Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 8 February 2018
Page: 638

Senator RICE (Victoria) (16:16): I rise today to speak to the bill which I introduced into this place, the Regional Forest Agreements Legislation (Repeal) Bill 2017. This bill seeks to end the destruction of Australia's native forests by repealing the act which enables logging to continue with exemptions from, and without the oversight of, our country's environmental protection laws. These logging laws, the regional forest agreements, are outdated, they are destructive and they are not achieving the environmental or economic purposes for which they were intended.

For me, this is a question of justice across generations. I challenge all of us in this place to consider how we would feel if we couldn't offer our children and our grandchildren the same experiences in the natural world that we have experienced. What if they couldn't enjoy camping by a crystal-clear river, fringed by magnificent forest, camping at night around a campfire, listening to the sounds of the night, listening to the owls—the boobooks, the mopokes—listening to the screeching of gliding possums?

What if our children and grandchildren couldn't marvel at birds like swift parrots and be amazed by creatures like the giant freshwater lobster of north-west Tasmania? What if our children and grandchildren couldn't be inspired by gorgeous creatures like the Leadbeater's possum? What if our children and grandchildren don't have those experiences? What if they don't know those animals as precious animals and birds, because their homes, nesting sites and food supplies have been destroyed? Beyond experiencing magnificent forests, what if they couldn't ski on our alpine slopes deprived of snow? What if they couldn't snorkel a reef filled with colourful coral off the Queensland coast?

Logging has wide-reaching impacts, contributing to the further warming of our planet. It's not just the immediate destruction of areas of forest—and destruction it is; intensive, industrial-scale clear-fell logging—and it's not just the destruction that that wreaks on our forests but the impact of those forests no longer being there to soak up carbon, no longer playing their bit in the critical role of tackling dangerous climate change that is the issue.

I remember very well the first time I saw a clear felled forest. I was 23 years old. I had just finished university and was working out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I visited some forests in East Gippsland which had been clear felled and then had been burnt. They were totally destroyed. For me, it was this awareness: why was this happening? So I did a bit more research and discovered the justification for it was to be producing timber that was largely, even then, only going to very low value purposes. It was being used for housing construction timber for which even then, 30 years ago, we had plantation pine that was going to take up that market. It was being used for tomato stakes; it was being used for pallets. I asked myself: why are we are causing all of this destruction for such little ends? As a rational person, I said: 'But we need timber. We need wood. Surely we must need to be doing this?' I did a bit more research and found out that, no, we didn't. I found out that virtually all of the wood that was coming from this incredible natural heritage, this precious natural heritage that we have here in Australia, we could be getting from other, much less precious places—certainly not the old growth forest that was being logged then and that is still being logged now.

I did the research then, and the research continued for the last 30 years to show that the forest destruction that's occurring isn't occurring because we need the timber. It's not occurring because we need the jobs. It's occurring just because we this attitude: 'Well, we've got forests there, so we've got to do something with them.' We are increasingly getting a much greater proportion of our timber and wood product supplies from sustainable plantations. That's the direction of the industry for the future. And yet with the regional forest agreements that this government is rolling over, we are pretending we are right back where we were last century, not acknowledging that we can be protecting our forests and maintaining a viable wood products industry.

Let me lay out what this bill seeks to achieve, with the principle in mind that our precious places should be properly managed for all of the values they hold, including their value to our future generations. For the past two decades our native forests have been managed under the banner of these 10 regional forest agreements that were established between the federal government and the states. These agreements cover significant tracts, all of potentially economic, so-called productive, forests in Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and New South Wales. This bill would wind up each of the 10 regional forest agreements at the time of their expiry dates. I note the Tasmanian Regional Forest Agreement has been subject to a variation which was signed last year by the Prime Minister and the Tasmanian Premier, and this was presented to the public as a variation. But the actual outcome is a substantial rewriting of the RFA, which was undertaken without any engagement of this parliament, despite the significance of the extension of this RFA to 2037. In effect, it makes future extensions automatic into perpetuity. That is staggering.

When the RFAs were introduced 20 years ago, they were meant to provide long-term sustainable forest management to protect these complex ecosystems and to ensure the viability of threatened species living in the forests as well as govern production of timber from these forests and maintain jobs. They have failed in every regard. And the government have indicated that, like they've done with the Tasmanian agreement, they intend to just roll over the existing 20-year regional forest agreements when they come up for expiry. The lack of rigour and reflection in this position is astounding, and it demonstrates that the government do not have any commitment to safeguarding our carbon stores, our clean water, our water supplies, our tourism hot spots or our wildlife habitat or the current and future jobs of locals who rely on all of these.

Across Australia, the evidence of the last 20 years is that the Regional Forest Agreements have failed and continue to fail in their goals of providing security to industry and workers and securing a reserve system to protect species. When then Prime Minister John Howard and the Victorian Premier signed the Victorian Central Highlands Regional Forest Agreement in 1998, the Howard government environment minister stated that the RFA would ensure that 'the whole forest will be sustainably managed for future generations'. And yet under the Regional Forest Agreements these forests are logged, pulped and burnt. The story is exactly the same across the other nine areas subject to RFAs. Yes, under the Regional Forest Agreements there were some areas of forest that were reserved, but there were vast areas of forests of equal value and of equal significance that have not been protected and have been subject to ongoing, intensive logging in the 20 years since.

The Regional Forest Agreements are outdated, impotent and costing us irrecoverable species, taxpayer dollars and extensive forgone opportunities. We need to scrap them. As I've already said, over 80 per cent of the wood products that are being produced in Australia are now being produced from plantations. The remaining native forest timber industry is just the rump of the timber industry. It's not the direction that the industry is headed in. It's not where all of the excitement of, say, having timber for multistorey buildings is coming from; that's timber coming from plantations. When you look at the latest announcement of a new sawmill, Hermal mill, in north-west Tasmania, that is going to be a hardwood plantation based sawmill. This is the direction that we need to be continuing in, transitioning all of the industry out of our native forest so we can have that sustainable plantation based industry, protecting our precious native forests for so many values that they also hold.

One of the most appalling parts of the Regional Forest Agreements and of our current logging laws is that they exempt logging from our national environment protection laws. When an area is logged under an RFA it's deemed to be occurring in an ecologically sustainable way even where there is ample evidence this is not the case. There are no grounds for our environment protection laws in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to apply. Think of that. These complex native forest ecosystems are not protected through our national environment protection laws from the destruction of logging. This means that even if a critically endangered species is found in a forest valley or ridge, under an RFA it's still okay to go ahead with the logging. All that needs to happen with regard to any endangered species is that there needs to be a recovery plan in place—or not even in place, but being planned. It doesn't matter whether this recovery plan, at the end of the day, is shown to have been totally inadequate to protect the species. All that's required is to get a recovery plan in place, and then logging can continue to occur under the rules that are set out in the recovery plan. In fact, they're not even rules but only guidelines for how logging could occur. So there is no rigour and no ability for the EPBC Act to overrule the logging operations occurring under an RFA even where the evidence is there. As it is, you have threatened species that are being driven towards extinction by those logging operations. How can it be possible that native forests get such special treatment? Other extractive industries such as mining are required to justify their impact on the environment, but not the native forest industry. They get to carve out sections of precious forests to destroy them. They're given carte blanche to destroy animals, plants and vital habitat.

Let me remind the chamber that the Commonwealth has a duty to protect our environment for all Australians. Yet, in continuing the regional forest agreements and their exemption from the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, this government is shirking that responsibility and is allowing an extractive industry—because that's what it is—to carry out its business with no regard for the long-term damage this does to our forests. For all the talk of 'Oh, the forest will regrow,' when you are logging a forest that has got trees in it that are hundreds of years old, such as with the logging that is currently occurring in East Gippsland and in Tasmania, you cannot say that you are replacing this forest, because you cannot replace an old-growth, unlogged forest—a complex, ancient forest—with essentially just a plantation of young species. It will not provide the habitat for those plants and animals for hundreds and hundreds of years, and certainly won't provide the nesting hollows in those trees for the species that rely on them and need hollows in old trees in order to survive. It is an extractive industry. It is destroying that forest's value for those precious and threatened animals.

As a nation we have the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the world over the last 200 years since colonisation. We have forest-dependent species that are headed to add to those extinctions: the critically endangered Leadbeater's possum, the critically endangered swift parrots, the giant freshwater crayfish and Carnaby's cockatoo. These animals are threatened and are becoming more threatened, and yet logging is allowed to continue to occur in places where they live. It's a shameful position to be in, particularly as a wealthy, developed nation, particularly as a nation with so many unique species that are found nowhere else in the world and particularly as a nation that has only seen just over 200 years of this atrocious use of our land—just over 200 years.

In the forests such as at Granite Mountain in East Gippsland, with trees hundreds of years old, those trees were old when Captain Cook sailed past just over 200 years ago. These extinctions are not a trend we want to continue, particularly with our unique plants and animals serving as a backbone for our incredibly valuable tourism industry and the many communities whose livelihoods rely on the protection of these precious places. The sheer enormity of past extinction rates and the tiny amount of pristine native habitats remaining in Australia means we need to fight to conserve every remaining piece.

I have already mentioned the Leadbeater's possum in my home state of Victoria,. It's critically endangered. Its primary habitat, the beautiful mountain ash forests, are in such dire condition that the animals and the whole ecosystem are listed as critically endangered. We have a government that is saying, 'Oh, the Leadbeater's possum is having a massive population increase,' which is based on absolutely farcical data. If you look at the most thorough review of the science with Leadbeater's possums, you see that it shows that they are in dire straits. Yes, we may have observed more Leadbeater's possums over the past year, but that is because there have been more people out looking for them. It does not mean that those populations have increased.

The forests of the planned Great Koala National Park in New South Wales, the Great Forest National Park in Victoria, the Tarkine in Tasmania, Western Australia's South-West Forest and the incredibly biodiverse and beautiful East Gippsland are hugely valuable parts of our natural heritage and must remain so for future generations.

A recent assessment of Victoria's Central Highlands forest using ecosystem accounting methodology and which was published in the prestigious journal Nature Ecology and Evolution clearly demonstrated that there are considerably greater benefits in soaking up and storing carbon, water, habitat provision and recreational amenity if logging ceased compared with the economic value of logging these forests. And this work also clearly shows that the economic benefits of native forest logging are small compared to other industries in the region and that the economic impact of ceasing native forest logging could be more than offset by increases in other industries such as tourism and by entering the carbon market. Native forest areas have got enormous tourism potential, which is undermined by destructive and unsightly logging practices. The people and small businesses of regional Australia would stand to benefit hugely from increasing the amount of forest being protected and stronger government plans promoting tourism and recreation over logging.

Jobs are vital in the regional communities living near and in our forest areas, and we need to face up to the reality that direct employment in the forestry industry is already drying up. It has been drying up for the last 20 years, due to its economic and environmental unsustainability. Many mills are just scraping through on direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies. We've had the Victorian government paying $50 million to buy the Heyfield mill. We know that logging in East Gippsland costs us, the taxpayers, $5 million a year. So it costs us for the logging of our forests. Just think about what else that money could be spent on. Think about: what if you spent $5 million a year, or more than that, on improving the tourism infrastructure, the recreation infrastructure—upgrading walking tracks, forest drives and bicycle touring tracks? There are many, many more jobs in really valuing the forests as a tourism resource than in their ongoing logging.

Industrial logging in our public native forests has had its day. It has failed to protect our environment and it has failed to protect jobs. The future for the Australian wood-products industry is in a sustainably-managed plantation industry. So, in order to achieve this vision for long-term sustainability for the Australian wood-products industry, and to protect our native forests, with all their unparalleled values, we must scrap the Regional Forest Agreements. This bill to repeal the RFAs does what the government has failed to do. This bill would protect our forests in a way that all Australians, now and into the future, would value and really appreciate, well into the future.