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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 4154

Senator COLBECK (2:41 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Carr. With the future of Tasmania’s two north-west paper mills to be decided next week, why did it take until last Friday—over three months from the initial announcement—to finalise and announce the terms of reference and membership of the Pulp and Paper Industry Strategy Group announced by the minister on 6 March?

Senator CARR (Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) —I thank Senator Colbeck for his question. He has actually helped me quite a lot with this. The pulp and paper manufacturing industry in Australia employs some 19,000 people. Much of the industry, of course, is located in rural and regional areas and it contributes some $1.3 billion per year to regional communities. Because PaperlinX are a major international manufacturer, marketer and distributor of packaging and office paper, the actions that they have taken in recent times in the restructure of that business have meant there has been some speculation as to the future of the particular mills in northern Tasmania.

The government has no intention whatsoever to continue or encourage speculation with regard to the future of those mills. There is, however, an obligation as far as the government is concerned to ensure that we are able to look at all the policy options that are available in ensuring that, in a period of rationalisation and particularly in a time when we are faced with considerable stresses as a result of the global recession, all possible action is taken to ensure the sustainability of the industry in Australia.

Senator Colbeck —Mr President, I raise a point of order. The question was specifically as to why it took three months from the date of the initial announcement. That is the point of the question. I understand the minister is giving the chamber information, most of which we actually understand, but I am specifically interested in why it took three months to make the final announcement.

The PRESIDENT —I draw the minister’s attention to the fact there are 23 seconds remaining in which to answer the question.

Senator CARR —I have indicated that the industry is facing considerable challenges at the moment and that we as a government are determined to ensure there is a full and frank assessment of those challenges and the opportunities that are available in the sector. There has to be a proper discussion with the industry about the terms of reference and the personnel involved with the— (Time expired)

Senator COLBECK —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Given my initial question, why then did the minister’s office say on 20 March that the terms of reference would be announced in a couple of weeks and on 15 May that the terms of reference would be announced in a couple of weeks, and why did Mr Sidebottom, the member for Braddon, on the date of the announcement, 6 March, say:

The strategy group will run in parallel with—

Australian Paper’s—

current company review …

The review and the strategy group report will give government, the North-West Coast community and the industry a clearer understanding of where things are at and what the industry may need to sustain its future.

Senator CARR (Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) —I thank Senator Colbeck for his question. The point remains that the terms of reference had to be properly assessed and agreed. The personnel involved on the panel had to be properly representative of the industry and we had to ensure that the time was taken to do this right. We have not changed our view that this process does run parallel to the assessments that are being made by the company with regard to its due diligence. This review is not an inquiry into the company. The company is entitled to undertake its own due diligence, which is exactly what it is doing. We are determined to identify strategies to overcome the impediments and to capitalise on the opportunities that this industry is now able to enjoy in terms of taking a more innovative approach and ensuring that new investment is attracted to pulp and paper manufacturing in Australia. We want to build on this country’s competitive strengths. (Time expired)

Senator COLBECK —Mr President, I ask a further supplementary question. The point remains that the government said that these processes would run concurrently. The decision with respect to the future of these mills will be made next Wednesday. If, as the minister now appears to be saying, there is no link between the two processes, what are the minister and the government doing to protect the workers at these two mills, whose fate will be decided next Wednesday?

Senator CARR (Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research) —I do not know where Senator Colbeck gets his information.

Government senators interjecting—

Senator CARR —My colleagues are asking me, ‘Does he get it from Senator Abetz?’ Perhaps he does. But you should make sure you rely on genuine documents when it comes to this sort of advice. What time lines the company is working to are matters for the company. I am not aware that the company intends to make a decision next week. We have not been advised of that. Senator, I suggest you go back to your sources and check your facts.

Senator Colbeck —On a point of order—

Senator Conroy —Can you please investigate the email from Eric?

Senator Colbeck —I do not need to check any emails. I actually do talk to the company and I do know what their time frame is. I can tell the minister that the decision will be made next Wednesday.

The PRESIDENT —There is no point of order.

Senator CARR —I am not aware that the company is intending to make a decision next week.

Senator Colbeck interjecting—

Senator CARR —I would suggest, Senator Colbeck, you do not spread false and malicious rumours on these issues. If you actually cared about the workers of this industry, instead of propagating the sort of Work Choices attitude that you do, you would know that this industry is under considerable strain. You have an obligation to your constituents. (Time expired)