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Tuesday, 22 June 1999
Page: 7073

Mr ZAHRA (4:47 PM) —It is with a lot of regret that I note that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry did not have the guts to actually make some statements while I was still in this chamber. But it is interesting that he wants to talk about the Regional Forest Agreement process. I am very happy to have a debate about the Regional Forest Agreement any place, any time with you, Minister, or with anyone else.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl) —This is not the place, nor the time.

Mr ZAHRA —Whilst we regularly hear shrill rantings from the Minister for Forestry and Conservation, Mr Wilson Tuckey, at the dispatch box in the other chamber, I have to tell you there is not a lot of commonsense which comes out of it. Consider the plight of the people in East Gippsland in the Tambo Valley and the fact that they have now, with an existing RFA in place, had their mill closed—the mill which employed 22 workers in a town of only 150 people. That mill closure means the death of that town. The bloke who runs the pub there says he can no longer operate that pub. The communities there, which are tremendously resilient local communities, banded together and established a secondary college. It seems unlikely now that those people who established that college will be able to see it continue because, simply put, with 22 people leaving the town, some $750,000 in income will not be there for them. That is $750,000, which constitutes an enormous amount of income in a small community of 150 people, will no longer be there to sustain the town.

This has happened, Minister, even though there is a Regional Forestry Agreement in place for that community. Whilst the Minister for Conservation and Land Management in Victoria may well advise that it has nothing to do with the Regional Forest Agreement process and may make remarks along the lines of `There is nothing that the government can do to intervene in this process', she is wrong because the spirit of the Regional Forest Agreement process was all about resource security and job security, not just resource security for the purpose of allowing a few companies access to the forestry resource so that they could make enormous profits. That was never what the Regional Forest Agreement process was about. It was about securing resource security so that workers in the communities which relied upon that sector would have access to job security. This was always the spirit and intention of that legislation.

It seems a shame that all we get out of the Minister for Forestry and Conservation nowadays are attempts to politicise this process. Every time he gets a question in question time he stands up there and belts the Labor Party over the head for some sin that we are supposed to have committed, but never says anything constructive, never offers any solution to the crises faced by communities like Swifts Creek in the Tambo Valley in East Gippsland, never any makes suggestions as to how we are going to value add, never makes any suggestions as to how we are going to continue the good work of the wood and paper industry strategy which was established by the Labor government when we were last in office.

It seems a shame to me that, whilst the rhetoric of the federal Liberal-National Party government is strong, they are short on action. This is a hard industry. As people understand, it is an industry that needs government support and attention if it is going to achieve its full potential. People do not want shrill rantings at the dispatch box; they want government activity and action. They want this government to have the vision and the intelligence to look at this sector and its enormous potential and say, `Let's not politicise this process. Let's not just continue to try to make political mileage out of this issue. Let's work collaboratively with the Labor Party and with other stakeholders to try to make sure that we can guarantee resource security so we can deliver job security to the workers and their families who depend on this sector in order to draw an income.'

I keep on coming back to the situation in Swifts Creek, and I reiterate, for the minister's information, that this has happened despite the existence of a Regional Forest Agreement in the region. So whilst it is all well and good to put the process in place, what we have to always bear in mind is that companies have obligations as well. We cannot just say, `Have access to our resource.' It is owned by every taxpayer and every person who lives in the community of Victoria. We cannot just say to companies, `Go for your life; take what you want from there; you are under no obligation.' It is our resource, and we have every right to expect that, in turn for companies having access to that resource, there will be some community benefit which will be drawn from it.

I would urge the minister, and he is the senior minister for this department, to take an active interest in what is going on in the Tambo Valley. I would urge the minister to involve himself directly in the plight of the workers at Swifts Creek. In the best of bipartisan traditions of this place, I have approached the Minister for Forestry and Conservation, and I would hope that he will take that approach sincerely—as I hope the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry does—and, hopefully, something can be done for the workers at Swifts Creek.

This is a very serious situation. It exists with a Regional Forest Agreement in place. We need to get past the rhetoric and get on with helping these communities when they need our assistance. In this parliament we owe them that.