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Thursday, 24 February 2011
Page: 1493

Mr ADAMS (12:06 PM) —I speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2010-2011 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2010-2011, which cover the $22.4 million that will assist Tasmanian forestry contractors and employees to respond to the challenges facing the Tasmanian native forestry industry.

This is an issue I have had strong connections with, because most of the forestry falls in the areas I cover in Tasmania and the people who work in the industry are located in my area, predominantly. There has been enormous turmoil in the forest industry going back many decades. There seems to be no accommodation for both the industry and the Greens’ objections to the industry. We were at an impasse. Business confidence and the industry were suffering. Something had to be done. The industry is a good one but, by undermining the market and preventing change through education, science and technology, the industry has been brought to its knees.

I still believe that we have a sustainable and viable industry for general woods grown in plantations, but for high-value timbers we have a huge dilemma because these just do not grow in plantations. They have a natural range and a natural environmental climax which, if not looked after, becomes what I would call a jungle. They can suffer the ravages of climate, fire and weeds without any means of being managed or locked away. This could be okay for a few years but, with climate changing in cycles, species could very easily disappear overnight and there will be few plans to help save them.

There were eight principles laid down by the group that was tasked to come up with a solution to the conflict and to develop a new and innovative direction for the forest industries that did not compromise certain environmental goals. From that, both state and federal governments decided they wanted an independent group to take the principles and come up with a new direction.

Former ACTU secretary Bill Kelty was handed the job of finding a final peace for the forests of Tasmania because of his past record of successful negotiations. As a facilitator, it is his job to try to turn a landmark statement of principles agreed by conservationists, forest companies and workers into a lasting deal. Federal Sustainability and Environment Minister Tony Burke believed that Mr Kelty was the perfect person to pull off the difficult task aimed at ending three decades of conflict over native forest logging in Tasmania. It is a unique undertaking because of the unprecedented level of agreement and goodwill between industry and green groups in Tasmania, and it did not create a precedent for reform of the forest industry, nationally.

I have been fighting for the industry for many years—about 40, I would think. It has been a gruelling path inching towards change in the industry. I know we need a solution but I believe Tasmanians will not accept state forestry being closed to wood production. We have had forestry since white settlement and native peoples have used the forest for thousands of years. The state government has made some guarantees to the sawmilling industry to continue supply into 2027. We may face job losses from Gunns closing its hardwood sawmills and leaving the harvesting of native forests. The company’s decision was to try to gain a social licence for a pulp mill, but it has hit many of its workers very hard. It has been a tough time for them.

This means the industry, which was based on 300 cubic metres of high-quality sawlogs a year, has now gone. The pulp wood that came from native forests is now available for other uses, like woodchips. The argument was that it was seen that the pulp industry was driving the sawlog industry, but the economics of this was actually the other way round: we needed the pulp industry to keep the sawlog industry economically viable.

Locking up traditional forest did not and does not make any economic sense. Who is going to pay for it? Who is going to manage it? Taking out the forest workers means that we have lost firefighters and machine operators who help with land management, along with emergency service workers. Being able to source wood for the hardwood saw industry is important for the future. Being able to source specialty woods for the craft industry is important also. All of this wood is from native forests.

The road system in the native forests of Tasmania will deteriorate, which will destroy any hope of selective logging for sawmills to be economical. The questions have to be asked: can a sawmilling or craft industry survive; who will pay for the management of the Tasmanian native forests if forestry does not?

I understand that New Zealand sold its forest assets to American pension funds and now foreign capital ships those logs to America for processing. Do we really want Tasmania to follow that option? We need some options and we need to assist the people whose businesses have been ravaged by this forest debate. We need a pulp mill for Bell Bay, with some very high-conservation-value forestry areas like the Styx Valley going into reserves for the government to manage.

When the industry and the green movement got together in Tasmania to try and solve some of their difficulties, it was a chance to try and move the industry and the argument into this century, to try and negotiate change without closing the industry. The federal government has come up with a $22.4 million package which is to provide exit assistance and ongoing business support for Tasmanian forest contractors who wish to retire or turn their businesses into another line. This was an election promise that the Gillard government has delivered on, a promise to provide much-needed help for contractors and their employees because of the heat these people had to endure as a result of Green action.

The program aims to reduce business ‘overcapacity’ in the native forest harvest and haulage contracting sector by reducing the number of businesses that operate in that sector. The program provides up to $17 million for exit assistance to harvest and/or haulage contracting businesses. The government also agreed to provide $5.4 million in financial support for those who will remain in the industry so that we do not lose the skills or the machinery as new avenues in the industry are opened up as a result of the Kelty inquiry.

Contractors wishing to leave the industry could apply for funding immediately. Applications for exit assistance closed on 13 December. Details of business assistance funding are still in the process of being rolled out. Applications for the government’s Tasmanian Forest Contractors Exit Assistance Program have now closed. Eighty-three applications were received, demonstrating a strong interest in the program. All of this information is available on the department’s website.

In the past, contracts have also been a problem. They allowed contractors to undercut each other, and this encouraged some unsafe practices to occur. The Gillard government welcomes the Tasmanian government’s commitment to put in place a system of fair contracts in the forest industry. This will be vital for securing the viability of the industry.

The assessment committee met in late December 2010 to assess these applications against the selection criteria in the program’s guidelines. The guidelines stated:

Exit grant recipients will need to demonstrate that they have left the forest contracting industry by disposing of equipment and agreeing not to return to the contracting sector for a period of five years.

The guidelines also stated:

To be eligible to apply for exit assistance a business must:

(a)   have an Australian Business Number (ABN); and

(b)   conduct its activities predominantly in the Tasmanian native forest harvest and/or Tasmanian native forest haulage contracting sector; and

(c)   have been operating as a harvest and/or haulage business for the period 1 January 2009 to 30 June 2010 and had a contract (operative or inoperative), quota or delivery arrangement; and

(d)   be able to show business related debt.

As the media release said:

Eligible contracting activities are the harvest of wood from Tasmanian native forests and the haulage of wood from Tasmanian native forests. Applications will not be accepted for contracting activities other than for harvesting and/or haulage of wood from native forests in Tasmania.

According to the grant assessment plan:

On receipt, applications will be handled in accordance with the DAFF grants management manual. The secretariat will assess all applications against the eligibility criteria stipulated in the program guidelines. Applications that meet the eligibility criteria will progress for further assessment.

Where there is insufficient information to support the claims being made in the application, the secretariat will request further information from the applicant. This information must be provided by the applicant within five working days of the request. If this proof is received within the five day period, the department will forward the application to the Advisory Panel. If the proof is not received within the five-day period, the department may not forward the application and the application may lapse.

So there is a rigorous process for each step of the application. Furthermore, the plan stated:

The department may seek clarification from an applicant at any stage of the assessment process.

Applications not meeting the eligibility criteria will be recorded as ineligible.

Copies of all eligible applications will be provided to the Advisory Panel.

Rather than provide payments to each and every contractor in Tasmania, it has always been the government’s intention to conduct a competitive grants process. Suitability of the applicants will be determined by ranking them according to merit criteria, as was mentioned earlier. Under ‘Roles and responsibilities’, the assessment plan states:

The Tasmanian Forest Contractors Exit Assistance Program secretariat will receive, store, open, register, handle and file applications in an accountable manner.

The Advisory Panel will assess applications against the program’s objectives, eligibility criteria and merit criteria.

The Advisory Panel may draw upon material and information other than an applicant’s written submission in the assessment process. For example, advice from a financial expert may be considered by the Advisory Panel.

The plan continues:

The Advisory Panel will be prepare an Assessment Report, including recommendations on which applicants should receive funding and the level of funding to be offered, to be presented to the Tasmanian Forest Contractors Exit Assistance Program in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry for submission to the decision-maker for decision.

I believe the Greens have made an allegation of fraud. I hope they have their facts straight and that they have reported that to the relevant people. If they have raised an issue that does not directly relate to someone taking fraudulent advantage of the government’s proposal to assist people from the industry then I would say, ‘Shame on you,’ and ask them to desist. These forest contractors have taken a lot over the last few years, and they deserve some assistance to help them move out of the industry and find other forms of employment. I believe the guidelines in place are stringent and the decision-making was done, independent of politics, after assessing the needs of applicants. There is also some assistance for those who were unsuccessful but who could be eligible for financial support under the revised guidelines for the measure by the Tasmanian government. If anyone has reason to believe that the department has been provided with false or misleading information in relation to an application for a grant from this or any other program, it should be referred to the fraud investigations and security team that operates independently of the advisory panel.

Grant recipients have legally enforceable obligations to exit the Tasmanian forest contractors sector. The government takes allegations of fraud seriously, and if any person has information that indicates that a grant recipient has provided the Commonwealth with false or misleading information they should contact the department’s fraud investigation unit. Allegations will be investigated, should credible evidence be presented to the department that warrants further investigation, and information will be referred to the appropriate authorities. However, if these allegations are deemed to be false or frivolous then I would be very concerned that there is some vindictiveness going on between the forest workers and the greens again. This was supposed to be helping those two groups come together, and work together for a mutually useful future in the industry. By the same token, if there have been some people taking dishonest advantage, and it is proven, this government will ensure that they will be taken to task, and there will be a transparent process in dealing with that.

All this is part of a task to redevelop an important rural industry. We need the assistance of government to make this monumental change, and we need the goodwill of all to make it work. The funding is part of the big picture, and I for one am thankful that something can be returned to those people who have contributed to the forest and timber industry for so long and who have put up with so much. I support the appropriation bills.