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Tuesday, 11 August 2015
Page: 5019


Senator RICE (Victoria) (20:05): When we were last in this place, less than two months ago, we saw the introduction of one of the most appalling pieces of legislation I have seen in my time as senator. At a time when all the science tells us we have to be reducing our reliance on fossils fuels and encouraging the clean energy industries of the future, the Abbott government cut the renewable energy target and waged an unprecedented attack on the wind and solar industries. On top of all that, we saw a wolf dressed up as lamb as the burning of wood from native forests for energy was classified as 'renewable'.

Take a moment to think about what that means. Our ancient forests, which take an instant to destroy but hundreds of years to grow back, have been put in the same category as the endless energy we get from wind and the sun. By grouping them together, the government has ensured less certainty for truly renewable energy industries and ignored everything we know about the values of our native forests. When the government is wasting billions on its Direct Action policy, this will dirty the air we breathe, deplete our carbon stores and increase the carbon pollution which causes climate change. When the government is pouring half a billion dollars into new dams, this will destroy one of the greatest assets we have in ensuring the quality and the quantity of our water supply. And when the government is trumpeting its attempts to save some of our most precious animals, including Victoria's faunal emblem, the Leadbeater's possum, this will ensure the destruction of much of their remaining habitat.

The government assures us that the environmental impact will be minimal. They claim only 'waste' of timber offcuts, branches and bark will be burnt. But let us be under no illusion that this is 'waste'. This waste is 80 to 90 per cent of the logs that are removed from native forests. Native forest logging in Australia over the past 40 years has been dominated and driven by the production and export of large volumes of low-value woodchips and this market has crashed. With ample evidence that industrial scale clear-fell logging is completely incompatible with forest protection, the obvious thing to do is to take the opportunity to wind back logging of our native forests. Instead, including wood from native forests in the renewable energy target aims to find a new market for this so called 'residual wood' and subsidise it to boot.

Since we were last here, further information has come to light about what these markets could be. Uses being looked at include propping up dirty coal-fired power stations like Hazelwood in Victoria by 'co-firing' it with massive volumes of wood. The native forest logging industry is Tony Abbott's broken down car. Its dirtier, it costs more to run and everyone else has moved on to the next model. But by hook or by crook he is determined to jumpstart it and get a few more miles out of it. How have we allowed ourselves to get to this point?

For the past two decades, our native forests have been managed according to 10 regional forest agreements, or RFAs, between the federal government and the states. RFAs were meant to provide long-term forest management to protect these complex ecosystems and to ensure the viability of threatened species living in the forests, as well as governing the production of timber from these forests and maintaining jobs. They have failed in every regard.

You just have to look at the five regional forest agreements in Victoria. These are managed by the state-owned logging business VicForests, which oversees the destruction of 3,000 hectares of native forests every year, receiving millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies to do so. Regional forest agreements do not reflect what we know about climate change today or that Australian forests are the most dense carbon stores in the world. Industrial logging in native forests has had its day. It has failed to protect the environment and failed to protect jobs.

The industry is already well on the way to relying solely on plantations. Eighty-five per cent of wood produced in Australia now comes from plantations, but the renewable energy target will enable the old industry to shift its focus from woodchips to wood energy and keep its head above the quicksand for just a few more moments. It cannot last.

Since then, much more information has come to light about the disastrous potential of this destructive policy. Thanks to an investigation by Radio National, we know that there was a brief prepared for environment minister Greg Hunt by scientists Andrew Macintosh and Professor David Lindenmayer which outlined the carbon credits that could be earnt if we put an end to logging in the mountain ash forests of the Central Highlands in my home state of Victoria. It showed that closing down native forest logging in the area would have a carbon abatement of three million tonnes every year. Based on the price the government paid earlier this year of $14 a tonne, that would be worth more than $40 million every year. This same scenario plays out around the country and would be worth billions of dollars over coming decades. But just today, we have information that the environment department was not aware of this report. It has been sitting on the minister's desk, gathering dust.

We have also discovered that the owners of Hazelwood in Victoria's Latrobe Valley—our oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power station—have been in secret talks with VicForests to reinvent the plant by burning wood from native forests in East Gippsland. GDF SUEZ—the owners—have even confirmed they have been conducting trials. This move has not been about encouraging clean energy; it has been about giving a lifeline to out-dated and dirty industries. And it is destroying our native forests in the process.

Last month I met with forest campaigners in Western Australia, who were concerned about the ongoing logging of precious native forests there and the prospects of logging native forest with the wood being burnt for energy. Since 2008, local conservationists have been fighting a proposed wood biomass plant in Manjimup in the heart of the south-west forests of Western Australia. The planning application for this plant claims the fuel source would be plantation waste from blue gum and pine plantation wood. However, locals have good reason to believe the plant will be fed by native forests because the distance from the plantations makes the plantation feedstock unviable. The latest forest management plan has two tiers of estimated yield, one being much larger than the other, .a significant increase on current logging debate pending on whether new markets are developed. The Manjimup shire president said during the debate on the renewable energy target that the proposal could not progress until the RET was agreed upon. This further supports concerns that the plant will rely on native forest wood, since plantation waste was already classed as 'renewable'.

The logging that is occurring in south-west WA is incredibly damaging. They are not even maintaining a pretence of forests regrowing back to anything like they were before they were destroyed. In fact, many areas of logged forests are declared as national park after the devastation of logging—trashing the whole concept of national parks.

As well as being deeply concerned about the damage being done to these forests, the passionate and committed campaigners I have met are very worried about the prospect of massive fines and criminal convictions for taking action to stop logging. The proposed new anti-protest laws which they are facing reverse the onus of proof, carry maximum penalties of two years jail or a $24,000 fine and cost recovery for any police response. This is an appalling situation to put people in who are protesting to protect our natural heritage.

So where do we go from here? First of all, this backwards decision has to be turned the right way around. The Labor Party have promised to reverse the decision, but there are already rumblings of discontent among their Tasmanian representatives. Labor must stay true to their word. You can rest assured that the Greens will do everything within our power to keep them to it.

Importantly, we need to move to the full shift of the forestry industry out of native forests and into plantations. The transition is already well underway. Eighty-five per cent of the wood products that we produce in Australia already come from plantations. We need to get that to 100 per cent. We need to start with a full-scale review of our regional forest agreements. But, in a characteristically backwards step, the Abbott government announced plans in April to just roll over the Tasmanian RFA—an ominous sign of things to come around the country. They have ruled out a full-scale review, but that is exactly what we need. We must not commit to another 20 years of disaster by rolling over all RFAs. We have to talk about how we can best manage these resources to safeguard our future. This means facilitating, not hampering, the shift of logging out of our native forests. Native forests belong to the people. Now is the time to take them back.