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Monday, 19 March 2012
Page: 3286

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (16:48): I support the motion for disallowance put forward by the member for Lyne in relation to the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Regulations 2011 (No. 5). I congratulate the member for bringing this very important motion to the attention of the House. The motion the member has put forward is in line with the coalition's forestry policy on wood biomass and renewable energy. It was stated in the lead-up to the 2010 election that an incoming coalition government would reintroduce amendments to the renewable energy legislation, allowing for wood biomass to benefit from energy incentives available to other renewable energy sources.

Our support for the motion before the House today is entirely consistent with that policy position. However, the government's position on this issue is intellectually inconsistent, politically inconsistent and also environmentally inconsistent with the government's stated objectives. There is one party that has been consistent, and that is the Greens. The Greens have been consistent in their approach to this issue, because it is consistent with the Greens approach to destroy jobs in the native hardwood timber industry throughout Australia. So that is a consistent approach. The Greens will never be satisfied until they shut down the entire native hardwood industry in this nation. So the motive of the Greens in pressuring the government to this position is well understood.

It concerns me that we have an example, once again, of this government doing the bidding of the Greens at the expense of all other considerations. As I just said, the position being taken by the government in this is intellectually, politically and environmentally inconsistent with its objectives. It concerns me that we have got to the stage where we have Labor members opposite not prepared to stand up for the blue-collar workers in the timber industry that they pretend to represent in this place. It should not surprise me, though, because we have at least 40 members opposite who rely on preferences from the Greens to get themselves re-elected. So while this may not necessarily be an issue for some of the metropolitan members of this place, it is certainly an issue for many of the regional members and it should be an issue for every one of the Labor Party members who pretend to represent blue-collar workers in this place—and I am talking about members right throughout Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and of course Western Australia.

I am concerned that the government's amendment and the source of the disallowance motion by the member for Lyne is clearly discriminatory to the native-forest-harvesting industry. It seeks to omit any biomass derived from native forests, be they privately or publicly held, from being eligible for renewable energy credits under the Renewable Energy Target scheme. I think the member for Calare belled the cat quite well in his presentation earlier today when he referred to the lack of common sense in the government's position, because this amendment put forward by the government simply provides an opportunity for the Greens to claim another victory over the Australian Labor Party. It is deliberately designed to harm the native hardwood timber industry at a time when that industry is facing many other challenges. I simply cannot find a rational reason for the government's approach.

I know the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency just tried to explain the government's position. I would have to suggest to the minister, in his presence, that his heart really was not in it. He tried to justify the exclusion of biomass from the native forest industry for renewable energy certificates. I listened intently, but I am not sure it was the most passionate defence of a government policy that I have ever heard from the minister.

Government members interjecting

Mr CHESTER: It may be harsh, but it is true. In his heart, he knows that this amendment is simply indefensible, both from the perspective of his so-called clean energy package and from the perspective of a person who I generally believe cares about blue-collar workers and the future of the timber industry. I just could not get a sense that anything he said indicated that he was particularly passionate about the position his government was forcing him to adopt.

My concern is that some members are not listening to the debate as closely as they should on this particular issue and that the House does not quite realise that the use of biomass as a by-product from the native forestry industry is part of the economic model for the future viability of the timber industry. That is not to say that anyone is going out there suggesting—sorry, the Greens are going out there suggesting that people will go out and cut down forest for the pure purpose of generating electricity, but putting aside the Greens for a moment—this is anything other than a by-product or a waste product from the harvesting of native timber. There are already protections in place so that you cannot harness timber for the sole purpose of generating electricity and attract any of these renewable energy certificates. So that protection already exists in the legislation. It is simply not viable, and not particularly sensible, for anyone to go down that path anyway. Anyone in the hardwood timber industry is looking for the highest possible yield they can get from any given sawlog. The whole focus of the hardwood timber industry is trying to find value-adding opportunities where they can then get the maximum possible yield from an individual log. It would simply make no sense for them whatsoever to cut down trees for the sake of the biomass industry. The renewable energy certificates that were attached to the previous position of the clean energy package would assist in adding to the viability of the industry.

There is a classic example in my electorate with the timber mill in Heyfield. I do not have the exact figures—I am going from memory but I am pretty close to the mark. It processes about 150,000 cubic metres of regrowth ash from Victorian forests per year. It is a very big timber mill and is a viable operation on a world scale at 150,000 cubic metres. All its sawlogs are certified under the Australian forestry standard. There is a whole range of international and national standards that it meets. There are about 200 direct employees at the Heyfield mill. Sixty per cent of Heyfield's output of high-value hardwood is sold to Melbourne, to customers employing about 22,000 people. This is a very impressive operation at Heyfield.

In addition to that high-value end of the operation, where it is selling a range of products into European markets and into Melbourne, it also has the capacity to generate enough sawdust to provide eight megawatts per annum in its power station at the site. It has the capacity to do it, but it has not proceeded with this plan in the past because the running costs and depreciation associated with the electricity generation would result in a cost of 19c per kilowatt hour. The renewable energy certificates would return approximately 4c per kilowatt hour, making the price of electricity 15c per kilowatt hour. At this stage, Heyfield is currently purchasing its brown coal power for about 8c per kilowatt hour. Currently, only one-third of the sawdust is used for heat and steam generation to kiln-dry the timber and the remaining two-thirds is sold to the potting mix market. There is an opportunity here, and I have provided a classic example at a very local level in my electorate, to help ensure the future viability of that operation—as I said, this is not going to be the only reason the Heyfield mill keeps going—if it is in a position to access the renewable energy certificates and go down this path. For the government to exclude this obvious form of renewable energy is, I think, ridiculous.

Government members interjecting

Mr CHESTER: No, I did not suggest that the minister himself is ridiculous; I suggested that the government's position is ridiculous. I have said it is intellectually inconsistent with his government's own position on a whole range of other areas. It is clear to me that this is not about a climate change agenda but about fulfilling the Greens agenda for the native hardwood timber industry. With the waste classified as renewable energy, a business like the Heyfield timber mill can then compete more readily with exports. Without the change, business costs at this particular mill will be driven higher and the mill may then put itself in a position which is unsustainable.

I put it to the House that this is exactly what the Greens party wants out of this legislation. The Greens' political agenda is to shut down the native hardwood timber industry. I congratulate the member for Lyne for highlighting the inconsistency in the government's approach by bringing this motion of disallowance before the House because he raises a very important point. I am disappointed that there are not more members from regional parts of Australia from the Labor Party prepared to come in here and debate their case. They should come into this place and explain to me how the timber workers in their electorates will support them in this decision, because I am afraid that they will not. The timber workers I have met with want to remain viable in the industry into the future. I am very disappointed that members opposite are not prepared to come in here and defend their position. What we have seen is a very half-hearted attempt by the minister to defend their position, when I think in his heart of hearts he would prefer to be going down the path that the member for Lyne wishes to take the parliament here today.

In making that point, I encourage all of the crossbenchers to support the member for Lyne in his position, just as the coalition is supporting him in his position. I particularly encourage the member for New England because I believe he is a man who does understand an industry like the timber industry and how its future viability can hang by a thread. If we are going down this path, where the government is going to exclude them from a clear opportunity to be viable in the future, it would be disappointing if the member for New England were not to support his colleague the member for Lyne on this issue.

In the time I have left, I reflect briefly on a couple of points. The member for Lyne referred in his contribution to the current trade deficit in wood and paper products of about $2 billion per year. This is another example where, if we come into this place and are prepared to pass legislation, regulations or whatever it might be that discriminates against the native hardwood timber industry, we need to understand the downstream ramifications of doing that. We currently have in this country a deficit of about $2 billion in terms of the wood and paper products we bring in. There is legislation before the House now on whether we are going to take a stronger line in regard to products from illegal harvesting of timber in other nations. The point I am trying to make is that we have a sustainable hardwood timber industry in this nation which is heavily regulated, yet at the same time we are making it more difficult for that industry to compete with imported products.

This motion put forward by the member for Lyne and supported by the coalition will perhaps make it fractionally easier in the future for the hardwood timber industry in this nation to compete with these imported products from timber which is not necessarily harvested to anywhere near the same level of certification as our own timber industry is on a daily basis. Our industry already faces many challenges: resource security; cheap imported products; illegally harvested timber that I have just referred to; the carbon tax, which I believe will make it less competitive; and an extreme green element in the community pursuing policies like this which are completely inconsistent with the future interests of our community.

In the time I have left I want to mention a letter that the member for Lyne thoughtfully distributed to all members. In that letter he attached a document signed by 49 recognised forestry scientists and leading forestry practitioners. I know that members receive a lot of correspondence but, in a free plug to the member for Lyne, if you can find in your files this letter with the document signed by 49 forestry scientists, dig it out. Do yourself a favour, as Molly Meldrum would say, and get the letter out and actually read what they have to say, because this letter is probably one of the most compelling bits of evidence that you will see in this place for some time.

Mr Hunt: Careful!

Mr CHESTER: No. I say that with all sincerity because I think it strongly makes the case, in a very succinct way, for members who perhaps are not necessarily that familiar with the hardwood timber industry. It explains what is at stake here. So I congratulate the member for Lyne for moving this motion for disallowance. I condemn the Australian Greens party in particular for continuing to pursue this great myth that in Australia we are down to our last tree and that the chainsaws are out to get that as well. We have a very sustainable hardwood timber industry in this nation. It is worth fighting for, and I congratulate members on this side of the House who are prepared to stand up and fight for the timber industry today. What concerns me about the Australian Greens is that that party can only survive when they are fighting to save something. As soon as they save one coupe in my electorate you will have a spokesperson for the environmental movement out there saying, 'That's a good start but now we need something else.' They are never satisfied. The Australian Greens are never satisfied because they survive as a protest party that have to be saving something.

When it comes to the Australian timber industry, it is time for all members who care about the future of blue-collar workers and regional communities to say, 'Enough is enough.' We have an extensive reserve network in this nation and we have a sustainable hardwood timber industry that is worth fighting for. So I encourage those members opposite to support the member for Lyne and, in particular, I encourage members of the crossbenches to support their colleague in this motion for disallowance. Do the right thing by the Australian timber industry and, most importantly, do the right thing by the Australian timber industry workers and their families who depend on this place and the members in this place to finally stand up for workers and give regional communities a chance.