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Thursday, 24 November 2011
Page: 13866

Mr CHRISTENSEN (Dawson) (10:57): I would like to congratulate the member for Bass, on a poetic contribution, the member for Riverina and the member for Lyons, all of whom have a great interest in the subject of forestry. I am very proud to be a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries and Forestry and to have had a place in this inquiry. The inquiry, as has been said, has come up with this fantastic report, Seeing the forest through the trees, which has made 19 recommendations.

The inquiry was tasked through its terms of reference to inquire into the forestry industry, looking at different aspects, including:

Opportunities for and constraints upon production; Opportunities for diversification, value adding and product innovation; Environmental impacts of forestry … ; Creating a better business environment for forest industries … ; Social and economic benefits of forestry production; Potential energy production from the forestry sector … ; Land use competition …

The final one was obviously an interest of mine, as I come from a sugar-growing region where there have been some issues over that, but I have to say that I came to this from my part of the world without a great deal of expertise in or knowledge of forestry. It was heartening to see the number of submissions and people who came before the inquiry from industry sector groups basically saying that there is a bright future for forestry. The one thing that they said needed to happen was that government also have the view that forestry is viable as an industry and to put plans in place that ensure the industry's viability into the future. The recommendations that have come out of this inquiry in the report certainly pave the way for a bright future for forestry. If they are adopted by government, then they will provide a sound basis for the industry into the future.

Recommendation 1 calls on the government, through the COAG Standing Council on Primary Industries, to lead a process to assess and report publicly on the likely wood demand-and-supply scenarios over, say, the next 40 years. We are also calling on the COAG council to consider and report publicly on whether this nation should aim for self-sufficiency in wood supply. There is strong support for that concept within the committee.

Recommendation 3 calls on the government to run public information campaigns to promote timber and wood products as replacements for more energy-intensive materials. There has been a concerted negative view of forestry over a long time—it has been thought that it is a bunch of people just chopping down trees and doing nothing for the environment—but the fact is that wood products consume less energy than most products out there on the market. That needs to be factored in. The general public need to understand that wood is not an anti-environmental product. There are groups out there at the moment such as GetUp which are really flogging this angle and running campaigns against legitimate commercial operations such as Harvey Norman. They are basically campaigning against wood products. That is why it is very important that the government look at a public education campaign on the subject.

The other thing we recommended along these lines is that COAG create a number of national plans, including a national plan for plantations to ensure that appropriate species are placed in appropriate locations and that there is appropriate infrastructure in places where plantations are planned. We have again called on the government, through COAG, to develop a national plan which would enable infrastructure for farmed forestry to be funded and constructed—another very important part of the mix if we are to have a viable forestry industry in the future.

The final recommendation of the report—and I certainly have not listed them all; there are 19 of them—was for the government to hold discussions on national approaches to farmed forestry and future wood product supply and demand. I suggest that that would have to be done through COAG. All of these things are vitally important. The report also looked at RFAs, regional forestry agreements, which have been controversial in the past. But the way forward that has been suggested here would reconcile the conflicting interests. We have said that the RFAs should be renewed, incorporating an evergreen extensions process. Ensuring that the industry has that longer term would provide security. The committee has called for new RFAs to be in place for at least three years before the expiry of the existing agreements and for a new regime within RFAs for ongoing monitoring and periodic assessment.

Another thing within the report which is mentioned a number of times is the concept of social licences, obviously for regional areas where there is forestry. There are certain impacts on the community, particularly where new plantations are being planted, so the concept of social licences is discussed. It is something where we think the industry itself needs to look at it and then come to some agreement on what is acceptable when setting up in a new location to get that social licence with the community. I fully support that concept.

One of the things the committee has recommended, and this is an extremely important aspect, is that native forest biomass be considered a source of renewable energy under the renewable energy targets. It is immensely important that that be taken into consideration.

The issue of conflict in land use has been an issue, particularly in my electorate of Dawson, which is historically known as a sugar-growing area. It ranges from Mackay through Proserpine and the Whitsundays and up through the Burdekin to Townsville. I think my electorate would be the largest sugar-growing electorate in all of Australia. We have had an experience with forestry and I have to say it probably has not been a good experience. The experience was one that was driven by managed investment schemes. The committee has certainly taken what I think is a fairly reasonable, but hard, view on managed investment schemes. I want to give some background to some of the issues that occurred in my electorate on this matter. Canegrowers are the peak body for sugar farmers in Australia and I want to read a section from a submission they gave to a previous inquiry of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Corporations and Financial Services into agribusiness MISs and the impact they had. They said:

MIS investments can use their tax advantages to bid for prime agricultural land to the detriment of existing industries. In the case of the sugarcane industry, ongoing viability of a region depends on the availability of sugar milling capacity.

That means land and cropping land. They continue:

If a significant proportion of a sugar mill supply area is alienated, the mill would become uneconomical and would close. Cane cannot be transported economically more than about 60km, so unless there were another mill in that radius, all growers in that area would thereby have lost access to growing their traditional, high-value crop.

That particular problem was causing a great deal of angst to growers in the Sarina, Proserpine and Burdekin areas, which are all within or near my electorate. We have seen MISs go belly up with the problem they had. I think there were fundamental flaws with the whole thing.

The report from the inquiry has recommendations in regard to managed investment schemes. The committee said that the government should be looking at whether or not they think that long-term rotation plantations are an appropriate part of policy in terms of forestry's future; whether it is necessary and appropriate for government to provide incentives in that regard; and whether MISs are the best mechanism for reaching that objective. If they still do think it is then it needs to be seen whether or not it can be altered to make it much more effective. If it cannot meet that objective, why are we still doing it?

The submissions we received and the statements made by people who fronted the inquiry—some were from within the industry and others were talking about the impact of the industry in their community, and when I say 'industry' I mean MIS forestry—said that there were problems such as inappropriate species planted in inappropriate places, dislocation of other industries and a range of different issues. Finding the balance in terms of where forestry should be, where MISs should be and where there should be other agricultural pursuits is something that I know the committee was very mindful of.

I commend most of the report. There is some stuff about the carbon tax in there and implications regarding that that I do have an issue with, but, all in all, I welcome the report and hope that governments look at the recommendations into the future.