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Thursday, 8 February 2018
Page: 642


Senator RUSTON (South AustraliaAssistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources) (16:36): I'm sure it will be no surprise to those who are in the chamber or listening to this contribution to know that the Australian government will not be supporting Senator Rice's, on behalf of the Greens, Regional Forest Agreements Legislation (Repeal) Bill 2017. The coalition government does not subscribe to the theory that we just lock up our forests and throw the key away and wait for a fire to come through and burn them down. We don't subscribe to the theory that you do nothing in your forests and wait for the feral animals to come in and eat our endangered species. We subscribe to the theory that you can actually manage all of our forestry estates in such a way as to strike a balance between making sure you keep a certain amount of it in a pristine state—we are absolutely committed to that—and having a place in the Australian landscape for a forestry sector, and that that forestry sector also includes an amount of native regrowth harvest. And we believe that's sustainable into the future.

Just to give a shout-out for our friends the trees, I'd like to put on the record that trees are renewable and they are recyclable. We believe that we will manage them in a sustainable way. They are carbon-positive and they are a resource that belongs to all Australians. If you were going to go out and invent the absolutely perfect product—as the big man who invented trees in the first place did—you would invent a tree.

I'm sure that trees were put on this earth in the very first instance because they were able to be cut down, because they would grow again and because they would provide a resource for myriad different things—not just for possums and for people to go and look at for a tourism adventure, which, Senator Rice would have you believe, is the only purpose for a tree to be in existence. There is actually a place on earth for trees to be cut down and used for myriad different purposes, because they will grow again. Also the suggestion, for some reason, that forestry and ensuring a sustainable environment and sustainability of our native animals are somehow mutually exclusive is just ridiculous. They can coexist side by side.

It is also extraordinary hypocrisy to suggest that we can't use native timber. So much of our magnificent appearance-grade timber that we, as Australians, are absolutely delighted to have as part of our lives—the beautiful furniture; the beautiful floorboards; the things that you can't actually get from plantation timber—we value. But I would also say that I believe Australians value sustainability in the harvesting of our forests, just as we believe in sustainability in everything we do, whether it be our marine environment, our beautiful Murray-Darling Basin or the sustainability of how we manage our agricultural sector in Australia. To suggest that somehow we can completely replace this beautiful appearance-grade timber, which many, many people in Australia are able to enjoy every day, by using plantation timbers is just a stretch too far. They aren't the same thing.

Senator Rice, on behalf of the Greens, says that she believes the RFAs have failed, that they haven't protected endangered species. I would say that I absolutely dispute that. I believe the RFAs have stood us in good stead and I also believe that they have acted, and assisted us, in the protection of our endangered species. But that's not to say that, as part of an iterative process of the rollover and renewal of these RFAs, we can't make them fit for purpose for 2018 and into the 21st century. As Senator Rice rightly points out, these agreements were first brought into place 20 years ago. We've learnt a lot in the last 20 years, so what we are seeking to do, as part of an iterative process of the rollover of these RFAs, is to make sure that the lessons of the last 20 years have been learned. At the same time, we want to enable a sustainable forestry industry to go forward in a practical, sensible and realistic way without destroying the livelihoods of many communities that rely on the timber industry or taking away the delight that many Australians have in the beautiful appearance-grade Australian timber they have in their homes and their lives.

It seems somewhat ironic that we were talking just a minute ago in relation to illegal logging. We know that in Australia we have such strict regulations and rules that demand Australian timber is harvested in a very sustainable way. So we're making it as difficult as we possibly can to import timber into Australia, while at the same time we're going to stop the Australian timber industry from being able to progress—it does seem a little hypocritical. There does seem to be an overall theme going on with the Greens when it comes to Australian agriculture—that is, they actually don't want us to have any.

The coalition government believes that Australian forestry industries are absolutely vital to this country and they are an absolutely integral part of our regional communities. The forest industry directly employs over 67,000 people Australia-wide and it contributes nearly $24 billion to the Australian economy. This is no lightweight industry. And the benefits of this competitive, sustainable, renewable forestry industry in our regional communities cannot be underestimated. For this reason, the Turnbull government believes that it's absolutely important that we put the right tools in place to ensure the sustainable management of these forests but at the same time make sure that we don't place an unreasonable burden on them—this balance in making sure that our regulation and our legislative burden is commensurate with what we are trying to achieve. We are not a government that smashes walnuts with sledgehammers; we are a government that makes sure the tools we put in place are appropriate for the job we're trying to do. So we believe that the RFAs are undoubtedly the best mechanism by which we can manage our native forests in a sustainable way, and we believe this is an effective framework for achieving the balance between the economic outcomes that we want for our regional communities, the environmental outcomes that we all seek for sustainability—because we all love our beautiful environment—and making sure that we deliver a socially appropriate outcome for all Australians, in particular the Australian communities that rely on our forestry sector.

We have 10 RFAs in Australia. They were signed progressively between 1997 and 2001. Over $1 million was invested in ensuring that our native forestry management was balanced across the environment and making sure that the environmental, social and economic outcomes were achieved. To quote you, Senator Rice, in your explanatory memorandum:

The intention of the RFAs was to provide long-term forest management to protect these complex ecosystems.

Well, Senator Rice, I believe that's exactly what has happened here. More than 3.3 million hectares of native forests have been transferred back into Australia's reserve estate over the time the RFAs have been in practice. That is an increase in the reserve estate of 46 per cent in the last 20 years. If you look at a state-by-state breakdown: the area in New South Wales increased by 1.334 million hectares; in Victoria, nearly a million hectares; in Tasmania, 684,000 hectares; in Western Australia, 338,000 hectares. That is 3,320,000 hectares, or a 46 per cent increase in our forest estate that is under reserve. That is a fantastic outcome for the environment, but have I ever heard you, Senator Rice, come in here and talk about the positive result of the increase in the amount of the forest reserve as a result of the actions that have been generated by the RFAs? Not a word. I assure you that the reason you do not do that is that it does not suit your argument—your argument of scaremongering.

In the first 20 years of operation, the RFAs have delivered long-term certainty to regional communities and the forest resource and the timber industry. They have improved the regulatory processes for businesses that operate in this industry. They have increased the identification and protection of old-growth forest values and the protection of 100 per cent of old-growth forests that are rare or depleted, and there have been significant advances in our approach to ecological, sustainable forest management.

With RFAs, we have a timber industry that operates with some of the highest levels of biodiversity protection in the world. The EPBC Act continues to provide a level of assistance in ensuring that we have world's best practice and we can put our hand on our heart and say that we are appropriately managing our forest system. Logging activities in Australia's native forests are not exempt from environmental protection laws—although you would believe they were if you listened to some of the things that come from the other end of the chamber. The act recognises that, in each RFA region, a comprehensive regional assessment was undertaken to address the environmental, economic and social objectives of the EPBC Act. So the establishment of RFAs actually constitutes a form of assessment and approval under the EPBC Act.

Senator Rice interjecting

Senator RUSTON: It absolutely is a recognition that the RFAs have established comprehensive reserve networks. This is another feature of the RFAs that you wilfully continue to ignore, another inconvenient truth for the Greens.

Another inconvenient truth for the Greens is in relation to threatened species. We do have a series of obligations and requirements that are set forth in the state based legislation that we have to adhere to. The RFAs do not exempt forest operators from obligations in state based legislation for the protection of threatened species and communities. This includes the application of forest management strategies to protect rare and endangered species. The management of threatened species within the RFA regions is consistent with the objectives of the EPBC Act. According to the Australia's state of the forests report 2013, the most significant threats to forest-dwelling animal species listed as threatened under the EPBC Act are historical land use changes and forest loss caused by clearing, predation from introduced predators, illegal collection and genetic or breeding issues. It doesn't say anything in there about forestry.

Just last year in a Senate estimates hearing the Threatened Species Commissioner stated that no Australian mammal has become extinct due to forestry operations. That's another inconvenient truth for you, isn't it, Senator Rice? I know that you love the Leadbeater's possum, and I have to say I don't know any Australian who wouldn't love the Leadbeater's possum if they saw that cute little thing. But, despite the continued dire warnings by those who are paid to research these things, in fact it would appear that the Leadbeater's possum is a rather adaptable little critter, and it seems that, the more we look for them, the more we find. We are able to come in here and say that the recovery plan that's been put in place for the Leadbeater's possum is working, and we're really pleased that it is working. There's nothing that gives me more pleasure than when I get a report sent to me saying that we've had another sighting of a Leadbeater's possum in any of our forests. Everyone rejoices in the fact that this little critter is being seen in greater and greater numbers. Contrary to the doom and gloom that you hear from the other end of the chamber, this is a positive story and one from which we can learn. We should all be looking at what's happening when we're seeing increased populations of any of these species and looking at what we're doing right. We should be working together so that we can make sure that we continue to be able to get positive outcomes for all of our species. Sitting at the other end of the chamber and complaining and whingeing and twisting the thing is not going to save one more possum.

Senator Rice: Listen to the science! Read the science!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Gallacher ): Order on my left!

Senator RUSTON: I do read the science, Senator Rice. The problem we have here in Australia is that we have an industry of scientists who have made a fortune trying to come up with inconveniently ill-informed and unfactually based misinformation because it suits their purposes. It's about time somebody started calling out some members of our environmental scientific community for the rubbish that they put out in the marketplace, believing that the word 'professor' or 'doctor' before their name somehow gives them some sort of legitimacy to say things. But that is another story, and I won't waste the chamber's time with it now.

When you look at this, this is a really good story about the success of adaptive management work. For instance, when it comes to the swift parrot, researchers have shown that it actually isn't forestry that is causing the threat to the swift parrot; it's predation from sugar gliders. We need to make sure when we come in here and make these statements that we use the facts behind the reasons for these things happening—for it to be the truth. It is just convenient for you to say it's forestry. It's not forestry that is causing these problems; it's myriad other things that are much more difficult to deal with. So, once again, the inconvenient truth of the situation seems to be lost—or not provided—by those at the other end of the chamber.

It is the belief of the government that the creation of RFAs has made considerable advances in the identification and protection of old-growth forests. We believe that they are working extremely well in setting specific protection targets for particular ecosystems. We believe this is a great result for the Australian forestry sector, the environment and the people who depend on it.

We also believe that the timber industry is a hugely important source of wood products in Australia, and Australian native forest remains a primary source for durable, high-strength, appearance-grade timber. This is not the kind of stuff you can get from growing a pine tree. It includes solid wood flooring, panelling, furniture and fine crafts. Some magnificent products are coming out of Tasmania; you have only got to go down to the Launceston wood products display centre to see the magnificent artworks that are being achieved by using this magnificent timber in a sustainable way. Australia's plantations are not able to replace the type and quality of wood that comes from using native timbers. This is, once again, something you refuse to accept. To stand in here and say, 'We'll move to plantations and we won't use native timber anymore,' is absolutely ridiculous. You know it is, but it's not convenient for your argument.

You also ignore the fact that our downstream forest industries are fully integrated; they use every single piece of wood from both plantations and native forests. Wood from our native forests complements that sourced from our plantation industry. I know you want to get rid of the RFAs, claiming they are preventing Australia from moving out of forest logging, but why would we want to move out of forest logging when we've already demonstrated it's renewable, recyclable and carbon positive, and we are managing it in a sustainable way? Why would we want to wilfully cripple our forest industries? I don't understand it; maybe you can explain it to me. Why would we want to destroy jobs in regional communities? Why would we want to shut regional communities down? Why would we want to decimate regional communities? You only have to look at the disallowance motion that Sarah Hanson-Young moved in here in relation to the Murray-Darling Basin plan to see that you don't care about our regional communities. You only care about your own ideology. There is not a care in the world for the fact that people like me live in regional communities, and those communities would be shut down by the actions of the legislation and regulations that you constantly come in here and try to have passed.

The Tasmanian RFA is a fantastic example of what 20 years of learning has done for us. We were delighted to sign the new RFA recently. There was an 80 per cent increase, or 800,000 hectares, in the reserve estate. Fifty-eight per cent, or 1.778 million hectares, of Tasmania's forest is now protected in reserves, including the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. More than a million hectares of old-growth forest are now permanently reserved, and world-benchmark, ecologically sustainable forest management has been implemented. At the same time, significant business savings have been enabled for industry. These are significant achievements, and we were delighted in 2017 to sign an extension for a further 20 years rolling.

In conclusion, we believe the management of Australia's native forests is being undertaken sustainably. What's more, far from an industry in decline, we believe our forestry industry is a sunrise industry. The RFAs set the framework for that sustainable management and the conservation of our native forests. So what's at stake? If the RFAs were repealed, jobs would be lost and communities would be destroyed, and for what environmental gain? Do we really want to put Australian Paper's Maryvale Mill out of work—is that really what you Greens want to do? Do you really want to make sure all those people who work in the Gippsland no longer have a job? I don't think it's what the Australian public wants, and it's time we called you out for the scaremongering and, often in cases, the lies that are put out into the marketplace to try and make people think that Australia's native timber industry is not a sustainable industry—it is. You have absolutely no regard for the tens of thousands of families whose livelihoods you actively seek to destroy or the hundreds of regional communities that would cease to exist if you had your own way. This is deliberate ignorance, and it is absolutely reprehensible.

The coalition government does not support the repeal of the RFA Act. The repeal will not help the environment. It will not help business. It will not create jobs. It will not help our regional communities. This coalition government stands for every single one of those things. We believe the environment must be sustainable, and our actions, legislation and regulations support that. We believe that we should be helping business, and our legislation and regulations support that. We believe in creating jobs. We created 400,000 of them last year and we are committed to making sure it's another 400,000 this year—over a thousand jobs a day. We will not destroy our regional communities with ridiculous Green ideology with absolutely no basis. It is absolutely our longstanding position that the RFAs are the best mechanism to balance the economic, social and— (Time expired)