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Wednesday, 25 March 1987
Page: 1285

Senator KNOWLES(12.01) —I rise to speak on the Lemonthyme and Southern Forests (Commission of Inquiry) Bill 1987, not as a Tasmanian who has real concern and local interest in this matter, which I might add, I share, but because of many of the implications arising from such a proposal. Yet again this Government is seeking to override a State and to inflict its views and opinions on the Government and people of that State in the typical jack-booted way that we have seen in the past. This Government is also clearly reneging on its memorandum of understanding with the Tasmanian Government which was signed on 12 June 1986, not even 12 months ago.

This memorandum of understanding was seen by the forestry industries as a watershed in the ongoing debate on the future of Tasmania's forests, and the veil of uncertainty that had hung over the industries had at least been lifted at last. However, as is so often the case with this Government, the agreement meant nothing. Only five months later the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) reneged on his Government's commitments in the memorandum of understanding and ordered a halt to the logging operations at Jackeys Marsh in northern Tasmania. This was particularly significant, given that this specific National Estate area had never really been an issue. Indeed, there is considerable doubt as to whether the values contained in the area justify inclusion on the register of the National Estate at all. The forest in that part of the Western Tiers has been logged successively for generations and contains few natural features that would justify its classification as an area of national importance.

The Prime Minister, with his Messiah hat on yet again, decided autonomously, without any reference to his appropriate ministerial colleagues, to take action in this respect. Unfortunately for him, he and his colleagues have since acknowledged privately that Federal intervention on that particular issue was ill-advised and in fact in breach of the terms of the memorandum of understanding. The Prime Minister's cavalier approach to this issue has now reached an all-time high, given that his decision to be the saviour of Tasmanian forests was taken despite the unanimous State Australian Labor Party opposition to his actions.

Senator Coates —It is not unanimous.

Senator KNOWLES —Sadly, the senators who represent the ALP in this place-Senator Coates is one of them-and supposedly represent the people of Tasmania will not even stand up for them. We all know that they are caucused and even those who wish to vote against this particular Bill cannot do so. They do not even have the luxury of crossing the floor. They are directed by their Party as to how they will vote and that is that. We all know that they will not stand up for the people of their own State of Tasmania.

The real danger of this Bill is that it will establish a commission of inquiry with powers even greater than those of a royal commission to inquire into whether certain areas have world heritage significance and to look at whether there are economically and environmentally prudent and feasible alternatives to logging in those areas which may be nominated for world heritage listing. It also provides that the area under review should be the subject of a ban on logging operations pending the conclusion of the inquiry and for compensation to be paid in respect of losses sustained by some parts of the industry-I emphasise the words `some parts of the industry'-in respect of the moratorium. It is an absolute fallacy for the Prime Minister to say that there is no possibility of job losses following the decision handed down from this inquiry. It is quite clear that, if the inquiry finds that there are no alternatives, then jobs are at risk. Let us make no mistake about that. However, the most alarming clause of this Bill is clause 19, dealing with compensation. It demonstrates either an abysmal ignorance of the ways in which Tasmania's forest industries operate or a positive intent on the part of the Commonwealth to deny the right of compensation to people who are likely to be affected.

I now wish to move to another area which concerns me as a Western Australian, knowing full well that socialist governments would dearly love to get their hands on as much Western Australian land as they can by whatever means they can. When the Australian Heritage Commission Act was passed in 1975 it received support from all sides of the political spectrum. The Act established an independent commission made up of experts in conservation matters and required it to keep a register of the National Estate-in effect, a list of places around Australia which were worth keeping for their historical, aesthetic, cultural, archaeological and natural values to future generations and the present community. The idea was that when the Commonwealth made decisions, such as whether to bulldoze an old country post office or to grant an export licence, the value of what might be adversely affected by such decisions could be flagged and properly considered. It was argued that in most cases the economic aspects of such decisions should be balanced against the environmental values affected. Nobody could really argue against the concept of a national estate and indeed there are a number of examples where the fact of a place being on the register has resulted in better and more balanced decisions.

However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the system needs review, because the basic problem is that those charged with keeping the register are generally committed to conservation and have chosen to compile an all-encompassing list of places it might be nice if we could keep, rather than a selective record of special places of national significance. In some ways we in the Parliament have to take responsibility for this development and I believe that we have not devoted the resources the Australian Heritage Commission needs to clarify its role effectively. Naturally, the Commission has chosen to play it safe by listing most places suggested to it, even though it is frequently unable to find the time or the staff to dig up all the relevant information required for a proper assessment. As a result there are huge areas of Australia on the National Estate Register about which the Australian Heritage Commission itself knows very little.

Of course, when some kind of development is proposed in such areas all sorts of arguments can be found to the effect that they must be protected in the national interest. The best-or maybe the worst-example of this was seen in relation to the Quamby Bluff-Jackeys Marsh incident last year. When the heat of the issue dies down most people will recognise that the national significance of an area that has been cleared, farmed and logged for generations is very low indeed. Not surprisingly, the conservation movement has been quick to take advantage of the paucity of resources and the play it safe attitude of the Commission. It is clear that the first step in any conservation campaign is to get the area one wants to save on the National Estate Register. In virtually every case the Commission is quite happy to oblige. Once on the register, a place has status. The very name `national estate' can be and frequently is used to confuse the public into thinking that the area in question is a national park. I am told that when the fracas at Farmhouse Creek occurred last year, it took about two days for most interstate journalists to realise that the area was not a World Heritage area, was not a national park and was not wilderness. There can be no doubt that that confusion has been effectively used by the conservation movement in a number of issues. Australians have quite rightly high regard for national parks and would generally oppose mining and logging within park boundaries. The National Estate system has created `Federal shadow national parks' outside the parks that State parliaments have declared. Let us not forget that-this Government is trying to override yet again the powers of State governments. It has given them a status which is a recipe for constitutional conflict. In some ways this Bill can be seen as the first major shot in the inevitable war between the Commonwealth and the States over land use decisions in National Estate areas.

Until recently the Heritage Commission used to write to private landowners whose land and buildings had been placed on the register, congratulating them on having such an asset and assuring them that the listing of their property would not prevent them from managing it as they wished. I do not know whether the Commission still writes to landowners. I believe it should, but if it does it will need to change that assurance because it is quite clear that that assurance can no longer be granted under this Government. In Tasmania, New South Wales and Western Australia landowners are finding that the listing of their land on the National Estate Register means that the Federal Minister for Primary Industry, at present Mr Kerin, must personally approve the logging of that land if any of the wood so pronounced is to be exported as woodchips. It is an absolute and utter disgrace that a Federal Minister can dictate to States and landholders in such a manner. No doubt we will hear more of this because, as far as I can ascertain, since this requirement was placed on woodchip export licences three months ago no such approvals have been granted by the Minister and a number of private landowners are losing out financially as a result. This Government would not care, once again. The people involved are mainly small businessmen and we all know how small businessmen have been hit in the last three or four years. I might add that no compensation is payable under the Australian Heritage Commission Act or any other provision for such losses.

I return to the Bill. It could be said that the only reason this measure is before us today is that the areas in question are listed on the National Estate Register. They are not on the World Heritage List, as was the Gordon below Franklin Dam area. I understand that Senator Sanders intends to attempt, by amendment under the scope of Part III of the Bill, to impose a moratorium on logging in all Tasmanian National Estate areas. At present that would cover 31 per cent of Tasmania's land mass. One has come to expect such things, I suppose, from Senator Sanders-the champion of the lunatic fringe. However, I was most concerned to hear that the Director of the Wilderness Society, Mr West, has announced that the Prime Minister has given the conservation movement an assurance that the Bill will be widened to cover other National Estate areas in the Douglas-Apsley region and Jackeys Marsh if the Tasmanian Government has the temerity to exercise its constitutional right to allow any forestry operations in these areas over the period of the inquiry. It is an absolute and utter disgrace that this Government is yet again giving the Tasmanian State Government the real treatment in an area in which is has no right to do so.

It was interesting to hear from Senator Coates last night. I am rather glad that he is here at the moment. He is the only Labor senator from Tasmania with the nerve to state his position on this Bill. I repeat: He is the only Labor senator who has the nerve to have his say on this. Senator Coates is not afraid to admit that he is a keen conservationist who would not mind if his constituents were put out of work by the mindless and unbalanced acceptance of the conservationists' land claims. He does not care about that; he could not give a continental how his constituents and their jobs are affected. The most concerning part of his address last night was his suggestion that Federal Ministers have a total responsibility to protect National Estate areas. It was a very fascinating statement. If he had bothered to read the Australian Heritage Commission Act, which he obviously has not, he would be aware that the requirement of Federal Ministers to protect National Estate values is limited to situations where they are exercising their legitimate constitutional role. It is absolutely wrong for him to suggest, as he did last night, that the Heritage Commission Act justifies or requires this Bill. Certainly it applies to the Commonwealth decisions regarding woodchip exports from National Estate areas. When, in December 1985, the Hawke Government decided not to place an arbitrary ban on exports from Tasmania's National Estate forests the Minister was required to satisfy himself that there were no prudent or feasible alternatives to the export of wood from those areas. This Bill is not about woodchip exports; it is not aimed at stopping woodchipping in these areas-that has already been done through amendments to export licences. The only logging that will be stopped by this Bill is logging for domestic sawmilling, veneer and paper production. The Commonwealth has no constitutional right, as Senator Coates asserts, or responsibility to interfere in these matters. In fact, this is clearly spelt out in the memorandum of understanding signed on behalf of the Government last June which it is now tearing up and throwing out the window, as it so often does with any agreement made with a State government. Every Australian who supports the maintenance of an effective federal system should be alarmed at Senator Coates's claim that once an area is listed on the National Estate Register it immediately becomes Federal land.

Senator Coates —I did not say that, and don't misrepresent me.

Senator KNOWLES —It is very interesting that Senator Coates is now denying it. I wish he had denied it last night when he had the opportunity. He should say what he means in the Parliament. He meant it last night and he still means it today. In the space of four short years we have moved from Commonwealth intervention in world heritage areas, such as in the dam case, to Federal takeovers of areas that might possibly be of outstanding universal value. With the passage of this Bill, or even perhaps during it, we will have seen the greatest extension of Federal power since the income tax Act.

While the focus has been on Tasmania, which of course to the Hawke Government is totally expendable politically and generally hostile, this trend threatens the constitutional powers of all States. I understand that the Western Australian Premier, Brian Burke, has been to see the Prime Minister on the issue and that Premiers Unsworth and Cain have also pressured the Hawke Government about this Bill. Of course, that does not matter. Once again, they are only State Premiers and State governments do not matter. The Federal Government can just override those States. It wants to abolish the States. As we heard earlier this morning, the now Prime Minister gave a commitment in 1979 that he wanted to abolish the States. The way he is acting at the moment, it is quite clear that he is wanting to bring that about even now.

When we think about it, the consequences are enormous. If this Bill is enacted it will mean that the Commonwealth can take control over any area of private or crown land in Australia on the say so of an unelected understaffed group of committed conservationists called the Australian Heritage Commission. When the Australian Heritage Commission Act was passed 12 years ago it was intended to help provide some balance in government decision making. The wheel has turned full circle and it is clear that the Act, when combined with an unhealthy dose of political cynicism and the chance of an early election, can make environmental matters more significant considerations than economic facts and the Constitution itself. The Constitution means nothing to this Government. We should all remember that this Government just treats it with absolute and utter disdain. In some ways this is a crunch time for the National Estate system. We certainly need it but we need to redefine what its implications are and how it should work within the federation as we know it today.

I am certainly vehemently opposed to this Bill. I would have hoped that Tasmanian Labor senators would have had the nerve to oppose it as well for the sake of their own State, for the sake of the people in their own State, for the sake of jobs and for the sake of export income. But, no, they will not. It will be up to the coalition once again to try to defeat this Bill. Of course, the Australian Democrats are anxious as well to pander to the conservationists to try to get the greenie vote leading up to a possible early and cynical election. Therefore, as I say, it is left up to us to try to fight this matter and to let the States get on with managing themselves and not be overriden by Federal governments in their typical interventionist way.