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Monday, 7 July 2014
Page: 4207

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (15:05): I move:

That the Senate take note of the minister's failure to provide either an answer or an explanation.

I recognise that Senator Cormann is here in his representing capacity; nonetheless, notice was provided to the minister's office and in fact notice was provided to the Senate on 5 May—quite some time ago.

Senator Bushby: Mr Deputy President, I believe there is a requirement that notice be given in order to take note.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: No, there is no requirement.

Senator LUDLAM: Thank you, Mr Deputy President—there is no requirement but, as a courtesy, we do notify ministers that we are going to do this. The fact is, formal notice was submitted on 5 May this year. Questions on notice are meant to be returned within 30 days, and clearly that has not occurred in this instance.

I will go into a little detail about why this question was put on notice in the first place and why it has now become urgent that some answers be provided. The question related to the degree to which state governments and the federal government in particular subsidise the destruction of native forests in the south-west of Western Australia. This is something that has occurred across the eastern states—in eucalypt forests in Tasmania, New South Wales and Victoria—and very clearly in Western Australia as well. Not only are we flattening precious ecosystems but taxpayers are funding it. In Western Australia, vast amounts of timber are woodchipped and sent offshore to be pulped, to be brought back into Western Australia as paper and other pulp products. In this instance, the timber is sawlogs—I will go into a little bit of detail about them in a moment—from Western Australian forests, principally karri and jarrah, and a large amount of that timber is being used as sleepers. So we are interested to know the degree to which the federal government is providing financial assistance to Western Australia for 'resleepering' of railway lines in WA since 2009, because it appears that potentially a very large fraction of that sawn timber winds up in publicly-subsidised hardwood timber sleepers for Western Australian railway lines. It is particularly ironic that I have to be raising this issue today, given the closure of the Tier 3 grain rail lines in Western Australia.

It appears that WA has already exported more than 85,000 tonnes of karri as woodchips this year. This is extraordinary natural heritage being thrown into chip-mills and exported as a low-value woodchip cargo. Earlier this year, I visited the Challar Forest in the South West, 50 or 60 kilometres south of Manjimup. I met with campaigners down there who had spent months doing what they could to protect those forest ecosystems. I was winched up a 40-metre karri tree, which they estimated was somewhere between 300 and 400 years old, to sit for a brief period of time with one of the campaigners who had spent the morning there. Western Australian citizens should not have to put themselves in the way of logging equipment and earthmoving equipment in order to protect these priceless ecosystems—but thank goodness they are! They gave me a very brief tour of the extraordinary devastation that had been inflicted already in the coops around the Challar Forest that they were seeking to protect: areas that had been scrub-rolled, which means that the underbrush and the understorey had been smashed into the ground, in preparation for fallers to come in and remove the largest trees.

The fact is—as a result of the Gallop government, with the strong support of the Greens and the community, ending large-scale clear-felling in native forests in Western Australia after 2001—that that so-called clear-felling no longer occurs. But I can tell you that the destruction and the waste that is still occurring in Australia's native forests is absolutely unbelievable. The idea that you would take a 600-year-old karri tree, a tree three times the age of the city of Perth, and feed it into a chip-mill because it had a small amount of rot in the heartwood is utterly obscene. The fact that we are still conducting this carnage in our native forests is completely indefensible. The idea that we would be publicly subsidising that destruction is abhorrent to the majority of Western Australians. The question that I put to the Assistant Treasurer, or to the minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, as the portfolio was later transferred—that is, question No. 621, was simply: to what degree are we actually subsidising this carnage in our native forests?

On jarrah, we know that the state government sells a couple of hundred thousand tonnes a year, and that just 17 per cent of that is sawn timber—that is, something that you can hold in your hand—and the rest of it is fed into a chipper. Last year, 370,000 tonnes of jarrah logs were sold—which is a reasonably typical year—from Western Australian forests. Of that, only 17 per cent was sawn timber and the rest was charcoal, firewood or waste at the mills. Of that 17 per cent, a significant proportion was railway sleepers; we do not know the exact number. That was the purpose of putting that question to the minister. We know in relation to railway sleepers going interstate and overseas that the state government spent around $1 million buying them from major mills—at the same time as they are closing down or scaling back the Tier 3 grain railway lines. So the demand is falling, even as the state government is throwing more money at 'sleepering'. We want to know how many; where they are going; in what volumes; who the customers are; and exactly how much Western Australian and Australian taxpayers are paying to subsidise that process. Obviously, the reason that it is being subsidised is that the business case is dead. It simply does not stack up as a commercial proposition. We also understand that a lot of pole logs are being exported to China and to other countries, with significant volumes going into sea containers and then on into mills. The jobs and employment argument is absolute nonsense, but I will speak more on that in a moment.

On karri, the majestic tall timber of the South West main belt, only a tiny proportion—12 per cent—ends up as sawn timber, while 85 to 90 per cent of these extraordinary trees are put into chip-mills and exported. It goes through the Diamond Mill in Manjimup and is exported from the port of Bunbury, mostly to Japan for paper products. This year, we believe around 85,000 tonnes has been exported. Some of the karri stays in WA—but again, the purpose of putting these questions in the chamber is that the exact quantities are completely unknown to the public—who are paying for this destruction. We also know that logging is moving much closer to Margaret River, and that there is a very strong sentiment from local people there that they want their forests saved—that their forests are vastly more valuable standing than flattened, as we are seeing around Challar Forest. One of the reasons for this—not that it tends to show up in annual reports, nor does it show up in any state or federal government balance sheet—is the extraordinary range of threatened species that are at risk from the destruction that we are perpetrating in our precious eucalypt forests in WA. Three species of black cockatoos, the woylies, the numbats—all these forest-dependent species are threatened with extinction, the more logging continues to wipe out their habitat. What is the federal government doing to protect these ecosystems? Well, it is proposing to hand back the powers on national environmental law—powers that have been accruing to the Commonwealth over a period of 20 or 30 years—back to the very same state governments which are financing the destruction of these ecosystems and which are, in fact, the proponents of logging down there.

These are the reasons that I was proud to visit the South West earlier this year to launch the Green's Future Forests initiative, which is about getting out of native forest logging once and for all and about transitioning properly—forever—into the plantation estate. Our South West forests are simply to precious to lose. I want to acknowledge and pay my respects to those campaigners and their families who, in some instances, have put their lives on hold for years to protect these ecosystems. It is completely insane that we have environment ministers at state and federal levels who stand back while these ecosystems are being mowed down before our eyes, and that it is up to the community to step up. Thank goodness for people like Mikey and Jess Beckerling, who showed me around the blockade camp at Challar that day and then messaged us only a few weeks later—within days, from recollection, of the by-election in WA—that in fact the fallers had moved away, that the wet season had come, and that it would not be possible to flatten Challar Forest; that we had at least won a reprieve until the forest dries out again later this year. I hope with all my heart that, at that point, the fallers do not move back in again and flatten that precious ecosystem, but if it appears that that is on the cards I will be travelling back down to the South West to lend my support to those members of the Western Australian community who have stepped up where the governments have so dramatically failed to do so.

The initiative that we launched that day—Future Forests for the South West; similar to initiatives that we had announced for the tall forests of the east coast and Tasmania—quite simply says, 'This has to stop.' These towns are running out of forests to chop down. If we want to put a sustainable basis under towns like Manjimup and other timber towns or former timber towns of the South-West, we need to look very carefully at reinvesting in the plantation estate and transitioning out of native forests once and for all. I think one of the promising uses of the plantation estate down there, if we can get proper environmental protection for the South-West forests, will be housing. The idea that you could plug a housing affordability crisis into a manufacturing crisis and a skills crisis in Australia—as well as the climate change crisis and the decline of native forest logging in Western Australia—is the kind of closed-loop thinking that I think we need to progress.

One of the planks of this platform—if you will pardon the pun—was the comprehensive plantation and farm forestry plan to support a vibrant new timber industry that would support the establishment of a second pine sawmill to improve the utilisation of the softwood resource. One of the most interesting things that is being done, and that I believe should be done—not just with the Western Australian plantation estate but across the country—is new jobs in sustainable forestry for building homes.

Australia has one of the least affordable housing markets in the Western world. So right now in Western Australia, on a given night, there are nearly 10,000 people experiencing homelessness, and one-quarter of those are under 18 years old. There are 45,800 people on a social housing waiting list, and the overall supply gap of affordable homes in WA is at least 50,000 affordable rental homes. The Greens National Housing Roadmap that we launched last year provides an ambitious plan to fund 214,000 new homes across the country within a decade. In WA that would translate to 21,500 new homes, including, most immediately, providing a roof over the head of those sleeping rough, those people who are homeless in WA; 1,500 new affordable rentals created from currently empty space, through our Convert to Rent program; 12,000 new social housing dwellings; and 7,000 new affordable rentals. What does this have to do with the issues that I am raising around the destruction of irreplaceable forest ecosystems in the South-West?

We believe there is an enormous potential in a home-grown, WA made, fast-build, sustainable prefab housing industry using the plantation estate. We need a major commitment to an ambitious building program. Where should that come from? The potential of the fast-build prefab housing industry is massive. Should we be bringing these kits in in flat packs from China or should we be constructing this material at home in WA? Modern prefab homes look like conventionally built homes, they are cheaper, they are faster to build, they are far more energy and water efficient and have vastly less building waste. Why would that material not be made out of sustainably grown timber from the South-West of Western Australia?

In suburban Perth, a one-bedroom house can be delivered in just 14 weeks from the time of order of delivery to the time it is placed on site. It effectively uses a lot of the skills—the design, engineering and manufacturing skills—of people who are falling out of the auto industry, which is in crisis on the east coast. We do not have a car industry in Western Australia. There are similar skills. There is a production line. The kits go in at one end and houses come out the other, and then they are simply assembled on site in a matter of hours or days. It is not simply detached housing. In Richmond, in Melbourne, for example, there is an eight-storey apartment block that was assembled in 11 days. That is the kind of manufacturing innovation that we believe Australia needs, and it should be coming from the sustainable plantation estate in forests like those of the South-West. This is the kind of creative thinking that the Australian Greens are bringing to the debate, not just about housing affordability but also about protection of native forests. We can have the jobs, we can protect irreplaceable native forest ecosystems and we can make vastly better use of the plantation estate. We cannot do that without intelligible information such as that that we have requested from the minister's office and that they have so spectacularly failed to provide to the Senate today.

I look forward to the next time Senator Cormann comes in here and hopefully provides us with a bit of information about the degree to which taxpayers are subsidising the destruction of native forest ecosystems. When the time comes and the door opens for alternative employment, alternative manufacturing and alternative skills development based on the plantation estate, the Greens are here with some creative ideas of our own.