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Thursday, 8 February 2018
Page: 647

Senator O'NEILL (New South Wales) (16:57): I often remember the times before I came to parliament. My encounters with the Senate and the House of Representatives, before I got the key to my office when I became the member for Robertson in 2010, were through the radio soundwaves across this country, particularly Radio National. You'd hear all sorts of conversations and your life, as you're driving your kids from one activity to another, would be informed by the conversations we are having here. This conversation is about a very important industry—the forestry industry. It is also a very important conversation about how we manage our environment and that precious resource that we have: the trees that Australians enjoy throughout the country.

Why is this such an important discussion that we're having this afternoon in the Senate? The forestry industry provides not only jobs for 67,000 people, but also a range of absolutely essential products that integrate themselves into people's lives. We know Australia generates a very significant export outcome from our produce in this sector, from sales to international markets. But the sorts of products that this reaches out to extend to sawn wood and wood based panels for constructing our homes. That's often what people in the cities think of wood: it's simply the timber that comes in the frames they see of the houses that spring up on the edges of our cities.

But this debate touches on so many more uses for sustainable forestry industry in our country, including furniture, printing and writing paper for our homes and our offices, sanitary paper products for everyday use, and paper and paperboard for packaging many of the products we consume. We even have wood derived products such as cellophane, rayon and ethanol involved in this industry. If I can, I want to make some remarks about the capacity for innovation in the way that we might be able to use this amazing renewable resource to create new types of technologies and new applications that will improve lives not just here in our country but around the world.

We know that carbon fibres that are derived from wood are used to make lightweight parts for things as diverse as motor vehicles and packaging for food and beverages—another wood product that comes into our lives. Solvents made from wood fibre are used instead of petroleum, and that's got to be a good thing. Wood also has the potential to generate renewable energy through the combustion of wood pellets, liquid biofuels and any other adaptation modern technology can make of this very precious resource. As esoteric as a discussion about the Regional Forest Agreements Legislation (Repeal) Bill 2017 might sound, its intersection with the lives of Australians goes right into the cabinets in our bathrooms and the cupboards in our kitchens.

The current private member's bill that's before the Senate, on this occasion put forward by Senator Rice, seeks to repeal the Regional Forest Agreements Act 2002. The agreements are known as RFAs. I know that Senator Ruston has made some significant comments about this and celebrated the recent signing of another agreement in 2017 to provide some stability to the sector. But this bill is trying to do something entirely different. The bill itself, in its explanatory memorandum, acknowledges that for the past two decades, our native forests have been managed under the banner of 10 regional forest agreements that were established—and, I'm sure, not easily at the time—between the federal government and the states.

I am one of the Australians who's been very lucky to have travelled through every single state of the country. In fact, my husband and I took a year off, before we were grey—we were certainly nomadic—and spent it travelling around Australia. The great forests of Australia that we saw were covered by these 10 agreements in Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and New South Wales. As a New South Wales senator I am all too aware of how critical the management of the forests of our native timbers, and also our plantation timbers, is to regional economies right across this state.

I note and agree with the statistics that were put forward by Senator Ruston, that in the course of the previous RFA there was a 46 per cent increase in the forest estate under reserve. This is an important measure of the success of what the RFA achieved. To have 46 per cent more forest in reserve is a great outcome that I think Australians would be proud of. Being a legislator for the period of time that I've been here, I'm aware of the many failures of legislation, but surely that has to be applauded as a great outcome.

As a senator for New South Wales, it is with great pride that I stand here on the back of work that's been done by previous governments and celebrate as a New South Welshwoman that there are 1.334 million hectares of New South Wales land under reserve in forest estate. That's a great outcome. We need to be mindful that, despite its imperfections, the Regional Forest Agreements Act 2002 is not an entirely failed piece of legislation, and it should only be an entirely failed piece of legislation that should be repealed. That is not the case with this piece of legislation.

The intention of these RFAs, which were established between the federal government and the governments of Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and New South Wales, was to provide long-term forest management to protect these very complex ecosystems, to ensure the viability of threatened species in the forests and to govern the production of timber from these forests. They also have that very worthy aim of maintaining jobs to maintain the economy and the viability of communities across the country, especially those in regional areas where these forests exist.

The bill that's before us from the Greens party claims that the RFAs have failed to meet the intended goals. Well, much legislation, sadly, doesn't always meet its goals, but I don't think we should be discarding this piece of legislation. The Greens' EM argues that the environmental and industrial context of the RFAs has substantially changed since they were commenced in the late 20th century. A lot's changed since that time, but I don't believe that in this case that provides sufficient argument for the repealing of this forest management framework.

The fact is RFAs have had exemptions from the EPBC Act, and this bill would see the application of the EPBC Act to forestry operations and ensure the same level of environmental approvals and protections are applied to any other extractive industry. But, to be clear, I want to put it on the record that Labor will not be supporting this bill, and we believe that the Greens position with regard to the RFA doesn't make sense in the context of the current situation of this particular industry. The RFAs, in addition to delivering that 46 per cent increase in reserves in estate, are in fact the important current and legal framework that we use to manage our forests. To repeal such a framework without another framework adequately formed, considered and in place to replace it would in my view be an irresponsible act. In common parlance, it would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

These regional forest agreements, which are 20-year plans for sustainable management and conservation of Australian forests, across the four states cover large native forestry regions. Five of those forestry regions are in Victoria. Three are native forestry regions in New South Wales, and there is one in each of Western Australia and Tasmania. In a sensitive way, the RFAs seek to—and in many, many instances have delivered—a balance between the competing industries of the economy, the society and the environment.

Balancing economic, social and environmental demands on forests by settling obligations and commitments for forest management delivers great outcomes. One of the things that the RFAs have delivered, and need to continue to deliver, is certainty of resource access and supply to industry, building investment confidence, which matters to all of us everywhere, including in the cities, not just where these forests are. The RFAs seek to balance ecologically sustainable forest management issues, ensuring forests are appropriately managed and that they are regenerated to benefit young Australians and those who come after us.

The RFAs also seek to make sure that we expand the permanent forest conservation estate, and on that measure, given the statistics that there's been a 46 per cent expansion, you'd have to say that the RFA has most certainly achieved the outcome that was set. We know that the RFAs, in their formulation, are informed by scientific study, that they were the product of significant consultation and negotiation and that they cover a diverse range of interests. Labor is prepared to work responsibly with regard to the management of our forests. However, in our view, this bill before the Senate does not take a sensible approach.

I want to restate the love that Australians have for wood. My father loved wood, and the smell of him working with wood in our garage in suburban Sydney is a beautiful olfactory memory for me. As a former teacher, I know that students who didn't necessarily enjoy my English classes absolutely delighted in their capacity to work with their hands and their talents in woodwork classes on the Central Coast. We need to make sure that that passion and love for wood is not just translated into the joy of small enterprise but continues to be a vital and growing part of our economy. To do that we need to find a sustainable and balanced way of going forward to make sure that we create jobs that are innovation-based jobs, backed up by adequate research, and make sure that there are technologies that we can discover through proper investment in innovation policy.

In closing, I simply indicate—and I am citing a very useful document from the Forest Industry Advisory Council—that internationally significant research and technological advancements have resulted in the development of innovative applications for wood fibre and are enabling producers of emerging products to gain scale and improve cost-effectiveness in overseas markets. And let's be clear that timber is a renewable resource that can meet with innovative capacity.

However, while we're not supporting the proposals as they're put before the Senate today by the Greens in their private members' bill, I cannot indicate that I think the government is adequately responding to this sector. In fact, in terms of innovation right across every sector, we've had a lot of noise from this government but very, very little careful and considered investment in a way that is actually delivering jobs growth and economic growth for this country.

So in some ways I guess I've tried to walk the Buddhist path, somewhere down the middle between the Greens and the conservative representatives on the other side of the chamber. The Labor Party is truly the centrist party of this nation, and we have the sensible policy that balances all the things that we need to balance carefully. It balances the things that are at the heart of the regional forest agreements. It balances the need to make sure not only that we have sustainability and look after our economy but also that we look after our community in all its forms, in terms of its needs for resources, and that we look after the people in those communities, so they have jobs with decent wages and decent and fair working conditions, in such a way that this becomes a sustainable and long-term contributor to our local economy and our international participation.

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.