reserves. The Premier of Victoria, Steve Bracks, revealed this morning that $80 million has been allocated for a compensation package to help sawmillers and loggers cope with the overhaul of the forestry policy. A recent report said that Victoria needed to cut logging right across the state by a third to be sustainable, with overlogged areas to face much bigger cutbacks.


Well, it has certainly happened, and it means that hundreds of jobs will go in some of the most vulnerable regional areas of Victoria. Business reporter, Zoe Daniel, in Melbourne.


ZOE DANIEL: Two billion dollars a year flows into the Victorian economy from the native timber industry and employs 15,000 people in forestry and related business. Country towns in some of the most marginalised areas of the state rely on it, but an independent report shows it’s time for change.


JERRY VANCLAY: If we continue to try and halve the present rate, do nothing, don’t change ...culture, then within about 10 years it would get sufficiently hard to find big trees that were interesting to log; the logging industry would just die out. So if we want to maintain an industry we have to take these tough decisions now.


ZOE DANIEL: Professor Gerry VanClay from Southern Cross University in New South Wales. It’s his independently verified report, commissioned by the Victorian government and released late last year, that’s become the final catalyst for change. After years of lobbying from environmentalists who want logging phased out, he’s put scientific evidence on the table that the government can’t ignore.


JERRY VANCLAY: It’s very easy to get the impression that there’s lots of forest out there, so if you go to the forest and you stand there subjectively there is the impression that there’s a lot of wood there. So if you have that mindset when you look at figures, there often seems to be a tendency—not just in Australia but in a lot of other countries—to err on the high side in doing calculations. So when you come up with a long-term timber supply calculation, you really need to be cool and rational and look at the figures that underpin this rather than looking at subjective impressions.


ZOE DANIEL: This morning the Premier, Steve Bracks, has announced compensation to offset dramatic cuts to logging quotas across Victoria. In overlogged areas like the Wombat State Forest in the Midlands logging will be cut by almost 80 per cent. Already high unemployment areas like East and Central Gippsland will have their quotas almost halved.


KIRSTEN GENTLE: They’ve forgotten to take into account the people, and the fact is to the government, and our message is, biodiversity does not vote but people do.


ZOE DANIEL: Kirsten Gentle from Timber Communities Australia is outraged. She doesn’t trust the figures in the report being used by the government, and doesn’t expect the compensation package to go far enough.


KIRSTEN GENTLE: The fact is instead of putting 67 million into some development on the South Bank for yuppies to go down and have a coffee, how about they start concentrating on the people that voted them in and about not just one or two jobs but about the communities that will absolutely die because of their result.


ZOE DANIEL: Unions are planning strike action to protest against job losses from today’s announcement and are seeking meetings with the Premier. Michael O’Connor from the CFMEU says at least 600 jobs will be lost immediately.


MICHAEL O’CONNOR: We will operate on a system of no fear nor favour—Labor governments, Liberal governments, ... or Greens, we will take every peaceful democratic action we can to protect the interest of our members and their communities.


ZOE DANIEL: The government will offer sawmills the chance to retire licences early under its $80 million compensation plan. Many of the state’s 70 mills have invested heavily in new plant and equipment based on government projections that logging rates were sustainable. A ministerial task force will coordinate community development programs to encourage new industries in timber-reliant districts. Obviously Green groups have welcomed the move, among them the Wombat Forest Society, and spokeswoman Laurie DeClouet(??).


LAURIE DECLOUET: I think it’s very brave of the government to take on board that they’re facing a collapse of the industry if they continued cutting at the rate that was being cut, and something had to be done to smooth out the crash that we were facing in a decade’s time in other areas of the state.


ZOE DANIEL: The government will form a new organisation, VicForests to manage native forestry. It will have an independent board and be accountable to parliament. It will look at helping some communities phase out logging altogether.


JOHN HIGHFIELD: Business reporter, Zoe Daniel, had our story in Melbourne.