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Tuesday, 18 June 1996
Page: 1702

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate)(4.01 p.m.) —I was going to say that Senator Hill was interrupted in full flight, but that was a very wimpy ending to his contribution.

Opposition senator—That was a trick call, that one.

Senator FAULKNER —It certainly was. Of course, the ALP was committed in government, and remains committed in opposition, to the full implementation of the national forest policy statement. In my role as the former environment minister in the Labor government I was very committed to ensure the conservation objectives of the NFPS were implemented. Federal Labor was prepared to make the tough decisions that were required to implement the national forest policy statement. At times that involved some very difficult negotiations with state governments, to bring them on board to achieve the policy vision that is contained within the national forest policy statement.

The central conservation objective of the NFPS was its commitment to the establishment of a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of reserves for our forests. Importantly, I think, the NFPS also contains an agreement that, until the assessments of the full range of environmental and heritage values are completed and the reserve system is established, activities that might significantly affect those areas of old growth forest or wilderness that are likely to have high conservation value should be avoided. Of course, that has been colloquially known as `the moratorium clause' of the NFPS.

The NFPS makes it clear that the Commonwealth does have certain responsibilities in relation to protection of our forests. We have particular responsibilities in terms of protection of World Heritage values, protection of biodiversity, endangered species, Aboriginal heritage and also National Estate values.

I think that the previous Labor administration was able to do something that no other government has done before. We tried to solve what traditionally has been the most difficult and contentious environment issue of recent years. Our approach to this was by implementing the national forest policy statement and creating a world-class system of reserves to protect our high conservation value native forests and the biodiversity that those forests support. Also, we treated seriously our obligations to ensure that those forests outside the reserve system were managed in a way that was ecologically sustainable.

The previous Labor government went about this process in a very systematic manner. We involved all groups in the community which had an interest in the forest. That included the industry, trade unions, community groups and environmental groups—effectively community interests from both sides of the green divide. We recognised the absence of agreement on what criteria should be used to establish a forest conservation reserve system and took the initiative to set up a group of eminent scientists to make recommendations to the government.

In July of last year the Labor government, on the advice of this group, decided on the Commonwealth criteria for a national forest reserve system. Those criteria were designed to establish a world-class forest conservation reserve system. They included a broad benchmark of protecting 15 per cent of the pre-1750 distribution of each forest community, the retention of at least 60 per cent of all old growth, increasing up to 100 per cent in some cases for rare old growth, and, of course, our commitment to protect at least 90 per cent, ranging through to 100 per cent, of all wilderness. We also recognised the importance of off-reserve management to achieve our conservation objective.

The scientific integrity of these criteria was endorsed by the peak environment groups—the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the national biodiversity council. It is important not to forget the role that the states played in relation to this. You need to remember that the NFPS is a state and Commonwealth agreement. That means that it requires not just a commitment from the Commonwealth but state cooperation as well in order for the statement to be effectively implemented. The then Prime Minister, Mr Keating, recognised this in his statement of 22 December 1994 when he announced that the government was putting in place some very important measures to break the impasse that had been reached on the implementation of the NFPS.

I think a problem for the resolution of the forest issue is that state and territory governments have primary responsibility for forest management in this country. They hold the data. They hold the maps. They are the forest managers. They are the agencies and governments that really decide the final composition of the reserve system. This leaves the Commonwealth with only a very limited avenue for involvement in the forest industry.

The federal Labor government took on the critical role of driving the national forest policy statement by fully utilising those limited opportunities that were available to us. The lever that was used was the export woodchip licence renewal process. It is not the best lever. It is an inadequate way for the Commonwealth to enter into the forests issue but it was a responsibility from which the Labor administration did not duck.

We never backed away from our strong commitment to protect the high conservation value native forests in this country, regardless of the unremitting battle that took place with conservative politicians and conservative state premiers in this country. Throughout the whole process, the Labor government remained committed to the establishment of a world class forest conservation reserve system based on criteria that were welcomed by interested parties right across the board.

What did we get from the coalition, then in opposition, on these issues? It gave no commitment to criteria for a national system of forest reserves. The best it came up with was a recognition that the 15 per cent biodiversity benchmark was a worthwhile objective. We said then, and we are seeing now, that this was an escape clause for the coalition to drop back to a 10 per cent criterion which is preferred by conservative state governments. The coalition always conceded that in some areas, particularly in Queensland and northern New South Wales, the 15 per cent would not be applied.

The coalition did not give an indication of support to levels of protection for old-growth and wilderness. It did not give any commitment for funding for proper comprehensive regional assessments and regional forest agreements, while Labor set itself the objective in our wood and paper industry strategy of phasing out the export of woodchips in native forests in favour of downstream processing by the year 2000. The best the coalition could offer was—and I quote from its policy—`domestic processing is preferable to woodchip exporting'. The coalition gave no commitment to ensuring that competition policy principles would apply to state forest agencies.

I believe the contribution that the previous Labor government made in relation to this debate, particularly in 1995, was that for the first time we managed to really move the national forest policy statement on so there could be a long-term solution to properly protect our high conservation value native forests in this country. (Time expired)