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Wednesday, 29 August 2001
Page: 30468

Mr TUCKEY (Minister for Forestry and Conservation and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister) (9:49 AM) —I move:

That the bill be now read a second time.

It is with great pleasure that I introduce, for the third time, the Regional Forest Agreements Bill 2001. The bill commits the Commonwealth unequivocally to the outcomes achieved in the regional forest agreements process and provides the basis for an internationally competitive and sustainable forest and wood products industry.

For too long, conflict and division characterised the so-called debate on the management, use and conservation of Australian forests. Conflict engendered an uncertain investment climate and community doubt as to whether environmental values were being adequately protected.

In 1992, the Resource Assessment Commission reported the outcome of a three-year forest and timber inquiry. The commission found an overriding national need for improved intergovernmental institutions and decision processes that would support comprehensive forward planning for forest use. This finding, and the commission's recommendations, was the basis for the national forest policy statement of 1992.

The national forest policy statement provided a nationally agreed—every state Premier and the Prime Minister are signatories to it—policy framework for a long-term and lasting resolution of forest industry, conservation and community interests and expectations concerning our nation's forests. It set in motion the regional forest agreement process. The statement committed the Commonwealth and all states to the ecologically sustainable management of forests and a balanced return from all forest uses. It was sometimes referred to as the triple bottom line, with an equal accent on the ecological, the economic and the social impact factors.

The RFA process saw Commonwealth and state governments jointly conduct comprehensive regional assessments of the environmental, heritage, economic and social value of our forests. These then formed the basis for the negotiation of RFAs between the Commonwealth and individual state governments.

This government recognised the need to increase our wood resources through plantation development and took action by funding value-adding projects across the entire native forest hardwood sector that will result in security for forest workers and a substantial improvement in Australia's economic circumstances. That concentration on value adding was an initiative of this government, and it involved a change of direction from the closing of businesses and the sacking of workers to providing additional jobs through taking a piece of green sawn timber and turning it into valuable flooring or many of the products that are seen in this Parliament House; in other words, substantially increased value and employment opportunities or, put simply: more from less.

Clear evidence of this government's commitment to the long-term future of the native forest industry is the continuation of the Commonwealth government's Forest Industry Structural Adjustment Program, otherwise known as FISAP. The government has facilitated value-adding investment in the native forest industry through targeted and exclusive—and I underline the word `exclusive'—FISAP grants in RFA regions; in other words, funding specifically targeted to native forest activities. I make that point because there have been some questions raised about the government's commitment in that regard in recent times. The amount of money the government is spending would certainly not be happening if there were any doubt about its long-term commitment to that sector of the forest industry. Around $70 million in consultations or applications is currently under offer, and this underpins hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in the native hardwood timber industry that has resulted from the RFA process.

Our target from the growth and extension of the pulp and paper sector under the forest and wood products action agenda includes adequate protection for this developing sector from any unfair trading practices arising from competitor nations. With regard to that sector, recent advice from one of the world's most respected consultants in the forest products industry, a firm known as Jaakko Poyry Consulting, is that Australia would be seen as a highly internationally competitive provider were it to enter into large scale forest products and pulp and paper activities.

The government has now published the discussion draft of the national forestry standard, which will improve community confidence in forest management domestically and overseas. The participants in the preparation of that document include representatives of certain non-government organisations.

Above all, our policies have been consistent and not party politically motivated, with good science and the practical advice of long time industry participants prevailing in our decision making process. To use my own words, I think the future of our forests and those people involved is more important than some other party's preferences. I have never run my department on those principles, and I never will.

The government's position stands in stark contrast with the ever changing position of our opponents in the Labor Party. Notwithstanding their authorship of the bipartisan national forest policy statement in 1992, they quickly abandoned any pretence of proceeding to the formal protection of forests and industry available through regional forest agreements. By 1996, when they lost office, not one RFA had been signed. This task has been concluded by the Howard government and its commitment reinforced by the introduction of this legislation once again.

Labor's state colleagues in Queensland refused to comply with the basic RFA arrangements, choosing instead their own deal which includes the legislated phase out of all native forest activity over 20 years. The Queensland state government are the only government to take that action; in other words, to deny the industry access to native forests over the next 25 years. They paid large sawmillers to close, resulting in massive and unnecessary job losses. One of the most astounding examples of that was the town of Cooroy, a very small town: 100 employees were the substantial bread and butter of that particular town, and the firm was bought out with the instruction that they sack the workers. Promised compensation and assistance from the Queensland government to small sawmillers is yet to materialise, while the Howard government has distributed funding offers in line with its original promise but without the RFA it expected. Queensland's promise of 100 extra jobs in forest management, due of course to their very large increase in reserves, in fact materialised as 97 redundancies of existing forest department employees.

In New South Wales, the Carr government has constantly unilaterally legislated for overrepresentation of reserve areas, resulting in reduced resource. Only in the southern region, when it became apparent I would not release federal funding without adequate sustainable resource, was a sensible outcome achieved. Now they have turned upon the private sector resource through excessive bureaucratic requirements.

In Victoria, the government agency, the Department of National Resources and Environment, otherwise known as DNRE, produced figures guaranteeing adequate resource, but the Bracks government has commenced a fear campaign to sustain a review of the resource available, with threats of a 20 per cent reduction. No compensatory proposals to resource log supply from overrepresented reserves appears to be being considered. The Labor member for McMillan has gone as far as to conduct a large public meeting designed to soften up workers for job losses. Further I have been advised in writing by one group, known as the A-team, representing timber industry workers, that the same minister has refused to see them because they are not part of his union faction.

In WA, the newly elected Gallop government has completely turned its back on the principles of the RFA signed with that state. The result is a further 60 per cent reduction in wood supply. Over 400 jobs have been lost already, with thousands more to come. The WA government has also refused to pay redundancy to the employees who have lost their jobs purely as the result of a political decision.

The Howard government has delivered on its commitment and its bipartisan support of the 1992 national forest policy statement and has achieved balanced outcomes for the sustainable use and conservation of Australia's native forests for all Australians.

Regional forest agreements now cover 11 regions in Victoria, Tasmania, New South Wales and Western Australia. Taken together, they have produced:

· Nearly 10.4 million hectares of comprehensive, adequate and representative, CAR, reserves, adding 2.9 million hectares to existing reserves, or around 40 per cent.

· An increase of around 41 per cent in the area of old-growth forest in reserves, to 3.4 million hectares, representing some 68 per cent of the total area of old-growth forest.

· Increased employment in the plantations industry.

· Improved resource stability—20-year certainty in resource supply—and a more secure future for some 80,000 people directly employed in the forest industry.

· Provided Commonwealth funding under the Forest Industry Structural Adjustment Program, FISAP, to assist business development and create regional employment opportunities.

· Improved prospects for further investment in domestic processing.

Let me say that these grants under FISAP are, of course, very substantially leveraged by the investment of the private sector, typically three or four to one. Let me highlight some of the new investment flowing from RFAs.

In Victoria, an estimated $358 million of investment is directly or partially linked to the signing of two RFAs. In Tasmania, Neville Smith and Co. has spent $1.5 million on high-tech kilns, new moulders and other equipment at its Mowbray mill. The security provided by the Eden RFA in NSW was responsible for the opening of the Blue Ridge Hardwood sawmill development on the outskirts of the NSW coastal town. We have recently received applications for FISAP support to underpin $75 million in investment and over 180 jobs in NSW alone. These investments in rural areas, where there are often few other skilled job opportunities, are vital to the wellbeing of those communities.

Honourable members will recall that an earlier version of the bill was debated extensively in this place in 1999. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. The number of RFAs has increased from three to 10. New environmental legislation has come into force. The forest and wood products agenda has been launched. The Forest and Wood Products Council has been established and has held two meetings. The bill I bring forward today recognises these developments.

Considering the evidence of the actions of the Labor opposition with regard to their own policy, what confidence can the industry and its work force have in agreements that represent at this moment a virtual handshake? What is to stop future Commonwealth governments from just walking away from these exhaustively and comprehensively negotiated agreements? These are certainly the questions I would be asking, and it is clear that industry and timber communities are concerned about this as well.

There are three main objectives of the bill. The first is to give effect to certain obligations on the Commonwealth under the RFAs. These obligations involve ensuring that forestry operations in regions subject to RFAs are excluded from Commonwealth legislation relating to export controls, the environment and heritage. They draw a line in the sand for future political or bureaucratic interference or goal shifting. The reason for this obligation is simply that the environmental, heritage and economic values of these regions have been comprehensively assessed through the RFA process, and state legislation governing sustainable forest management, environmental protection and endangered species still applies. An RFA is signed when the Commonwealth has satisfied itself that state regimes adequately address these interests. There is no need for further assessment at the Commonwealth level, nor for further debate or conflict. The bill also binds the Commonwealth to the termination and compensation provisions in RFAs.

The second objective is to provide legislative commitment and support to the national forest policy statement and the forest and wood products action agenda.

The third objective of the bill is that it will legislate for the continuation of the Forest and Wood Products Council.

These objectives continue our national commitment to build an internationally competitive, sustainable forest industry based on increased value adding and continuous improvement.

In 1999-2000, Australia's imports of forest products were worth $3.8 billion and consisted mainly of paper and other high value products. In the same year we exported $1.6 billion worth of forest and wood products, mainly woodchips and round wood. The simple arithmetic is that we have a trade deficit of $2.2 billion in these particular products. Yet with our extensive forest resources, Australia should be in a position to export a wide range of high value products to redress this imbalance.

Rather than consuming wood harvested from other countries where there are concerns about sustainability, we should be consuming our own wood and exporting it to the rest of the world. We should be promoting Australian wood for the global good and advertising the fact that Australia is a world leader in sustainable forest management. Just the other day I received from a constituent a photograph of their son holding a baby orang-outang, and they wrote across the bottom, `Surely the best way to protect this animal is for Australians to use the wood from their own forests.' Of course, I would endorse that remark.

The RFAs have secured for us a native forest resource base for the next 20 years, some essential structural adjustment and value adding, funded in part by the FISAP program and the new processing and manufacturing investments in the RFA regions. We are also getting substantial new investments in plantations. Last year, Australia's plantation base expanded by over 100,000 hectares. We are committed to achieving the Vision 2020 of trebling the area of plantations to three million hectares by the year 2020.

We now have the resource base. We are building on our processing and manufacturing base. What more do we need to do to maximise sustainable and profitable activity for tree growing, value adding and marketing of Australia's forest and wood products?

In November 2000 the government announced the forest and wood products action agenda `Forest and Wood Futures'. A number of actions in that agenda have been implemented:

· In July 2001, the Commonwealth increased its contributions to the Forest and Wood Products Research and Development Corporation, FWPRDC, to match industry contributions dollar for dollar.

· The Commonwealth has also established the Forest and Wood Products Council. The council has met twice to date and outcomes of this meeting are published on the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry web site. Might I add that the contribution of the representative of the CFMEU Mr Smith has been most positive and, in fact, he has taken a good lead on many issues. So I just demonstrate the cross—

Mr Hockey —He is a friend, is he?

Mr TUCKEY —Yes, I am very friendly with him in the forest industry, Minister. They actually hold stop-work meetings for me.

Mr Hockey —Is that right?

Mr TUCKEY —Yes, so I can address their workers.

Mr Hockey —In McMillan?

Mr TUCKEY —I do not know about McMillan, but certainly in other parts of the state of Victoria. Another action in that agenda that has been implemented is:

· The Australian Forestry Standard Steering Committee has published a draft Australian Forestry Standard for comment. The AFS will provide a basis for independent, third party certification of forest management.

Industry should now be able to benefit from the competitive advantages offered by Australia's reputation as a manager of highly sustainable forests.

The Forest and Wood Products Council is creating a sustainable, long-term and competitive forest industry, through its work progressing the action agenda. Committing to the continued existence of the Forest and Wood Products Council and the action agenda is important in order to progress the future vision of the Australian forest industry.

In summary, we have made a substantial difference to the forest industry in Australia through the RFA process, the Vision 2020 and the forest and wood products action agenda. And let me announce our ongoing commitment. We now have world-class forest reserves, an increasingly secure forest industry looking to expand into value adding opportunities, an expanding plantation resource base, extensive research and development commissioned by the Forest and Wood Products Research and Development Corporation, and a government and industry partnership driving an action agenda. The Australian forest industry is well placed to tackle future challenges and to begin reversing the trade imbalance in forest and wood products.

It is the government's intention to seek the expeditious passage of this bill through the two houses. Given that all the issues have previously been debated at length, we do not consider the bill should have extensive reconsideration—and could probably be considered in the Main Committee. I wish to comment particularly on the bill's management in the Senate. There is a very restricted period available for the determination of all government legislation outstanding, including bills such as the one recently introduced with respect to refugees, and the desire of the government is to give such first-time initiatives adequate parliamentary exposure. It must be obvious to the opposition—who, I understand, have had a conversion relating to support for this bill—that they need to ensure that this bill is expedited through the Senate. We have previously observed the filibustering of certain senators speaking as individuals for many hours on this issue, and such time is simply not available. Considering the opposition's public remarks and their desire for this bill to pass, it will be incumbent on the opposition to prove their bona fides by ensuring such filibusters are interrupted by their motion.

The passing of the Regional Forest Agreements Bill 2001 will be a demonstration of Commonwealth support and it signals our continued commitment to the future of the forest and wood products sector in Australia.

I commend the bill to the House and present the explanatory memorandum.

Mr Horne —I will move that the debate be adjourned, and I would just remind the minister that next time he comes to my electorate—

Mr TUCKEY —You never funded one of them. You just funded closing sawmills. That is what you funded.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins)—Order! The honourable member for Paterson and the Minister for Forestry and Conservation!

Debate (on motion by Mr Horne) adjourned.