On regional forest agreements

Senator BARTLETT (Queensland) (3.57 p.m.)–I thank the Senate for their consideration. Obviously, the Senate as a whole is of a view that this is an important matter which does need highlighting.

I rise to speak on this matter of public importance because I believe that the Senate needs to devote some time to this this afternoon. It is a vital issue to the future of native forests of this country and indeed to the future of our nation overall–our economy as well as our environment.

Australia is a unique land. Our native forests, in particular, are an ecological wonder. Our forests range from tropical to temperate, from open dry woodland to closed and wet canopy. They are host to a variety of ecosystems, encompassing many of the world's most unique animals and plants. They are found over flat, riverine or escarpment areas from the southern most part of the country to the northern tip. What is particularly extraordinary is the diverse range of forest ecosystems between and within regions. This makes it all the more crucial that we should protect and care for our forests. If properly managed, they could provide a sound economic base for a truly sustainable timber industry and a strong and permanent environmental base for our nation.

However, successive governments have sold these forests to the woodchip industry. This industry to date has shown little regard for biodiversity, little regard for the diverse range of ecosystems–animals, plants and genetic base–and little regard for the interdependence of all these. It has little regard for water quality issues or other users of forest areas other than woodchippers. The woodchipping industry does have a high regard for getting the maximum amount of corporate welfare from state and federal governments and views the chopping and shredding of the maximum number of forest areas very warmly.

When the evidence about this industry started to become well known in the public arena around five years ago, the media took a considerable amount of interest and, to their credit, published a lot of information on various forest issues, including economic and biological arguments as well as the basic environmental aspects of the issue. This certainly scared the industry and governments who, when their actions were exposed, were left able to do little more than defend the indefensible.

It was a time of full-blown crisis for the industry and, somewhere out of the public relations and damage control spin, the Regional Forest Agreement process was born. This meant that–instead of the industry each year having to face another public relations disaster as a new round of export licences were approved, instead of continual revelations about the appalling process used to determine those licences, instead of all that–we would have a Regional Forest Agreement which would be signed for each general logging area and which would allegedly meet competing demands and allegedly be ecologically sustainable.

However, the process that we have seen so far has been characterised by a lack of transparency, by bureaucratic obfuscation and by allowing much more woodchipping than previously occurred–so much so that even industry groups are alarmed by the destruction of many areas of significance and its potential impact on long-term ecological sustainability as well as environmental sustainability. Time prevents me from listing all of the problems with the Regional Forest Agreements so far. I am sure there will be other senators who will add to that body of knowledge, but I would like to highlight a few examples which go to demonstrate why this is a matter of such public importance.

In Tasmania the Regional Forest Agreement, as it currently stands, will remove 39,000 hectares of provisional coupes from the register and then add 40,000 hectares more. In other words, another 1,000 hectares will be available for logging. The state undertook to publish, by 31 October last year, a description of the methods of calculating sustainable yield. This has not occurred. They have also not published, nor made publicly available, compliance audits of the Forest Practices Act or the code of reserve management. Nor have they developed and implemented a threatened species protection strategy.

In the East Gippsland area of Victoria, certain data on wood, which it is claimed is publicly available, is not provided at all by forest agencies and there are regular attempts to make the process as difficult as possible for people seeking information. These sorts of petty impediments distract from the real tragedy and the real area of great concern–that forests along the banks of heritage-listed rivers will be decimated, leading to shocking water quality consequences.

In Western Australia the process is so bad that the environment minister has promised, after the RFA is finished, that there will be further changes. Clearly, the RFA there will not be the last word, as was promised. More than 30,000 people sent in submissions to that process, yet the environment minister will not allow the release of the audit into those submissions until after the RFA has been signed. What exactly is being hidden? Perhaps the fact that 80 per cent of people in the state of Western Australia want no native forest logging and no woodchipping. Even the National Party in that state, and some Liberal Party branches, are expressing extreme disquiet with relation to government policy on RFAs, because the Western Australia forest process is in such a mess. The department which, at state level, is in charge of the negotiations in the RFA process–the Department of Conservation and Land Management–clearly has a vested financial interest in the outcome. The department has a clear interest in ensuring the maximum area is available to loggers.

The forthcoming Regional Forest Agreement legislation that is being considered in this parliament is a small bill of only a few pages, but it represents one of the biggest environmental issues to come before the Senate. It is an issue that most Australians feel very strongly about.

Senator Crane–Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order: in view of the fact that this legislation is before the parliament currently and there was a reference to the committee that I chair, I believe it is outside of standing orders to be making reference to that legislation or, in fact, be dealing with any issues pertaining to anything that might come out of the committee's report. I would like a clear ruling on that at the start of this debate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Sherry)–I do not uphold your point of order for two reasons. Firstly, there is a general debate before the chair on the issue of RFAs and forests. Senator Bartlett is clearly addressing that. Secondly, I understand the President would not have approved the MPI if it had been contrary to standing orders. Her advice is that it is appropriately before the chair and, consequently, Senator Bartlett is in order.

Senator Crane–I therefore want to ask a question with regard to this issue. I allowed Senator Bartlett to proceed until such time as he made reference to the legislation that is currently before us. That is my question to the chair. While we can have a general debate, is it in order to be actually raising issues pertaining directly to that legislation? He made particular reference to the fact that the bill contained eight clauses.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT–He can talk about the subject of the bill. He cannot anticipate the bill. I will be listening closely to Senator Bartlett's comments but so far, overwhelmingly, I think his comments have been in line with standing orders.

Senator BARTLETT–I can understand why the government may be apprehensive about the reality of that legislation being brought to the attention of the Australian people, because of the impact that it will have.

I think I just said that it was a small bill, rather than it had eight clauses–because I was not aware of that off the top of my head, and it is not in my notes–but I am willing to be credited with that knowledge, as well.

The reason why that legislation is important–without talking specifically about the content–is its oversight of the entire Regional Forest Agreement process which is happening throughout Australia at the state level, and the impact it will have on the future of our native forests. That is why it is such a major environmental issue which this parliament obviously needs to consider, and consider very deeply. It is an issue that most Australians feel very strongly about and it deserves clearer and stronger highlighting and more thorough consideration–because the bill itself, as part of the overall Regional Forest Agreement process, is an attempt by the Commonwealth to abrogate its responsibility for forests back to the states.

Forest agreements are being put together at state level in those states that have vested short-term economic dependence on woodchip royalties. We have a system where so much public money is given to the native forest industry in government subsidies that it makes the plantation industry almost untenable. That is what is at risk of being enshrined. The bill will force massive job losses to occur in the timber industry, particularly in the small sawmilling sector, and will be responsible for an unprecedented level of native forest destruction.

Important safeguards that have been put in place by this parliament over many years, such as the Australian Heritage Commission Act, the Environmental Protection Act, the World Heritage Act and export controls, will not apply to vast regions of our most important forest areas under what is being proposed by the government. That is made doubly horrifying because of the sorts of agreements that have been agreed to already at state level and those agreements that are yet to be reached in other states. Those important safeguards that this parliament has seen fit to put in place to protect our environmental heritage will be voided for 20 years. This legislation upholds a process which is fatally flawed, and it will destroy rather than protect our native forest areas.

The Democrats are determined to ensure that the public are made aware of the major threats posed to the survival of our forests by the Regional Forest Agreement process as it stands at present, because it is such a crucial issue to the very survival of our forests and the survival of communities and economies that depend upon those forests and on the long-term survival of a massive amount of biodiversity and genetic diversity in species which are also dependent on those forests. Those are all at risk now in this country. The Democrats believe it is crucial that that risk is highlighted to the Australian people and as much effort brought to bear to prevent the calamity that is before us from occurring.

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