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Monday, 7 February 1994
Page: 486


Senator BOSWELL (Leader of the National Party of Australia) (6.38 p.m.) —The Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area Conservation Bill furthers the arrangements relating to the wet tropics World Heritage area in Queensland. This bill will give effect to the agreement made between the Commonwealth and the Queensland government on 16 November 1990.

  The bill will allow the federal minister to nominate two people to be appointed to the board of directors of the Wet Tropics Management Authority in accordance with the Queensland act. It will allow the minister to make arrangements for Australian public servants to work for the authority, and it requires an annual report from the authority on its administration, financial statements and the state of the wet tropic area. That report must be tabled in parliament.

  The wet tropic area covers around 900,000 hectares of North Queensland. The management authority is a joint state-federal body set up to manage the wet tropics. The wet tropic area of North Queensland was nominated by the federal Labor government for World Heritage listing in December 1987. Senator Richardson was the then minister for the environment and he banned logging of rainforests in the area. At the same time, the then Prime Minister gave the people of the area an assurance that no person working in the timber industry would be disadvantaged. In April 1988, the Commonwealth government announced a three-year $75 million structural adjustment program, supposedly to assist people and businesses affected by the cessation of logging.

  In 1988 when the government introduced its legislation on the wet tropics declaration under World Heritage, I was very concerned about the way the government handled the matter. Sadly, my concerns have been realised. Firstly, 2,000 to 3,000 jobs have been lost in the area, with no prospects of good employment for the people of these timber towns. Mr Hawke may remember his 5 June statement to the timberworkers that `no person working in the timber industry would be disadvantaged', but, as feared by the people at the time, they are very hollow words. At the moment, nearly six years later, the former timberworkers feel sold out, betrayed and forgotten.

  What has been left in the wake of the government's inaction to follow through with its assurance is former timber towns filled with great hurt, dislocation and suffering. So I say to Senator Coulter that there are always two sides to an environmental story. There have been some unfortunate consequences of the wet tropic declaration. Sadly, the listing has cost many people in self-sufficient hinterland towns such as Ravenshoe their livelihood and their dignity.

  Senator Richardson, when he was the relevant minister, went to the area and made all sorts of promises to the people and businesses which were going to be affected. Ravenshoe has now gone from a self-sufficient town to one with high unemployment. People's lives and businesses have been destroyed. Senator Richardson may have been able to have his career changes from environment minister to disgraced backbencher to resurrected health minister but, unfortunately, the timberworkers, businesses and people of Ravenshoe were deprived of their livelihoods and generations of activities in the timber industry. They did not have the same range of opportunities open to them as Senator Richardson had. To many, their only alternative was the dole. Sadly, what has followed has been marriage breakdowns, nervous breakdowns, health problems, opportunities gone forever and a loss of dignity and despair.

  It is the smaller areas that have seen their social and economic fabric destroyed by the heritage listing. I refer to towns like Atherton where the large timber mill which dominated the centre of town remains as a decaying memento of the effect of the government's actions over the wet tropic declaration. Mareeba suffered the same fate. Atherton is a town that could not afford to lose the 200 jobs.

  Claims have been made that tourism has increased into northern Queensland. Cairns may be showing the signs of increased activity and all the bustle of progress, but it is the rural communities which once supported the $33 million a year timber industry that have been dealt a death blow. They have gone from viable, economical, self-sufficient communities to dying towns. It has been a high price to pay when we consider the human cost.

  The federal government has played a major role in this resulting misery and deprivation of dignity by not sticking to its promises, by letting down people, by being so bureaucratic and pedantic in denying workers and businesses their rightful compensation payments. There were workers who were promised $30,000, but they got only $2,500. Because of a technicality, they missed out on the eligible period of work in the guidelines by a matter of weeks. No number of pleas to minister Kelly could find any compassion in her.

  There is a great disappointment in the area with the federal government's handling of the so-called support package. Some feel they were pawns in the government's political needs. Just watching the show Labor in Power showed the Labor Party needed the greenies's vote to win the 1990 election. But the hardworking timber people of the north and the businesses they supported were the ones who had to pay the price for a Labor Party victory. I say to Senator Coulter that I take exception to the fact that he completely disregarded the needs of the working men and women in North Queensland when he said in his contribution that the environmentalists were the hard workers. I do not think that is fair or reasonable.

  I will give more examples of the effect of jobs being removed from these local communities. Mr Hawke personally said there would be a loss of only 800 jobs. There always is, and there always has been, a multiplying effect. At least 2,500 jobs have been lost. No community can afford this. There certainly is not a lot of other work available locally. The only jobs available for some of these timberworkers are in far-flung mining areas. Families are separated, with fathers living in one area and mothers staying at home, and this being the only way they could ever get a job. The government could have done more for these people whose lives it entered into, disrupted and, in some cases, destroyed.

  Other job creation projects were promised, false claims were being made about tourism. I am very pleased to see the Far North booming and creating jobs and opportunities for all Australians. Tourism is being managed very well in the Far North—22 per cent of all tourists to Australia visit the Far North; Cairns is set to become the second largest cruise ship port; the airport has record numbers of arrivals and there is no doubt that the wet tropic areas form some of that attraction.

  But, once again, the communities badly affected by the government's decisions have not been the beneficiaries. There have been projects like the Kirrama tourist resort, the $75 million project at Ravenshoe that would have provided hundreds of jobs. That project just went away because the bureaucracy of the Wet Tropics Management Authority was too slow and too difficult. Projects will not wait around while the authority acts in a slow, cumbersome and bureaucratic way.

  Criticism that the bureaucracy is slow has come from no less a source than the Coordinator-General of the Queensland government. As disclosed in a FOI document obtained by the Wilderness Preservation Society, the Coordinator-General said to the Queensland Premier that there had been serious and unreasonable delays to development projects in the Cairns region by the Wet Tropics Management Authority. He further suggested a strategy to speed up the process. The Coordinator-General, in his advice to the Premier, said that projects had been severely hampered by the authority. These are the words of a senior public officer to the Premier of the state.

  I believe the Commonwealth government should also take heed of these words from the Queensland Coordinator-General that the authority for which they are jointly responsible is severely hampering projects in the wet tropics region. He specifically criticised as severely hampered projects the $28 million Kuranda skyrail which has just been approved after four years delay, and also the Kirrama resort at Ravenshoe that, in fact, will never go ahead because the investors became sick and tired of the bureaucratic delays of the authority. This was a great blow to Ravenshoe, which has borne the brunt of the government's decision on the wet tropics. This is a town where people have lost their jobs, their investments and values in their homes and businesses.

  The compensation package for the loss of logging missed many other losses that continue to this day. There are no reasonable values on homes and businesses in the area which has been denuded of its economic purpose. The authority, with a stroke of its bureaucratic pen, is able to disallow an economic activity which totally devalues any resale of business. In these cases, there is no chance of compensation. There are possibilities in the area which could allow the badly affected areas, such as around Ravenshoe, to re-establish themselves based on tourism. But it will take time, cooperation and a bit of sense from the Wet Tropics Management Authority.

  For example, the Kirrama resort project would have guaranteed 100 to 150 permanent jobs. It was a $75 million project which would have returned $11 million each year to the area. But how did the management authority treat the project? Firstly, it would not look at it for over two years. Ninety-five per cent of the road system was already there. It would have used roads that were on the divide of the watershed and would have caused little erosion. It would have opened up five different ecosystems for the public to learn about and admire.

  The old timber tracks were there and they could have been opened up as walking tracks with a minimum of damage. It would also have met the requirements of world heritage listing, which is to create access for public appreciation, and that must include all people—not just the super-fit backpackers, but the ordinary bushwalker, the disabled and not so mobile people.

  The state government, through the Premiers Department, was providing all the help it could give, but the authority insisted on the alternative route that required crossing a major river, with infrastructure cost to the shire of $7 million. The original route made the area accessible to Ravenshoe and was environmentally non-threatening, using roads that had been in existence since the turn of the century. Needless to say, because of the idealism and years of delay by the authority, the project investors had to pull out and the opportunities for ecotourism and a promised future for Ravenshoe were lost.

  It is the same with the Tully Millstream where, because of delays by the authority, the benefits to the Ravenshoe area of drought storage and consequential flood mitigation for Ingham have also been lost. Now that we have the reality of a wet tropics management authority, we must have one that works. As pointed out by the Queensland government when the skyrail project was eventually approved, there is a commitment attached to the World Heritage listing to allow people to see and enjoy our natural wonders, so long as it does not cause damage to the environment.

  The projects must go ahead. The authority must manage in a sensible way. There should not be examples, as has happened, of millable logs that are cut for roadworks but that are not allowed to milled and have to be left there or burnt. Electricity authorities must be able to build their powerlines to supplement the power needs of Cairns, Mossman and Port Douglas. The electricity needs of Queensland call for the Tully Millstream to be constructed, contributing 600 megawatts to the electricity grid as well as allowing demand management of supply, which is not possible with the alternatives of coal or diesel.

  The authority must look into the real concerns of feral animals in the forests—particularly feral pigs and cats which are growing in numbers. We have to have disease control programs. Money must be spent on real schemes, not mickey mouse tree-planting schemes for residents. Government funded businesses should not be allowed to set up unfairly against private businesses. Fire control must be addressed as a result of the loss of forestry roads.

  In the past, the area was managed by the forestry department on a staged basis. It is now a very large area to manage. Money must not be wasted. Tree species planting must be planned with a view to creating a viable future industry, not just short-term rehabilitation. The many projects which have shrivelled up and died because of the excessive bureaucracy of the management authority must be considered in a reasonable amount of time so that these affected regions can remake their futures based on tourism.

  The opposition will not be opposing the bill, but I call on the government to ensure that the management authority works for the best interests of the area and its long-term economic future. After all, this is the very least that the government can do as part of its responsibility to the forgotten people of the timber towns who have been left without jobs and opportunities as a result of the government's shabby treatment and its breach of assurances given at the time of the world heritage listing.

  We have heard the views of the green or environmentalist lobby expressed by Senator Coulter. My contribution has been made to draw attention to the downside of what has happened to those towns. I can tell Senator Coulter and Senator Chamarette that many people have suffered. They have lost their homes, but worst of all they have lost their self-respect. For three or four generations these people were millworkers, they were timber-getters, and they were proud of their chosen profession. They have now been reduced to painting toilets or collecting the dole. They cannot leave their houses and move away because their houses really have no value.

  Those are the things that I want to point out to the people who represent the other side of the debate. There is a very significant downside to the world heritage area. I understand the tourism potential, but that potential was already there and it was working. Those forests have been logged for 80 or 90 years and their conservation appeal was still there after all that time. I put that on the record as the other side of the debate and to show what problems are caused when these areas are declared world heritage areas.