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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10383

Mr BAIRD (1:22 PM) —I rise to support Taxation Laws Amendment Bill (No. 9) 1999 and certainly to support the Minister for Forestry and Conservation in his view that there should be equity in primary industry with the diesel fuel rebate and that it should be passed on to those operating in the forestry industry. The bill aligns the Diesel Fuel Rebate Scheme so that the rate that applies to the forestry industry is that which applies to the agricultural and fishing industries. I do not believe that anybody could rightly say that you should single out the forestry industry and say, `You should not get it; you are a different part of the primary industry sector that should be discriminated against.' The bill merely seeks to ensure that the forestry industry is no worse off after the introduction of the new tax system. The full rebate will be payable for fuel purchased after 1 July 2000.

I have listened to the comments of the shadow minister in the debate, and it is a fairly typical approach of the opposition to want to have two bob each way. They come in and say that on balance they will support it. I wonder whether the minister heard the key phrase that the unions said they are in support of this. As we know, the marching orders for the opposition come from the union movement. If they say it is okay, then ahead they go; if they say it is not okay, then of course they do not support it. So much for a new initiative in deciding their own direction for the country!

It is good to see that the opposition will support it overall, although they are going to play their own games by referring it to a Senate inquiry. Over what position—the fact that the government changed its view on this in terms of its arrangements with the Democrats? It is clear that it was an anomaly and that it should never have happened. Surely, we as a government have the right to say, `Well, yes, that may not have been appropriate. Let us consider taking this back to where we were before.' I think that shows commonsense on the part of the minister, who has shown strong support for the forestry industry and for those who work in it.

There is an attitude that has developed among some sections of the environmental movement, the Democrats and even some sections of the opposition that seems to suggest that forestry workers are some type of lesser individuals and are not working in the national interest. Of course the reality is quite the reverse. These are the people who provide the timber that is used right throughout Australia in construction, in providing homes for families and in very worthwhile activity. Some 84,000 workers and their families are in the forestry industries. The coalition is committed to assisting those rural workers. It is very difficult to find replacement industries in the rural sector. There is lip-service given by the opposition to assisting people in regional areas in employment, but when the crunch comes there is always some reason why they find it all too hard. A lot of the new growth industries—e-commerce, finance, banking, development and tourism—has taken place in the cities. The growth that has occurred has, in many ways, bypassed sections of regional Australia. Here are real jobs in regional Australia. Here are 84,000 people working in regional Australia, and they should be supported.

The industry is important for its export potential. It is performing very significantly by providing export dollars. Members of the Labor Party often stand up and talk about the balance of payments situation. This is an area in which we can assist our balance of payments situation by assisting our forestry industry. It is in the building blocks of the economy, such as the forestry industry, that these decisions are made. If the forestry industry is not assisted, if it is not competitive with timber producers overseas, then contracts will go to those countries. While we need to be very mindful of environmental concerns, we also need to be aware of two key factors in regional areas—some 84,000 jobs and the great earnings that were produced last year, amounting to just on $1.3 billion, with paper board packaging and woodchip areas being the strongest components.

However, one of the most important aspects of this legislation is the concern for the environment. A responsible and sustainability focused Australian forestry industry should be supported as far as possible to relieve our demand for less responsibly harvested forest products. The reality is that, if we do not assist our own forest industry, we will be importing more and more from countries which do not have the same regimes and do not protect their forests to the extent that Australia does. In the global forests situation, it makes sense on an environmental basis to assist our own industry, which meets the environmental credentials and guidelines that the minister has been championing. In fact, there is a temptation to act not on a global basis but locally and say to the greens, `We are on your side, we will stop all the axing of our forests.' But we should think on a global basis.

It is quite ironic that the bill would be opposed in the Senate by the minor parties as a result of their concern for environmental damage done through the use of fossil fuels. Maintaining forestry industry access to the full diesel fuel rebate is crucial to Australian industry to maintain its competitiveness. It is also important in the sustainability of the industry and the expansion of our forest estate.

The regional forest agreement signed between individual states and the Commonwealth of Australia maintains a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system, an internationally competitive timber industry and an ecologically sustainable forest management across the whole of the forest estate, including production areas. The reserve system provides for ensuring the conservation of biological diversity within the system and these criteria include objectives to achieve reservation of 60 per cent of existing old growth forest and 15 per cent of the pre-1750 complete forest biodiversity. The 15 per cent of pre-1750 biodiversity target far exceeds the international level of remaining forest established by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, and recognised by international conservation groups. That is, we have set ourselves and achieved a far harder target than that advocated by the green movement for all countries in the world, and of that we should be proud. Other nations are in fact less responsible in the way they go about harvesting the trees in their own area. By comparison, we can be rightly proud of the standards and the safeguards that we have established.

The ABARE figures show a $1.963 billion deficit in forest products. We are strengthening prospects for our wood product exports. It is clear that there is much to do before we can do without the $3.258 billion of wood imports. Although our high wood product import level can be explained by a lack of an efficient domestic paper mill industry, Australia imported some $830 million worth of sawn wood last year. That is a situation which is very difficult to support in that we are losing our competitive position, we are importing product into Australia, we are blowing out the balance of payments situation because of this reliance on imported product. Were the forestry industry not to be assisted through the Diesel Fuel Rebate Scheme, things would be made more difficult—so difficult that there would be more and more product imported into the country.

Given the fact that this country is ranked in the top three nations in terms of forest per capita, we should be able to supply our own needs, provide sustainable value added products for export and take some pressure off those forests in the world which are subject to threat. Yet disadvantaging the industry through the Diesel Fuel Rebate Scheme would certainly not help that situation and we would increase our reliance on foreign grown product. There are some well meaning environmentalists in the country, but I would urge them to think on a global basis. I believe that the Democrats cannot see the forest for the trees on this issue.

Through responsible harvesting practices, which has had the support of both sides of the House since 1992, we can manage our timber in a sustainable fashion. Production forestry does not result in the reduction of the forest estate. In fact, the national forest inventory shows that in Australia the area of forest is increasing. We have more forest now than we had a decade ago and we will have more forest in 10 years than we have now, even with a production forestry regime. Responsible forest management includes the retention of wildlife corridors which support tree-dwelling animals. Responsible management also has regard for retention of a diversity of plant life.

Australia is on track to achieve our 20/20 vision, a target of lifting annual plantation plantings threefold from 30,000 hectares per annum to 90,000 hectares per annum by the year 2020. Conservative estimates presently put this figure at in excess of 50,000 hectares per annum.

So clearly we support these proposals. I support the minister and his efforts in managing this important industry. In conclusion, I just want to say that it is important that we take a global position on this, that we are wanting to assist our own industry to remain competitive. If we do not pass on these concessions, the cost of our product would increase, our ability to compete internationally would be eroded and the attractiveness of imported product would be further increased. This is not in the interests of our own balance of payments situation. It is not in the interests of global environmentalism, given the fact that Australia has a much higher standard of regulatory control and standards than exist in many countries overseas from where the product is drawn.

I am pleased to see that the opposition will be supporting this bill, even though they are referring it to inquiry because the government has changed its position. All power to the minister that he has come to this position—one, I am sure, that is welcomed around Australia by the 84,000 people who work in the forest industry, who provide real input in terms of jobs and in terms of economic growth in regional areas which is so needed right across this country.