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Thursday, 26 November 1998
Page: 787

Mr NEHL —My question is addressed to the Minister for Forestry and Conservation. Can the minister advise the House what the impact will be on regional communities and employment if the intransigent New South Wales state government continues to emasculate the Regional Forest Agreement process? How will a viable, sustainable forest industry survive if Premier Carr and his eco-vandals destroy the RFA process? As the New South Wales government has jumped ship from the proper RFA process as agreed under the national forest policy statement, what action can the minister take to encourage New South Wales to engage in rational negotiations on RFAs?

Dr Theophanous —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I draw your attention to the clauses in standing order 144, especially those pertaining to the fact that questions shall not contain arguments, inferences and imputations. This question contained all three of those and is out of order.

Mr SPEAKER —If the Speaker ruled out all questions that contained arguments, inferences and imputations, few would survive.

Dr Theophanous —Mr Speaker, are you prepared to explain to this House how you will implement standing order 144 in relation to these very important points?

Mr SPEAKER —I have ruled this question in order.

Mr TUCKEY (Forestry and Conservation; Minister Assisting the Prime Minister) —The New South Wales government and the Commonwealth government signed a scoping agreement to undertake the RFA process back in January 1996, and that process commenced with an interim forest assessment process, which was concluded and announced in September 1996. That was a preliminary assessment of the New South Wales forest situation. Immediately upon that announcement, the New South Wales state government reduced the level of timber quotas in that state by 35 to 40 per cent and declared extensive new national parks and wilderness areas. New South Wales also committed to future extensive areas of reserves in the RFA process.

The government at that time criticised these actions as pre-empting the RFA process, as they did, but we continued to seek agreement. The reduction that was implemented unilaterally at that stage has had a severe effect on the economics particularly in the area of Eden. The member for Eden-Monaro has drawn to my attention, amongst other things, there have been about 30 closures of small businesses that were in no way connected with any financial assistance, the problem being that when you take a trucking operator or a timber contractor out of business you might compensate that person but you do not compensate the people who were selling them tyres, fuel and feeding their families. So that first unilateral decision has had a severe economic effect.

However, recognising the problems concerned, immediately upon my appointment, I contacted Mr Craig Knowles, one of the ministers responsible in New South Wales, and said, `Please, let us get this program of the Regional Forest Agreement back on track,' and he agreed we could have a meeting on 13 November. The next day the New South Wales government unilaterally announced their processes for Eden with increased reserves of 46 per cent of forested land and reduced timber quotas by another 10 per cent. As a consequence, Harris Daishowa have just advised five contractors with significant numbers of employees that they have to participate in a ballot. They have to draw a marble to keep their business. They have to draw a marble to keep their people in a job.

Anyway, knowing that, I said to the minister, `Look, we won't fight with each other over this. Let's get together and try to do some good.' What happened? On 12 November, the New South Wales government announced its policies for the upper north-east and the lower north-east regions and declared that in both cases legislation would pass the New South Wales parliament prior to its proroguing, which could be today.

No RFA processes have even commenced in the north-east regions. A significant part of that RFA process as laid down in these agreements is that there is a process of public consultation. In Western Australia where that process is progressing, some 30,000 individuals chose to make such submissions—and on issues across the board. Everybody in north-east New South Wales has been denied that opportunity. What has been the alternative? The reality of what has been done is that a selected group of people have got together in a back room to come to some agreement.

In December 1995, the Commonwealth and New South Wales signed a memorandum of understanding with each committing $60 million to the Forest Industry Structural Adjustment Package, better known as FISAP. Following concerns regarding the administration and effectiveness of this program, and two independent reports outlining the program's coverage and guidelines, the Commonwealth sought to negotiate new guidelines with New South Wales which would avoid perceptions of conflict of interest. There are grave concerns that one of your colleagues has been picking out mates to get the money, but again New South Wales did nothing about it.

Mr Beazley —Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. This is now clearly a ministerial statement, and it should be made as such.

Mr SPEAKER —I did not see this as a ministerial statement. I did, however, think that the minister's unkind reference, untied reference, in the latter part of his last sentence was inappropriate. I ask him to wind up.

Mr TUCKEY —As a result of all these unilateral actions, I have been obliged to write to Minister Yeadon in the New South Wales government and suspend all Commonwealth financial contributions to this process until it returns to the RFA arrangements. And I do not believe that is going to be particularly easy, simply because many of the areas identified for forestry, on good advice, will be unable to meet the sustainability management aspects of the RFA. New South Wales has put its own people in an intolerable position.